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  • Writer's pictureLocal History Collection

The Other Side of the Coin: African Americans in Roslyn

By Carol L. Clarke

Archivist, The Bryant Library


For at least two centuries, African Americans have been an integral part of the greater Roslyn community. Though they have always been a small segment of the population, their lives, particularly throughout the nineteenth century, were closely intertwined with and paralleled those of their white neighbors. Although their lives were constrained in many ways by prejudice and racial discrimination, Roslyn’s Black residents contributed in major ways to the economic and civic life of the community. Despite this fact, this segment of the population is mentioned only cursorily in articles and books written about Roslyn history. The stories of their lives are largely untold and their contributions overlooked. With the exception of a few memoirs by former residents and several oral history interviews, researchers who seek information in the Bryant Library’s Local History Collection must rely on information from newspaper clippings and remembrances of white residents that sometimes show racial bias.


This brief overview of the lives of African Americans who lived in Roslyn during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is based on archival resources available in the Bryant Library’s Local History Collection, including newspaper clippings, written memoirs, and oral history interviews.


Nineteenth Century

From the work of historians that have conducted research and written about the history of African Americans on Long Island, we know that many of the Black families that settled in Roslyn in the nineteenth century began their lives as enslaved people on small local farms throughout Long Island’s North Shore. They worked alongside their owners, performing general farm and domestic tasks. Particularly if owned by Quaker families, many were freed well before 1827, the year New York State abolished slavery. Many individuals and families continued to live and work on these farms as free men and women, and often took the last names of their former owners. As a result, many of Roslyn’s African American residents shared common Long Island surnames like Hicks, Mott, Pearsall, Sands, Seaman, and Townsend. Many had mixed African, American Indian, and European ancestry. They shared close ties with relatives and friends living in Glenwood, Manhasset, Glen Cove, Locust Valley, Oyster Bay, and Port Washington. By the later years of the nineteenth century, southern Blacks migrated to the area to work on the large farms and estates in the area.


From written resources in the Local History Collection, we know that the homes of African American families were interspersed with those of white residents throughout Roslyn Village and surrounding areas. Many lived on the east side of Hempstead Harbor, in the area around Skillman Street and Landing Road. Others lived on the west side, along Shore Road and West Turnpike (now Old Northern Boulevard). Members of the Washington and Morris families owned homes on East Street (behind Trinity Church). In Roslyn Heights, families settled near Church Street, as well as along Old Westbury and Powerhouse Roads (North Service Road). Members of the extended families of George Pearsall, who owned eight acres of land off Powerhouse Road (North Service Road), and Hewlett Hicks, who owned land along Willis Avenue, continued to live on the property into the twentieth century. Other families lived in the Red Ground and Round Hill sections that became part of the Village of East Hills.


During the nineteenth century, most African American men were farm laborers, sometimes working for their former owners on one of many small farms in the area. They did dangerous and physically exhausting jobs like digging wells and graves. In 1892, Roslyn resident Albert J. Borden was buried under 75 feet of sand while digging a well in Great Neck. William H. Eato, described as “a first class mason, stone cutter and well digger,” was tasked with the recovery of his brother-in-law’s body. Others carted goods for local farmers and merchants. Many were skilled craftsmen and worked in Roslyn and surrounding communities as carpenters, blacksmiths, mechanics, stone cutters, and masons. African Americans also worked on Hempstead Harbor, loading the vessels that transported grain and lumber from Roslyn’s mills and lumberyards. Robert Mott Bryant, a seaman from his youth, was born in Glen Cove in 1825 and settled in Roslyn in the 1860’s. His son, Henry S. Bryant, was born in 1864 in a house along the Shore Road between Roslyn and Port Washington. He was captain of the freight boat “Plow Boy” which transported grain, manure, and wood. One of only a few African Americans to possess a pilot/navigator license, he operated a fleet of boats that served local businesses. African Americans were recognized for their expertise with horses, and many were employed to drive, train and care for horses, including the polo ponies owned by North Shore estate owners. While some Black women were able to be “at home” like most women of the time, many worked as seamstresses, laundresses, and domestic workers. In 1879, the Roslyn News reported that Fanny Mayhew fell into an open stove pipe hole while working as a housekeeper for a local family.


Members of families with deep roots in the community established churches, formed political organizations, fraternal groups, and sports teams, and served in the military. Black residents worshipped at the Roslyn Presbyterian and Methodist churches as well as at the Salem African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, established in 1859. The church building, constructed in 1862, continues to stand at its original location on Roslyn Road. Politically-minded residents established the Round Hill Garfield and Arthur Republican Club in 1880 and held a “ratification lecture and festival” at Bryant Hall (the original library building) in November of that year. Long-time resident and Civil War veteran William Henry Fowler (1840-1932) proudly participated in Roslyn’s annual Memorial Day commemoration and is buried in the GAR plot in Roslyn Cemetery with other Civil War veterans.


