Over 100 artifacts challenge myths about slavery at The Long Island Museum

Women reading journalistic entries recording accounts of slavery in the 1700s arranged across a map of Long Island.

By Jawad Hossain and Xian Wornell

The Long Island Museum held a symposium March 9 to showcase its new exhibit, “Long Road to Freedom: Surviving Slavery on Long Island,” which will be open until May 27.

The day-long symposium explored the experiences of African-Americans on Long Island across two centuries. Scholars from different academic disciplines, such as, history, anthropology, and archaeology, discussed the integral role of slavery in the region’s history and how African Americans navigated between slavery and freedom through paintings, photographs, furniture, tools and documents.

“The objects come from about 49 different lenders from Manhattan to Southampton, which include museums, libraries, historical societies and private collections,” Jonathan Olly, the Long Island Museum curator, said. “I want visitors to come away with a sense that Long Island history is African-American history. They are inseparable.”

“The museum brings art and history together and without focusing on politics. It provides an opportunity for people to come together to discuss a touchy historical subject that has racial overtones,” Lynda Day, Ph.D., professor of Africana Studies at Brooklyn College, said.

The exhibit includes a Myth and Truth section. “People know a blend of fact and fiction when it comes to slavery,” Olly said. “The most common misconception is that slavery didn’t last very long on Long Island, when in fact it took place from 1626 up until 1827, which is roughly two centuries and half of Long Island’s existence.”

Long Island is ranked among the top 10 most segregated metropolitan areas in the nation, according to a 2011 study done by researchers from Brown University and Florida State using data from the 2010 Census.

A loose collection of 125 school districts and 95 villages across both Suffolk and Nassau County, Long Island has no central political leadership. This makes addressing inequalities in education and housing with a fractured local government especially difficult.  

“Long Island continues to exist as a contemporary manifestation of racist historical and legal past,” Dr. Jonathan Lightfoot, associate professor of teaching, learning and technology at Hofstra University and the university’s first director of its Center for “Race,” Culture and Social Justice, said. “Real estate redlining allowed banks to legally deny loans to Black and other ‘undesirable’ people. Restrictive covenants assured communities would stay white by refusing to sell homes to Black and other ‘unwelcome’ people.”

The Center for “Race,” Culture and Social Justice was established at Hofstra University in January 2017 in order to promote diversity and cultural awareness in faculty hiring, curriculum, and professional development.

“Placing ‘race’ in quotation marks seeks to recognize the mythical nature and scientific baselessness of the concept of ‘race,’ while also acknowledging its importance as a social and political construct,” Lightfoot said.

Long Island’s history of institutional racism and school segregation dates back to the founding of the Island’s first suburb, Levittown in the middle of the 20th Century.

“Levittown is the quintessential blueprint of an American suburb that was designed strictly for white people’s enjoyment after World War II,” Lightfoot said.  

“Nobody talks about Levittown being an affordable housing project,” Georgette Grier-Key, Ed.D., executive director and curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor, said. “It was subsidized by the government that was also not in compliance with the law. They blocked African-American GIs who also served that had earned the right to buy these houses. This is what they call now today implicit bias, which is really racism.”

Implicit bias is the set of assumptions that all people carry with them in their minds about others, particularly those who are perceived as different.

“Implicit bias influences the interactions that people have with each other on a daily basis,” Dr. Martine Hackett, an associate professor of health professions at Hofstra University, said. “The ways that we respond to strangers, the kindness (or lack thereof) that we exhibit, and the ways that we understand people’s motivations. It can be harmful when others think of us in negative ways and their thoughts influence their actions.”

About Jawad Hossain 4 Articles
Jawad Hossain is currently a second semester junior in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University, earning his degree in both Journalism and Political Science. He will pursue a career in broadcast journalism on international affairs focusing on human rights and foreign policy. He can speak in English and Bengali and is currently learning French.