The Historical Information Health of Black Communities on Long Island

Stony Brook University Honors College Senior Thesis

The Big Picture

INTRODUCTION

This paper is a study of the history of the relationships between predominately black communities on Long Island and traditional institutions that provide news and information, as well as the impact of those relationships on the historical health of the information environments of those communities.

The traditional institutions that this paper will examine are ones identified as being significant sources of news and information by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy in its 2009 report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.”

These institutions are:

  • Local government
  • Schools
  • Libraries
  • News media
  • Civic organizations

This paper will also use case studies of three historically black communities — Gordon Heights, Sag Harbor and Spinney Hill — to illustrate how the racial segregation that helped form these communities has impacted their relationships with those institutions.

BACKGROUND

Geography

Long Island is a 120-mile-long stretch of land in New York state that juts out of the East Coast into the Atlantic Ocean. The island spans about 12 to 20 miles from its North Shore along the Long Island Sound to its South Shore (“Long Island”). The physical island has four counties: Nassau, Suffolk, Kings and Queens. But because Kings and Queens counties are the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively, for the purposes of this paper, “Long Island” refers to Nassau and Suffolk counties.

History

When European settlers began colonizing Long Island in the 17th century, they farmed the land and developed fishing, oystering and whaling industries (“Long Island”).

In the early 17th century, when Long Island was a part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, the colonists imported African slaves to meet the demand for agricultural workers. By the time the English took control of New Netherland in 1664 and changed the colony’s name to New York, African slaves made up about 12 percent of the colony’s population. But under the English, the popularity of slavery exploded. By the mid-18th century, slaves made up about 20 percent of Long Island’s population (Day 19).

New York adopted a law in 1799 that gradually abolished slavery in the state. The law stipulated that all children of slaves born after the passage of law were technically free, but they had to work for their parents’ masters until they reached a certain age — 28 years for men, 25 years for women (Day 39). By 1827, slavery died out in New York (Day 51).

In the 19th century, many free black people became property owners and established their own communities throughout Queens County (which at the time included present-day Nassau County) and Suffolk County. These black enclaves included parts of Bellport, East Hampton, Eastville (in present-day Sag Harbor), Greenport, Huntington, Mastic, Success (in present-day Lake Success), Smithville (in present-day Wantagh) and Westbury. Some of these settlements were founded near and subsequently integrated with nearby Native American settlements. Others developed around the lands of former slave owners (Day 51).

In the 20th century, these communities grew as black migrants from the South came in search of work opportunities in the North. After World War II, an even larger wave of black migrants came to buy homes in Nassau and Suffolk counties. But these migrants faced housing discrimination and segregation in many forms. Some housing developments like Levittown explicitly forbade residents from selling their houses to black people. While many single family homes were built, there were very few multi-family housing options (i.e. apartments for rent) for black residents with low or moderate incomes (Day 110).

In her book “Making a Way to Freedom: A History of African Americans on Long Island,” Lynda R. Day offers an anecdote that illustrates how de facto segregation manifested on Long Island. It involves Booker T. Washington, one of the most prominent civil rights activists of the 20th century and the leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He bought a house in the predominately white community of Fort Salonga on Long Island in 1911 to use as a base for his fundraising efforts:

“In spite of his national reputation as an author, speaker, and educator, Washington could not escape the racist attitudes of his time. Moved by the social stigma attached to having Negro neighbors, the white residents of the exclusive neighborhood formed a syndicate and offered to buy him out for considerably more than the original purchase price. Washington refused” (115).

And thus segregation of black residents became a defining characteristic of Long Island’s suburbanization.

Demography

Nassau County’s population of 1,339,532 is 73.0 percent white, 11.1 percent black, 0.2 percent American Indian and Alaskan Native, and 7.6 percent Asian, according to the 2010 Census. People of two or more races make up 2.4 percent of the population, and Hispanic or Latino people of any race make up 14.6 percent. About 1,027,952 people, or 76.7 percent of the total, are over the age of 18. And about 293,361 people, or 21.9 percent of residents, are foreign-born, according to the 2015 American Community Survey.

