Part five in a series.
In 1972, Sheldon Parrish was sitting in his eighth-grade social studies class at then-Roosevelt Junior-Senior High School when he heard a low hum coming from the hallway. As he listened closely, he could make out a crowd rushing to the classroom door, and they were singing a strange song, “I got the feelin’, I got the feelin’, I got the feeling there ain’t gonna be no sh– like that.”
The door burst open and a high school girl ordered the students out. Despite threats by the teaher, Mrs. Levenbrown, to call parents, the class stepped into the hallway to find a sea of black students singing together. Downstairs, some of the high school students confronted the principal in his office, locking the door behind them.
The riot occurred after local woman Emily Moore was denied a position in the district because of her “troublemaking” activities — participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, at which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and lunch counter protests, Parrish said. It was not the beginning of racial conflict in Roosevelt, but rather one of many consequences of a tragic history of prejudice and neglect.
Yet despite such a disadvantaged past, the Roosevelt community has persevered, and is growing stronger –– and more diverse –– every day.
The white flight
According to Parrish, an author who has written three books on the history of the tiny hamlet, Roosevelt was one of many American “Sundown Towns” in the early 20th century, meaning that black residents were required to be off the streets by nightfall. The Ku Klux Klan was still active in the area until the 1940s, and up until the 1950s, Parrish estimates, the neighborhood was still more than two-thirds white.
In the late 1950s into the ’60s, middle-class black families from New York City began to move in more frequently, taking advantage of Roosevelt’s inclusive real estate laws. Nearby neighborhoods such as Levittown popularized housing deed covenants requiring white families to sell their homes only to other whites, a practice that was legal until the Fair Housing Act of 1968, according to Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism.
Unlike the neighboring communities of Freeport and Baldwin, which maintained more diverse mixes of residents, Roosevelt experienced a rapid “white flight,” as white residents, uncomfortable living near minorities, fled the neighborhood. When the school district used forced busing to integrate the schools in the early 1960s, the flight intensified. By the late ’60s, Parrish remembers, Roosevelt was nearly all black.
Unscrupulous real estate agents encouraged the flight through an illegal practice known as “blockbusting,” in which they convinced white residents to sell quickly at low rates out of fear of declining property values resulting from new “security issues,” according to Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. The real estate agents then sold the houses to incoming black families for a profit.
The dramatic flight allowed for a period of “welfare dumping,” Levy added, in which advertisements and vouchers promoting cheap housing in Roosevelt were distributed to poorer neighborhoods. Many white families had left their homes without even selling them, and slumlords were happy to rapidly fill them through social services. Many single-family homes were converted into multi-family apartments.
Many of the original middle-class black families, unhappy with the new residents who followed them, left the community as well, Parrish said.
“It plays into the spiral of poorer people of color moving in and whites and people of greater means fleeing,” Levy explained.
At the mercy of the county
Roosevelt was left helpless to adjust to the demographic shift. “We’re not an incorporated village, so many of the decisions that are made about this place are made by other people, and we have to live by them,” Parrish explained.
According to Levy, as an unincorporated hamlet, Roosevelt was, and still is, dependent on the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County to fix its problems. Both the town and county were controlled by affluent whites in the middle of the 20th century. While some neighborhoods like Freeport feature a village government to tackle local issues directly, Roosevelt does not.
“This is about the only place I know in America where the politicians take office and then tell you what you’re going to do,” Parrish said, “rather than listening to the heart of the people and then running on that agenda.”
Roosevelt also lacks a significant private sector to bring in tax revenue. As a result, property taxes have remained high. And the tax burden has fallen on the shoulders of middle-class black families. Many of the affluent white families left, Parrish said, and the families on welfare are unable to contribute.
While many Roosevelt adolescents prepared for trade jobs throughout the 1960s and ’70s, many of the traditionally local trade positions became outdated or replaced by major chains outside of town. After graduating from Colgate University in 1981, Parrish returned to Roosevelt to coach the football team, where he witnessed the rise of unemployment, as well as heroin and crack use.
“As long as it stayed across the bridge,” Parrish said, “nobody cared.”
The state takeover
The Roosevelt Union Free School District, which first opened in 1962, was particularly ill-equipped for change, as many of the new lower- income students were less prepared for school and required more support. Middle-class families tended to send their children to private schools.
“Part of the reason that we have so much inequality on Long Island is because of a tremendous amount of government fragmentation,” Gross pointed out. In addition to the different counties, towns and villages, Long Island also has an unusually high number of school districts. According to Gross, in 2006, Nassau had the seventh- most school districts in a single county in the nation –– 56 –– while Suffolk, with 68, had the fourth most.
Superintendent Marnie Hazelton remembers the conditions in Roosevelt in 1996. when she first started working in the district. “I started subbing in dilapidated buildings,” Hazelton said. “I didn’t develop allergies until I started working in Roosevelt, with the mold and the rust.”
Roosevelt teachers have not only faced physical challenges, but also an ever-changing student body. “We have a high rate of homeless shelters, substance abuse houses, halfway houses,” Hazelton said. “It’s a transient community. That’s our biggest challenge –– when you have kids who are in and out of the district.”
“When the school is doing well, the community will do well,” she added, “because people will want to move here and invest in here and be proud of their property.”
In 2002, with the schools at a crisis point, Roosevelt became the first district out of more than 700 across New York to be taken over by the state. There were proposals to break up the district and send students to surrounding districts –– in Freeport, Baldwin, Rockville Centre and Bellmore-Merrick. It never came to that, and each year the district has shown improvement in test performance.
The district is now out of state control, and high schoolers can enjoy a new, clean and modern Roosevelt Senior High School, where the graduation rate increased from 68 percent in 2014 to 72 percent the following year.
Despite often-bleak conditions born of decades of prejudice, Roosevelt residents have refused to roll over. “[I’m proud of] the resilience,” Parrish said. “We’ve been victimized, we’ve been exploited, we’ve been manipulated, all those aggressive and forceful words. But the people who have been here since the beginning will always love this place.”
Even during its darkest times, Roosevelt has produced some of the country’s greatest talents, from Julius “Dr. J” Erving, to Eddie Murphy, to Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
Roosevelt “is doing better than it was,” Levy said. “There are more middle-class homeowners moving in, so it’s beginning to show some signs of revival.”
According to Parrish, the town is now becoming more diverse, with some white families moving back into the hamlet and the Hispanic and Latino populations continuing to expand.
“Racial integration and income integration, that’s a reflection of who we are as a people,” Gross said. “It helps to attract the kinds of amenities that everybody requires and wants to have.”