This was a Black History Month like no other for Long Islanders. Interest was high, connection was easy and content was unmatched in quality, historic relevance and potential to bring lasting change.
We learned a lot as our screens lit up with panel discussions, book talks and performances. We learned of enslavement at Sylvester Manor (Shelter Island) and Lloyd Manor (Lloyd Harbor), both provisioning plantations for sugar plantations in Barbados. We learned about America’s first published Black poet, the Long Island enslaved man Jupiter Hammon. We learned that Blacks were essential to the Long Island whaling industry because non-Blacks refused such treacherous work. We learned about John Shippen, Jr., the Black Long Island teenager who became America’s first professional golfer.
We saw new connections between past and present. The Black men and women who overcame the obstacles of their day often died poor, alone and unknown. Blacks were consistently denied opportunities to build generational wealth through land ownership, access to capital, education and commercialization of talent. Jupiter Hammon was not paid for his poetry. John Shippen was buried in an unmarked grave.
The effects of this history live with us today, in the form of housing and school segregation, wealth disparities and environmental racism. It also lives in the massive wealth created by enslaved people, whalers, indentured servants and low wage workers — wealth that built much of Long Island. History illuminates these connections, and if acted upon, lights the path for remediation.
Now that Black History Month is over we must ask: what are we going to do with the information laid at our feet? These events were not merely for our edification. They were a call to action.
A call to rethink education. How can we call ourselves a “well-educated” community with so much history still untold? The historians have been hard at work — it is now up to us to tell the stories, update our curriculum, invite speakers to classrooms, and bring students to places like Sylvester Manor and Lloyd Manor.
A call to redefine community. What does real representation look like? Who is missing from the table? Are we supporting Black institutions in our towns? Long Island cemeteries for enslaved people are in need of restoration and repair. Historic buildings are being sold because the upkeep is too expensive. We need to rally around these historic lands and the communities who live on them, or were forced to flee them.
Most importantly, a call to use our privilege — in whatever form — to empower communities bearing the heaviest burden from this shared history. Whether it be hiring, spending, educating or representing, we can all do our part to remediate the injustices of opportunities denied.
Black History Month is not just for Black Americans. In many ways, non-Blacks need it even more. We need to be reminded of the work still left to do. Then, we need to act.