Suffolk County’s population of 1,493,350 is 80.8 percent white, 7.4 percent black, 0.4 percent American Indian and Alaskan Native, and 3.4 percent Asian, according to the 2010 Census. People of two or more races make up 2.4 percent of the population, and Hispanic or Latino people of any race make up 16.5 percent. About 1,135,680 people, or 76.0 percent of the total, are over the age of 18. And about 227,324 people, or 15.22 percent of residents, are foreign-born, according to the 2015 American Community Survey.

Historical census data compiled by the National Historical Geographic Information System from the last five decades shows that the black populations of both counties are growing. The percentage of black residents in Nassau County rose from 4.6 percent in 1970 to 6.83 percent in 1980, to 8.63 percent in 1990, to 10.09 percent in 2000, to 11.13 percent in 2010. The percentage of black residents in Suffolk County rose from 4.74 percent in 1970 to 5.6 percent in 1980, to 6.27 percent in 1990, to 6.94 percent in 2000, to 7.45 percent in 2010 (Minnesota Population Center).

Economy

The estimated 2015 median household income in Nassau County was $99,465, according to the 2015 American Community Survey — 84.57 percent higher than the nationwide estimate ($53,889). In 2015, the unemployment rate in Nassau County was 6.4 percent, according to the survey. At that time, the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in New York state and 8.3 percent in the United States.

The estimated 2015 median household income in Suffolk County was $88,663, according to the 2015 American Community Survey  64.53 percent higher than the nationwide estimate. In 2015, the unemployment rate in Suffolk County was 6.4 percent, according to the survey.

TRADITIONAL PROVIDERS OF NEWS AND INFORMATION

Local government

Nassau County has three towns: Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay. It also has two cities, Glen Cove and Long Beach. Suffolk County has 10 towns: Babylon, Brookhaven, East Hampton, Huntington, Islip, Riverhead, Shelter Island, Smithtown, Southampton and Southold. Each county’s elected officials are the county executive and the county legislature. Each town’s elected officials are the town supervisor and the town board or council.

In the towns are some incorporated villages, which have their own elected mayors and elected boards of trustees. But there are also unincorporated areas of the towns. These hamlets do not have mayors or trustees. Instead, they are governed by, and receive services from, the town.

But besides village, town, county, state and federal governments, there are also special districts that provide services to municipalities. These special districts include ambulance, fire, garbage, library, parks, parking, police, school, sewer and water districts (Rosenberg 3). The districts have their own elected boards, and they can approve regulations and levy taxes. The taxes are collected by the towns and distributed to the appropriate agencies.

Black people on Long Island — and in the rest of the United States, for that matter — were disenfranchised for a long time and did not have a say in who represented them in government. The New York State Constitution of 1821 required that black men meet a $250 property qualification for voting in gubernatorial and senate elections and a $100 property qualification for voting in assembly elections. But the law also struck down similar restrictions for white male voters. On March 5, 1837, black activists from Long Island presented a petition to the state legislature to protest these threats to their voting rights (Day 113).

Schools

Long Island has more than 120 public school districts, most of which offer education from kindergarten to grade 12 (Rosenberg 2). A few are what’s known as common school districts, which do not operate high schools. Some others are central high school districts, which provide only secondary education (Rosenberg 10).

Before the free tax-funded system of public education in New York state was established in 1867, most schools were private, and most black children did not attend school. In the early 19th century, public schools charged tuition based on the number of days attended — a problem for poor blacks (Day 58).

More black students attended school under the tax-funded system. Although most public schools were racially integrated, there were several public schools designated for black children only, including ones in Amityville, Hempstead, Lakeville and Roslyn. But in 1900, New York state outlawed separate public schools for black children (Day 61).

However, this legislation did not completely end racial segregation in public schools on Long Island. Day, the author of “Making a Way to Freedom,” described the nature of school segregation in the 20th century this way:

“The battles in the North were much less clear cut than the battles in the South where segregation was de jure and in direct conflict with the Supreme Court decision of 1954, and later the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On Long Island, segregation was de facto, and racial discrimination was more a matter of custom and attitude than legal mandates” (116).

