For African Americans living on Long Island, emancipation came in 1799 through New York state law. That law, however, was typical of the worldwide crusade against the peculiar institution. On Long Island, numerous citizens in places of influence supported both emancipation and the legendary Underground Railroad of the 18th and 19th century. Most prominent was Elias Hicks, who not only freed up to 191 slaves himself, but also helped to establish a safe houses throughout the northeast, many of which are still standing today. Full emancipation came gradually. By 1827, the last child born into slavery had achieved freedom. Even before then, free blacks had access to the franchise.
In 1821, black Long Islanders who owned even small amounts of property were eligible to register to vote. That, too, was consistent with the general description of democracy as it was once understood. An especially industrious figure from the postbellum Long Island was Henry Highland Garnett. The latter was born in New York City, and as a teenager, moved to Smithtown after his family’s property on Mulberry Street had been destroyed. Hicks himself worked to set the young Garnett up to work in a sawmill in Smithtown. Garnett eventually attended college and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. As with Hicks, he was involved in the Underground Railroad.
Up until World War II, when millions of African Americans migrated from South to North in search of well-paying manufacturing jobs, the black community on the island was small, centered around a handful of neighborhoods.
During World War I, Camp Upton in Brookhaven was the training base for the all-black 367th Regiment, a unit that later served with distinction on the Western Front. Several Long Islanders, including George Arnold Lynch and Roscoe C. Browne, served as fliers in the fighting group eventually immortalized as the Tuskegee Airmen.
After World War II, black communities also extended to Hempstead, Roosevelt, and Elmont, among other villages. Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns, was one of the most popular figures of his time. Brown’s mother worked as a domestic assistant in Manhasset, where her son attended high school, and starred on the football and lacrosse squads. After an All-American career at Syracuse, Brown was drafted by the team named for its coach, Paul Brown.
Roosevelt, meanwhile, produced Julius Erving, the legendary “Dr. J” of the hardwood. Erving attended the University of Massachusetts and later returned home to star for the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association (ABA). The Nets, led by Erving, won ABA title in 1974 and 1976. With Erving as the marquee player, the league became powerful enough to force the dominant National Basketball Association (NBA) into a merger. In October 1976, it all fell apart. The Nets, under Roy Boe’s ownership, were strapped enough for cash that the team sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers. Shades of Babe Ruth being sold from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1921. The Nets—and pro basketball on Long Island—were never the same.
Away from the playing field, Jazz legend John Coltrane spent the last three years of his life living in Dix Hills with his wife Alice, a fellow jazz virtuoso. Despite dying at the age of 40 from liver cancer on July 17, 1967, his legacy and music has lived on and influenced artists across a huge spectrum of artistic mediums. The John Scheinfeld film Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary shares a treasure trove of history and The Coltrane Home hosts a Coltrane Day Music Festival every summer to keep Coltrane’s legacy alive.
Another Roosevelt native, the comic Eddie Murphy, brought life in his hometown to life in a series of skits. Murphy was a regular on Saturday Night Live from 1980 to 1984 and went on to become an actor in dozens of iconic films, including Trading Places, Coming To America, and Dreamgirls for which he was nominated for an Oscar.
The place to be for black history on Long Island is the African American Museum of Nassau County (AAMNC), located originally in Hempstead, but now at its current building on 110 North Franklin St. The AAMNC is one of only two African American museums in the northeast, the other located in Philadelphia. The museum, according to its directors, provides “programming that includes themed exhibits that focus on historical figures and events, ‘hidden’ history and art.”
Notable African-American figures in Long Island history
- Ashanti – R&B / Hip-hop singer, songwriter, record producer, dancer and actress – Born in Glen Cove
- Francel Trotter Bellinger – First black women to serve as a judge in Suffolk County – From North Babylon
- Sandi Brewster-walker – Genealogist, columnist and author of The Colored Girl from Long Island – Born in Amityville
- Jim Brown – Football player, sports analyst and actor – Raised in Manhasset from age 8
- Rev. Calvin O. Butts lll – President of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury
- John Coltrane – Jazz saxophonist and composer – Lived in Dix Hills at the time of his death
- Julius Erving – Basketball player – Born in East Meadow and raised in Roosevelt
- Hazel Nell Dukes – President of the NAACP New York State Conference – Moved to Roslyn in 1956, where she fought housing discrimination
- Henry Highland Garnet – Spent time as an indentured servant in Smithtown and later became a well-known abolitionist
- James Garner – Mayor of Hempstead from 1988 to 2005 (Long Island’s first black mayor) and graduate of Adelphi University
- Dorothy Goosby – Fought for disenfranchised minority voters in Hempstead Village in 1988 and became first African-American woman elected to Town of Hempstead Board in 1999
- Lee A. Hayes – Served as Tuskegee Airman during World War II – Resided in East Hampton
- LL Cool J – Rapper, record producer, author, entrepreneur and actor – Born in Bay Shore and resides in Manhasset
- Joseph McNeil – Member of the Greensboro Four, college students who sat at a segregated Woolworth’s counter in 1960, a well-known act of civil disobedience during the civil rights era, and later became a Major General in the Air Force – Resided in Hempstead for more than 50 years
- Eddie Murphy – Actor, comedian and singer – Raised in Roosevelt
- Soledad O’Brien – Broadcast journalist and executive producer – Born and raised in St. James
- David Paterson – Graduate of Hempstead High School and Hofstra Law School and New York State’s first black governor in 2008 – Resided in South Hempstead
- Richard Robertson – Former baseball player and first African-American police officer in Town of Huntington in 1949
- William Willet – First Nassau County Police Department Commissioner in 2000 – Resided in Westbury