Local historian discusses civil rights on Long Island
BAY SHORE—In a program sponsored by the Bay Shore Historical Society, Dr. Christopher Verga, a local historian and American history lecturer at Suffolk County Community College, visited the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library on Thursday, Nov. 16 to discuss the history of civil rights in our generally overlooked corner of the country. Verga is also the author of “Civil Rights on Long Island,” (Arcadia Publishing, 2016) which was published on behalf of the African American Museum of Nassau County and is part of the “Images of America” series.
“My inspiration for putting together this project was the lack of knowledge local historians have with historic and present racial struggles,” Verga said. “Having an understanding of this history is the first step in building a stronger community that embraces a tapestry of cultures and ethnicities.”
Near the beginning of Verga’s presentation, he asked the overwhelmingly older and obviously, more liberal crowd: what percentage of the South owned slaves?
Answers varied. Some said 60 percent. Some said 75 percent. One person even said 100 percent. Some went a little lower, with 25 percent. None, however, were expecting to hear that only 6 percent of Southerners owned slaves during the colonial period. They were also shocked to hear that during the same time, 18 percent of Suffolk County owned slaves, while 27 percent of Queens County (which included Nassau during Long Island’s colonial period) owned slaves.
Verga also pointed out that peak membership on Long Island for the Ku Klux Klan was from 1922 until 1929, with one in seven residents. Verga argued the spike in membership was largely due to the wave of Catholics who immigrated to Long Island, which was historically Protestant. That, of course, doesn’t mean the Klan was ever passive towards the black and Jewish populations.
Verga then recalled the story of how Catholics made a significant stand against the KKK on Long Island.
The Holy Name Society held a rally in Bay Shore on June 24, 1923 to protest intolerance against Catholics and other marginalized groups. Forty thousand people attended the event. It was here that Father Donovan of St. Patrick’s Parish introduced Democratic town supervisor James Richardson as a supporter of the community.
Richardson, however, lost that November to Republican challenger Fran Rogers, who was endorsed by the KKK. Pro-Klan candidates also took control of all town offices that year. Nevertheless, a growing Catholic population prevented any long-term KKK influence.
Verga later moved on to the disillusionment black soldiers felt after returning home from World War II. They thought helping to end tyranny in Europe and Asia would bring about some kind of societal change when it came to race relations. Their sacrifices, however, did very little. This inevitably led to soldiers and local figures, such as Eugene Barnett and Richard Coles, to turn towards activism. “The black soldiers coming home were at the cornerstone of the civil rights movement in Long Island,” Verga said. “And in America in general.”
Verga also highlighted the use of civil disobedience by organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to combat other injustices faced by black Americans, like being denied homes in developments such as Levittown and limited educational opportunities.
Despite the progress Long Island has made, Verga closed his presentation with the belief that we have a long way to go when it comes to race relations. He cited both the murder of Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant who was killed by a group of teens on Railroad Avenue in Patchogue back in 2008, and the KKK recruitment fliers found not far from the murder scene last November as examples.
Dr. Verga’s latest book, “Bay Shore,” for the “Images of America” series, was co-authored with fellow Suffolk County Community College history professor Dr. Neil Buffett and includes a forward by Bay Shore Historical Society president Barry Dlouhy.
“Dr. Verga’s research of civil rights’ concerns and activities on Long Island explores a myriad of behaviors and events from colonial times to present,” said Dlouhy. “His presentation is informative, eye opening and provocative; his imparted knowledge of the importance of the Holy Name Society’s importance in Bay Shore’s history forms a microcosm of the topic.”
Throughout the year, the Bay Shore Historical Society holds various educational programs at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library on the third Thursday night of the month. “We always find the Historical Society’s programs entertaining and informative. We think they’re a valuable community service,” said Michael Squillante, Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library director.
Dr. Verga’s book is available for purchase at Barnes and Noble Booksellers or on Amazon.com.
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