An early chronicler of Roslyn history, describing Roslyn’s early Black residents as “honest and respectful” and “humble,” recalled that the “Old Colored People had the respect of all the white people.” Yet, even if such views were common, members of Roslyn’s Black community faced prejudice and confronted educational, employment, and social discrimination. In 1868, the Roslyn Board of Education voted to establish a separate annex for Black elementary students. Before that time, Black and white children attended school together. Until the separate school was ultimately closed in 1917, Black children in first through eighth grades were taught by a single teacher in the one-room facility before attending high school classes. The question of whether to abolish the annex was considered repeatedly during subsequent decades. The June 4, 1892 meeting of the school board is only the first of several times that Roslyn residents voted against “consolidating the colored and white schools.”

Twentieth Century

For much of the early twentieth century, life in Roslyn continued unchanged for most residents. Roslyn continued to be a primarily working-class community, with merchants, business owners, skilled and unskilled workers living in close proximity to one another. However, it was a time of great change in the surrounding area as wealthy New Yorkers began to build country houses and estates all along Long Island’s North Shore. Workers were needed to build and tend these properties and their owners. These workers were primarily European immigrants, often recruited specifically for their “in service” backgrounds. African Americans were generally not included among either the “inside” or “outside” workers who kept these large homes and estates in operation. Although not hired to work directly on the estates, Roslyn’s African American community grew as migrants from the South joined the community, including some who had been specifically recruited by wealthy individuals to train and care for their polo ponies and racehorses. Agriculture and the building trades continued to be the primary occupations of African American men into the twentieth century. Others were employed at Roslyn’s several lumber yards or worked as itinerant laborers. Work was often only seasonal.


An undated Roslyn News article from sometime around the turn of the twentieth-century reports, “There have been over one hundred negroes come to Roslyn and vicinity within the past few months from the South … .” The article solicited “the co-operation of the Roslyn citizens in helping them to better their condition to become good citizens of the village,” including assistance securing homes and identifying “people employing help who desire their services.” These newcomers joined existing residents in the neighborhoods around Skillman Street and Landing Road or near the railroad station in Roslyn Heights.


While most rented their homes, a small number of Black families owned homes and tracts of land in the area. Members of the Washington family owned several houses on East Street behind Trinity Church. Pearsall Place in Roslyn Heights is named for the family of George Pearsall. According to his granddaughter, Elmira (Pearsall) Morton (1882-1969), he purchased eight acres of land in Roslyn Heights in the mid-1800s with money earned dismantling a derelict boat in the Harbor and moving the wood. A significant portion of the property, which was bounded by Jefferson, Harding, and Coolidge Avenues and Powerhouse Road (North Service Road), remained in the family through the middle of the twentieth century.


Salem A.M.E. Church, established in 1859, continued to serve as a religious and social center for many Black Roslynites. Its first church building was constructed in 1862 at the corner of Church Street and Roslyn Road. The cornerstone for the current building was laid in 1955. Friendship Baptist Church was founded in a private home in 1927. After renting space in the Polish Hall on Railroad Avenue, the congregation purchased a building at 56 Orchard Street in 1930. The present church building was later constructed on the site. The Assembly of Prayer Baptist Church was founded several decades later, in 1962.


Black men served in both World Wars and other conflicts of the twentieth century. Attendance at a World War I enlistment meeting for “colored residents of Roslyn” was presented in a Roslyn News article as proof “that the traditions of the colored race in national service have lost nothing of their powers to call out the sentiments of patriotism.” Approximately one dozen African American soldiers from Roslyn served in World War I. The names of those who died are listed on the memorial in Roslyn Park. On the home front, residents like E. Arrell Pearsall (1908-2003) and his sisters, taught to knit while they recuperated from the flu in 1918, knitted scarves, wristlets, and knitted helmets for the soldiers. Lifelong resident George Valentine Washington, Jr. (1887-1959), returned from the War to serve as caretaker of Roslyn Park and the Clock Tower. Washington was a founder of the Roslyn Keystones baseball team. This team, along with others like the Roslyn Negro Giants, drew crowds to the grandstand near Landing Road. He, along with men from the Eato, Mayhew, and Pearsall families, was a member of a social club identified in The Roslyn News as “The Elite Six (colored)”. The group’s January 1920 Leap Year Dance, which featured a jazz band, was advertised in the local newspaper.

