The Town of North Hempstead has released a series of videos containing oral recountings of the area’s civil rights movement as told by the men and women who propelled it forward in the second half of the 20th century.
The 11 videos, which vary in length from about six minutes to more than an hour, feature spoken-word testimonials from activists whose impacts in pushing for equality were felt both locally and across the nation. Those activists touch on everything from their childhood upbringings to their careers to the state of inequality in the country today.
“Oral histories help us preserve eye witness accounts of major turning points in our nation’s past,” North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth said in a press release. “Nothing can replace hearing events described in a person’s own words. The people included in our civil rights oral history library have given us a wonderful gift and we are so grateful to them.”
Featured first in the rotation is Hazel Dukes, currently the president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP. Dukes, a longtime activist who used to live in Roslyn, became the first black woman to rent an apartment in Roslyn Gardens. Before local civil rights leaders began fighting back, Dukes said the few African Americans living in the area were related to renting sub-par housing in poorer neighborhoods that she called “shanty shacks,” a phenomenon she didn’t see when growing up in the Jim Crow South.
“In Alabama our home was just as beautiful as some of the homes in Roslyn Gardens,” Dukes said. “We were always homeowners. There wasn’t any rentals like what was going on in the town of North Hempstead.”
Dukes won a test case when the New York State Human Rights Commission found the neighborhood’s refusal to rent to her or any African Americans discriminatory. Her integration of the community made the front page of the local newspaper.
In Great Neck, Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth-El worked with Reverend Edward Corley of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Manhasset to form the Black-Jewish Dialogue, an organization that encouraged cooperation between the area’s Jewish and African American communities. Temple Beth-El became a rallying point for activists and spiritual leaders, even receiving Martin Luther King in 1968, shortly before he was assassinated.
“He came as part of a panel of Black leaders to discuss the civil rights movement for the larger Great Neck community,” Davidson said. “It was an amazing thing. The speeches were all terrific and eloquent, and of course Martin Luther King was spellbinding in what he said. It’s historic but little known that this speech was the first public utterance by King in opposition to the war in Vietnam.”
The histories compliment a documentary the town released about the area’s civil rights movement back in January called Defining Moments: The Civil Rights Movement in North Hempstead. The 40-minute film chronicles the experiences of those same activists as they fought to reform a social and political order geared towards empowering white Christian men to the degradation of all others.
The oral histories can be found and viewed online at www.mynhtv.com/civilrights. The videos also come with closed captioning for anybody who would like subtitles to accompany their experience.