Over a century has passed since there were enslaved people on Long Island, but communities are still impacted by its legacies. Signs of segregation still exist nearly 60 years after the segregation era ended.
Debbie Willett first began working in Hofstra University’s Special Collections department in the ‘80s. Many people visited her library to read census records, looking for mentions of their ancestors.
Willett, who is Black, always knew her family had lived in the hamlet of Oyster Bay for generations. With the library’s entire collection at her fingertips, she began looking for her own ancestry.
That’s when she stumbled upon New York State’s first federal census record from 1790. It listed a “free black” man named Sylvanius — a name common in her family — who was later listed as Sylvanius Willett.
“It was like a eureka moment,” she said. “I have, you know, such a storied history too, and I'm part of this whole sort of microcosm called Long Island and my people actually helped build the United States also. So it was just, like, a really, really good feeling.”
Despite being one of the first free Black communities on Long Island during the slave era, Oyster Bay’s deep African American roots are not reflected by its population today.
Around 1800, 16% of the Town of Oyster Bay’s residents were Black, but as of 2018, that number had shrunk to just 3%. As the cost of living skyrockets and coastal homes are all the rage, many old Black communities like this face gentrification.
“And then if you look at Oyster Bay, the African American settlement was Pine Hollow,” Willett said. “Pine Hollow now… has kind of flipped over, and instead of being 100% or 90% African American, it now might be only 20% African American, 80% white.”
What we now call gentrification has been around just as long as European settlers.
In order for settlers to work the land, they needed laborers, so they enslaved Africans through the Triangular Trade. That’s the system where goods and enslaved people were shipped between West Africa, Britain and the Caribbean.
"On Long Island, you see enslaved men and women working on farms, and in small communities, in various kinds of craft or domestic labor kind of roles,” Jennifer Anderson, a historian at Stony Brook University and an editor at the Long Island History Journal, said.
As slavery was abolished in New York, many formerly enslaved people couldn’t afford land. They had no choice but to go north or stay near their former slaveholders for work. Others moved into pre-existing Native American settlements.
In the 1800s, free Black communities developed in areas undesired by white people, like Hempstead, Mastic and Wyandanch.
“Land values become higher and certain areas become more desirable and there are different factors that play into that,” Anderson said. “Then people of color often were pushed to the margins. And even those who were able to acquire property, often found it difficult to pass it on to the next generation.”
In the 1900s, people moved closer to town, which Hofstra’s Debbie Willett said raised mortgages and pushed Black people out of those areas. Then the Great Migration began, as southern Black people fled north from Jim Crow. This — along with the birth of suburbia and an influx of immigrants — caused a shift in racial dynamics and housing patterns.
These housing trends have further eradicated historical Black communities, like in Southampton. Brenda Simmons, the director of the Southampton African American Museum, has been working to establish her museum at the site of a former barbershop and salon. Her aunt used to work there in the 1950s.
“The African American community here is dwindling down, down, down to the point where I believe that this building is going to have to represent that African Americans did live here,” Simmons said. “They did exist here and they did contribute to the village of Southampton.”
Many Black people, like Simmons, are working to preserve the history of their ancestors. They are proud of their legacies and hope to make them more well-known. And while Debbie Willett may have left Oyster Bay long ago for cheaper living in Suffolk, she still yearns to reclaim her hometown — the one her forefathers built.
“If it wasn't for taxes, you know, we would still live there and it's my dream someday to sell my house and move back to Oyster Bay,” she said.
This story was reported and written by Taylor Beglane, Antonia Brogna and Katherine Hoey, as part of a series produced by a Stony Brook University School of Journalism/WSHU collaboration.