Although the location of this event is unknown, the choice of where to hold the event would have been limited as African Americans confronted restrictions on where they could hold social gatherings. Records of the Roslyn Neighborhood Association, who regularly rented their headquarters in the Valentine House (now the Bryant Library Annex) to local groups for dances and other gatherings, document the criticism received from white residents when they voted to allow one African American group per year to rent the space. In 1922, members of the James Lyons Post of the American Legion objected to a Black organization’s use of the Roslyn Memorial Building (now the Bryant Library). In a letter to the board of the Roslyn Neighborhood Association, owners of the War Memorial Building, they expressed fear that the building would be “spoiled” and “shunned by the better class of people.” In their response, the board acknowledged that “the extent to which colored people should be admitted to our social life has been a difficult one,” but that approval was granted based on the board’s “unanimous sense of fairness and propriety,” and that events previously held by “our really good colored people” had been “conducted in an entirely proper manner.” For many years, segregated seating within the local movie theater was the norm. In his written memoir, E. Arrell Pearsall recalls being prohibited from sitting on the main floor of the Roslyn Theater.


Public spaces were not the only places where members of Roslyn’s Black community faced prejudice and discrimination in the first half of the twentieth century. The separate annex for Black elementary students, which had been established by the Roslyn Board of Education in 1868, continued to operate until 1917. High school classes, which started in 1904, were open to all students. Black parents repeatedly petitioned the school board to allow their children to attend the Village School and the school board repeatedly voted against integration. In 1913, Black students were turned away after they marched to the Village School and demanded entry. In his memoir, E. Arrell Pearsall writes:

“My father, Reverend Pierce and a third person went before the school board to ask for desegregation. This happened in 1917.”

At the time, his father, Eugene Pearsall (1865-1952), was employed at the Tubby, Conklin, and Tubby Lumber Yard. Ralph Tubby, owner of the lumber yard, was president of the school board at the time. The segregated annex finally closed at the end of the 1916-1917 school year.


In spite of these limitations, African American students excelled in school. Mrs. Willis, who taught art in both the Village School and the Annex, recalled that Keturah “Kate” Townsend was an excellent educator and strict disciplinarian who prepared her students so well that they regularly outperformed white students on tests. Gertrude Pearsall and Virginia Morris were the first African Americans to graduate from Roslyn High School in 1913. They were consistently included on annual lists of students receiving academic honors and awards.


As the Roslyn community transitioned away from its working class roots in the years following World War II, Roslyn’s African American residents faced challenges on multiple fronts. As large farms and estates were developed as residential housing, the need for the types of skilled and unskilled labor Black workers had performed for generations diminished. Local businesses discriminated against African Americans in hiring. E. Arrell Pearsall recalled his experience seeking employment with a local construction company. Told by the clerk of a Mineola building company that they were not hiring, Pearsall returned to the architect who referred him. The architect went to the owner. “He asked them do you remember when you arrived in New York from Germany, who was the first to give you a job. He replied “yes, it was a negro.” He told them that he had sent a young man of color over yesterday and he was told they were not hiring. Well, I went back the next day and was hired.” Others were not as lucky, and left the community in search of more opportunities.


Housing became a major issue as many families were displaced by the road and commercial development of the postwar period. The homes of families that had lived for generations in the area known as “the Landing” were demolished in preparation for construction of the Viaduct over Hempstead Harbor. Highway construction and commercial development forced others to relocate. High prices combined with restrictive covenants and other discriminatory housing practices prevented Black people from buying houses in the new subdivisions constructed in East Hills and Roslyn Heights. Many with the economic means chose to move to more welcoming communities on Long Island. Some families that had previously lived in substandard housing in the area near the Roslyn Depot were able to move into the Laurel Homes, constructed by New York State in 1956. Efforts to increase housing availability for existing residents as well as to promote fair housing increased during the 1960s, as members of the Roslyn community became involved in the Civil Rights movement. When the Town of North Hempstead began its Station Plaza Urban Renewal project in the 1960s, a number of Black residents were relocated to other communities while they awaited construction of new housing. Many never returned to Roslyn as white residents increasingly fought against additional housing for lower-income families. In 1962, the fair housing arm of the Roslyn Committee for Civil Rights initiated an effort to integrate the all-white subdivisions in East Hills and Roslyn Heights.

The Lewis Family

The family of John H. Lewis, Jr. was one of several families that moved into homes in the Country Estates neighborhood in 1963. Lewis was elected to the Roslyn Board of Education in 1966. He served three terms, including a term as Board President, between 1966 and 1974.


Through it all, African American residents continued to advocate for themselves and fight for economic, educational, and social equality. However, as “the past” intersects more closely with “the present” in the last quarter of the twentieth century, it becomes more difficult to document the experiences of Roslyn’s Black residents. It was a period when the dreams of the Civil Rights movement gave way to an increased sense of NIMBY-ism in the Roslyn community, on Long Island, and around the nation. Much more documentation and research is needed to compile a more complete picture of the experiences of African Americans who lived and worked in Roslyn during this period. This work is imperative, for until we are able to clearly see “the other side of the coin,” we will be unable to understand and appreciate the full breadth of Roslyn’s history.

 

Interested in learning more about Black History in Roslyn? Visit our new Black History Portal where you can access expanded galleries, oral histories, E. Arrell Pearsall's autobiography, and more articles from the Bryant Room Blog.

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