So although designated schools for black children were prohibited, there were still districts in which the population of black students was concentrated in certain schools. When Long Island school boards were slow to further integrate schools, black parents used boycotts, lawsuits and sit-ins to protest the school districts in Amityville, Malverne, Manhasset and Westbury. After these protests, school boards quickened the pace of their implementation of integration strategies (Day 117).

Libraries

Libraries on Long Island are important civic institutions. They offer not only information in the form of reading material (both printed and online) but also classes on digital literacy, meeting rooms, and other programming and events. Many have collections that focus on local history.

The histories of school and library districts on Long Island are often intertwined. School and library districts usually share their borders. One of the most common types of library districts on Long Island is school district public libraries. They are established by school district voters, their budgets must be approved by school district voters, and the school districts often own the library buildings (Rosenberg 9). Therefore, in black communities where schools have historically been absent, it stands to reason that libraries have often been absent as well.

News media

Long Island’s only daily newspaper is Newsday, based in Melville. There have been several other daily newspapers on the island throughout its history, including The Freeport Daily Review, which ran from 1921 to 1926; The Long Island Daily Press, which ran from 1926 to 1963, changed its name to The Long Island Press and continued running until 1977; and The Suffolk Sun, which ran from 1966 to 1969. But today, only Newsday, which was founded in 1940, remains (Chronicling America).

Today, daily newspapers, television stations and radio stations based in New York City occasionally cover Long Island stories. Long Island has many weekly newspapers, most of which are owned by newspaper chains like Anton Community Newspapers in Mineola or Times Beacon Record Newspapers in Setauket.

Patrick Dolan, the president and majority owner of Newsday Media Group, is also the president of News 12 Networks, which runs the news channel News 12 Long Island. And Altice N.V., the company that owns News 12 Networks, also owns a minority interest in Newsday Media Group, according to a July 2016 Altice news release. Altice and News 12 Long Island’s main competitor in the region is Verizon and its news channel, FiOS1 News. But both channels are only available to customers of their companies’ television services.

In the realm of public television, PBS affiliate WLIW airs a weekly half-hour program called “Long Island Business Report,” which looks at issues that are often important to black residents of Long Island, like affordable housing, homelessness, income inequality and suburban poverty. And in public radio, WSHU-FM, based across the Long Island Sound in Connecticut, often covers Long Island. In 2016, WSHU-FM opened a Long Island bureau in Stony Brook and entered a partnership with Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism to staff the bureau with student interns (Delgado).

Newsday and News 12’s websites are behind paywalls, but most of Long Island’s weekly newspapers have free websites. And Patch, a nationwide network of hyperlocal websites operated by Hale Global, runs about 40 websites specific to communities on Long Island (Press Club of Long Island 2016 Media Guide 41). After Hale Global bought a majority stake in Patch from AOL in January 2014, Hale Global created a more centralized local content production system for Patch, with a national editor and regional editors covering multiple towns instead of local editors (St. John).

Very few news publications cater to Long Island’s black population. One example is New York Trend, a weekly publication based in Great Neck.

Civic organizations

Many of the traditional institutions that provide news and information that are described in the Knight Commission report are dependent on local government structures (town and village governments, school and library districts, etc.). Even the weekly newspapers tend to focus on an area defined by a local government entity. Because of Long Island’s history of racial segregation, the island’s black communities are often isolated from these entities.

But one notable type of traditional institution that does not depend on local government and is an important feature of African American communities is civic organizations. The importance of civic organizations, according to the Knight Commission report, is that they provide residents with opportunities to “transform information into active civic engagement” (74). Many black communities also have chambers of commerce and historical societies.

Early civic engagement in black communities on Long Island centered on the church. As the case studies show, many historically black communities developed around churches founded by former slaves and their descendents in the 19th century. The most common types of black churches at the time were African Methodist Episcopal (AME), African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Baptist churches (Day 54). In addition to churches, black residents also formed their own social clubs and fraternal organizations (Day 94).