The Rev. Mary Cooper, daughter of Mansfield Bell, one of four brothers, grandsons of slaves, who migrated from Powhatan County, Virginia during the Great Migration of the 1930s and founded the community that would become known as Bell Town in Aquebogue. Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead Town officials unveiled a new sign along Hubbard Avenue in Aquebogue Saturday to commemorate the town’s first heritage area, “Bell Town,” which was built by Black and Native American families beginning 90 years ago.

During the ceremony attended by more than 80 people, including local, county and state officials, the crowd celebrated the area as an important and necessary recognition of Black and Native American history in Riverhead.

The heritage area was officially created by the town board in February 2021 when it passed a resolution designating the area north of Hubbard Avenue between Bell Avenue and Zion Street as Bell Town heritage area. The effort to collect historical documents, census data and testimony was led by Marylin Banks-Winter, a member of the town Landmark Preservation Committee whose grandfather, Mansfield Bell and his brothers Condry, Ezekiel and Melkiah, are celebrated on the sign.

“This is a rich and deep history of migration,” Banks-Winter said. “Of paving the way. Of love and building a legacy — the legacy of the Bells in Bell Town.”

Grandsons of slaves, the men traveled from Powhatan County, Virginia to Aquebogue in the 1930s during the Great Migration, a historical period marking the movement of approximately 6 million Black Americans away from the Jim Crow South to escape racial discrimination, violence, segregation and poor economic conditions. The men eventually acquired 16 acres in the area and created 32 residential lots that became homes to friends and family, including those with Native American ancestry. 

Banks-Winter said the research on the area and into the history of the families who settled their began seven years to the day of the ceremony. She told the complete history of Bell Town to the audience. 

“With careful documentation and artifact preservation, our culture can be recorded and remembered regardless of its future. It can also be shared and understood by those from different cultural backgrounds,” Banks-Winter said at the conclusion of her remarks. “This is the first step in inclusion and rectifying the incomplete history of the township of Riverhead and its people that have been overlooked and passed by without enough being represented and documented.”

Officials and residents gathered for the Bell Town Heritage Area dedication ceremony May 21 react when the sign marking the area is unveiled. Photo: Alek Lewis

Also in attendance at the ceremony was Banks-Winter’s mother, Rev. Mary Cooper — born in 1938 to Mansfield Bell in the infancy of Bell Town. Cooper, an ordained minister and longtime pastor of House of Praise Christian Revival Center in Riverhead, was presented with an official town pin by Supervisor Yvette Aguiar.

During her remarks, Banks-Winter called on funding for an African American Black Native American Cultural Center and Museum in Riverhead to put the history of those communities on display. 

Landmarks Preservation Committee Chairman Richard Wines celebrated the achievement in his remarks. He said the town rarely celebrates the history of people of color. The sign is only the second formal acknowledgement of a contribution made by the Black community, he said, the first being the Fletcher-Booker homestead about 15 years ago.

“I do want to say that Riverhead has not been very good about celebrating its people of color, their history and the important role they’ve always played,” Wines said. “We ignored basically the more than 500 slaves who lived here on the North Fork from the very beginning of English settlement up until the end of slavery in New York in 1828. Similarly, we’ve pretty much ignored what happened to the indigenous peoples that were here before those English settlers. And we also have ignored the wave of African American migration that came to the North Fork in the 1920s and 30s.”

Nevertheless, the town has been “continually enriched” by waves of immigrants 

“They came to Riverhead to start new lives to find opportunity,” Wines said. “What the Bell brothers did here is important. Building lives for themselves, building a community they can share with others, enriching our town.”

May 21 was also officially proclaimed as Bell Town Heritage Day in Riverhead and in Suffolk County by Aguiar and County Executive Steve Bellone. 

“Think back nearly 100 years ago, four brothers, the grandsons of slaves, despite all the odds and the obstacles, made their way here, in their pursuit, at the time of their American dream, to live their best life, and they created something extraordinary,” Bellone said. “And in doing so, and in their pursuit, and in overcoming the odds and the obstacles — the extraordinary obstacles that were in their way — they built something incredible that gave a better life to so many others, as well. And that legacy of what started here nearly 100 years ago, is alive today and is still being felt — and it is an extraordinary thing.”

Mark Woolley, Rep. Lee Zeldin’s district director, presented Banks-Winter with a certificate of special congressional recognition and with an American flag that was flown over the United States Capitol. Woolley, who grew up in Aquebogue, talked briefly about the friendship he had throughout high school with Kenny Bell, a member of the family. 

“It couldn’t be a better time to do what we do here today. With this designation, with all that’s going on across our land, this is a good time to show that Riverhead is not about tearing apart — that Riverhead it’s about bringing together. So that’s what we do here today, we bring our community together,” Woolley said.

Also in attendance was Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Baiting Hollow) and her colleague Assemblywoman Alicia L. Hyndman (D-Queens), who presented a proclamation to Banks-Winter for recognition of the work she did on helping to create the Bell Town heritage area. 

Suffolk County Legislators Al Krupski and Bridget Fleming also presented a proclamation to Banks-Winter.

Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said he was honored to attend as a fan of history. He said the Bell brothers should be celebrated as heroes of history and was proud the area is now a part of the county’s collective heritage.

“You read about the great migration, you read about Bell Town, that’s what I’ve done, but the people, a lot of people in these tents, they’ve lived that. And I just think that’s awesome,” Tierney said, referring to the crowd of the ceremony. “And Marylin, you the embodiment of all of that, or  all the struggles and sacrifices, you’re the embodiment and the legacy of that. And that’s awesome.”

Also during the ceremony, Rev. Charles Coverdale offered a prayer to open the ceremony and Cooper offered a prayer to close the ceremony. Attendees were also treated to a performance by Johnny Smith of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Youngblood Singers and a poem from Lillie B. Crowder, a board member of the African American Educational and Cultural Festival, titled “Our Ancestors Speak.”

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Alek Lewis

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com