Former Oyster Bay resident Vann Johnson shared his father’s life story on Feb. 10 as part of Oyster Bay Historical Society’s celebration of Black History Month. Van Dyke “Billy” Johnson, who died on Dec. 27, 2015, lived in the hamlet from 1941 to 1960, during the reign of Jim Crow laws, racial discrimination, boycotts and riots. But Billy always insisted that living in Oyster Bay was different during that time when 10 percent of the population was African-American.
“My father taught me about the fire hoses and German shepherds that were turned on African- Americans but he always said it wasn’t like that in Oyster Bay,” Johnson said. “Black and white people were cordial to each other in Oyster Bay.”
Billy’s parents and grandparents were originally from Virginia. They moved to Oyster Bay when he was a baby. Johnson said he had white friends and recalled that they played sports together. “My grandma asked me why I was taking the white boys down,” Johnson said. “I told her that I was just playing football.”
His grandmother could never leave her Virginia roots behind, Johnson explained, but his father was different.
“You juxtapose the way it was then with today’s Make America Great Again and the white nationalists and you wonder, how did people here in Oyster Bay have it right over 50 years ago?” he said. “And our nation still doesn’t have it right yet.”
In fact, Billy didn’t experience prejudice until he went to Mississippi when he entered the Air Force in 1957. “They saw he didn’t understand Jim Crow,” Johnson said. “They said he was too friendly and made too much eye contact. And he was too fast to shake people’s hands.”
He was transferred to West Hampton, where, Johnson said, the Air Force knew his father would be safe. When he was honorably discharged he got a job at a machine shop in Suffolk County, a supplier for the global aerospace and defense technology company Grumman. But learning that there were pay disparities he quit.
Then he met Hempstead community activist Melvin Jackson, who was involved in the Congress of Racial Equality, an African-American civil rights organization. Billy was inspired to go back to the plant. “He became a union organizer and talked to the other workers with Mel,” Johnson said. “The people were iffy, but then decided to approach management. Two days later they said they would pay everyone the same.”
Billy assisted in restructuring the machine shop, which Johnson said adopted Grumman’s model. And Billy became the liaison between the workers and the company.
“Dad threw himself into the civil rights movement,” Johnson said. “He was unfazed by all of the German shepherds. He had a passion for what he was doing.”
Billy became involved in CORE, but when the Black Panthers joined in the effort, he grew uneasy with the organization’s new direction. “Dad gave it a chance, but I believe, living here in Oyster Bay, he thought not every white person is the devil,” Johnson said.
His father helped migrant farm workers and learned how to illicit funds from the state and federal governments. And Billy founded a credit union to help the poor build upon their credit. “Then he flew down to Texas and never came back to Long Island,” Johnson said. “He was hired by the city of Austin to work at its planning and zoning department.”
Billy was dedicated to community service in Texas, where he became a program director and contractor for the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He facilitated the building of the church’s senior housing center, life center and its office. He was on the board of decans too.
Johnson said his father was proud that he was inducted into the New York State Housing Hall of Fame. “It was 10 years ago when he was living in Texas,” Johnson said. “Dad was like glowing for a month.”
Butch Garrison, whose father came to Oyster Bay in 1923, said his father told him that the Ku Klux Klan marched in the hamlet that year. Even so, his father always told Garrison that there wasn’t any segregation in Oyster Bay. The KKK left in 1935, he added.
Cate Lundlam, of Bayville, is the president of the Oyster Bay Historical Society’s board. She grew up in Oyster Bay. “It was a different place than other communities,” she said. “The fact was that for generations blacks and whites went to school together, lived together. I grew up with an understanding that Oyster Bay was a special and different community.”
Denice Evans-Sheppard, the executive director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society, said that Johnson’s visit was important. “Sharing stories about our community experiences makes us more sensitive to each other’s struggles,” she explained. “I am looking forward to a series we will be doing which will be inclusive for Polish Americans, Native Americans and a future collaboration with the schools.”