Let’s be sure we don’t relive some of our history


Black History Month is a chance for us to celebrate the many contributions African-Americans have made to the country. They’ve done this despite discrimination and oppression — something even Long Island, in the past, was not immune to.

For example, when we think of slavery, we think of the Deep South before the Civil War. In fact, slavery existed in New York until 1827, and the state had more enslaved people than all the New England states combined, many of them on Long Island.

At the start of the American Revolution, there were roughly 10,000 enslaved Black Americans living on Long Island — nearly half of the state’s total enslaved population. While they were allowed more mobility and financial opportunities than their counterparts in the South, the claim that slavery wasn’t as bad in the North is largely inaccurate.

Throughout the 1700s, New York lawmakers created the Black Codes, which historian and author Richard Moss — in his book, “Slavery on Long Island” — claimed were “the harshest criminal laws and penalties enacted by northern colonists.” Punishments for striking a white person included two weeks’ imprisonment and corporal punishment.

Enslaved people were forbidden from gathering in groups of more than three, and prevented from owning property. Children born to enslaved mothers were automatically enslaved at birth. And testimony by enslaved people was inadmissible in court.

One common practice at the time on Long Island and New York was shipping unruly African-Americans to the Caribbean slave colonies. Conditions on islands such as Barbados and Jamaica were particularly brutal, with less than a third of slaves surviving on some plantations.

Even after slavery ended in New York, discrimination did not. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the number of African-Americans in the Town of Oyster Bay dwindled from roughly 17 percent to less than a half-percent as racist real estate practices and federal policies prioritized homeownership for whites while driving Black Americans — and other minorities — from the area through a mix of intimidation, legislation, and rising property rates.

When Levittown — long touted as the model of the modern American suburb — was created in 1947, non-whites were expressly forbidden from owning any of the 17,400 new homes, with the deeds themselves preventing ownership by “any person other than members of the Caucasian race,” according to a 2011 research paper by Baruch College Sociology professor Robert Courtney Smith.

Robert Moses, the urban planner and public official who is best known today for creating Jones Beach State Park and the state parkway system, designed Long Island parkways to make them impassable for buses, frequently the only mode of transportation for non-white and low-income families. While some latter-day historians question the validity of this claim, Moses was also known to have fought against integrating public swimming pools in the 1920s.

African-Americans have continuously defied the odds and obstacles set against them — whether it be Jackie Robinson playing Major League Baseball, or mathematicians Creola Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson helping NASA put men on the moon. Recognizing those contributions — and learning from our mistakes of the past — can open the door for even greater accomplishments in the future, as we look to remove more barriers.

The late Maya Angelou once said that “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”