“If it’s the right thing to do, if it’s the right cause, it’s worth the protest,” Joseph McNeil told third-graders from Marion Street, Waverly Park and West End schools on March 3. McNeil, now a Hempstead resident, made history on Feb. 1, 1960, when he and three of his classmates at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. and refused to leave.
The students had the opportunity to ask McNeil a few questions in the Marion Street School gymnasium, and to learn more about his experiences.
One student asked McNeil what he was thinking about when he was sitting at the lunch counter. He replied that he was thinking, “Boy, I’ll be glad when this is over.” Another student asked him who his heroes were, to which he replied his parents and John Lewis, a politician and civil rights leader.
McNeil has come to the school almost every year since 1991. The visits started when Marion Street third-grade teacher Steve Freifeld found McNeil’s number in the phone book and asked him if he would respond to letters from the students.
“I said, ‘if that’s possible, would it be possible for you to come in to speak to the students of the Marion Street School,” Freifeld told the audience, “and he said ‘I’d be happy to do that.'” This year marked the first time McNeil’s visit was open to all third-graders in the Lynbrook Public School system.
To thank McNeil for his 26 years of speaking to students, the third-grade Marion Street classes shared a poem about his life, interspersed with songs about him and his effect on history. “I know I’ll never lose affection/For people and things that went before/ I know I’ll often stop and think about them. In my life, I’ll love you more,” they sang.
They then presented McNeil, who will turn 75 on March 25, with a gift certificate and a birthday card, signed by all of the third-graders. The PTA also honored him with the New York State PTA Community Service Award “in recognition and gratitude for your dedication to the children and youth of Marion Street, as well as all across our state.”
McNeil said he loved the experience. “Pleasant surprises, real professional, you’d think you’re on Broadway,” he said. “Every year it seemingly gets better and better, if that could happen.”
Freifeld said that he thinks McNeil is worth the production. “It’s not often people get to experience living history,” he said. “It’s not something that you’re just reading about … it’s a real person and now they’re meeting this real person.”
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Correction: On last week’s schools page, the Herald reported that Lynbrook High School made Niche.com’s top 100 schools on Long Island at No. 88. In a correction, LHS ranked 88th in New York state.