photos by John Gitlitz
On January 20th, only hours before Barack Obama was installed as the first African-American president, the Local Summit hosted a program in Mamaroneck about the African-American experience in this community. Four of the six speakers brought up some shabby history along with hope for a more enlightened future.
Program moderator Keith Yizar, chairman of the CAP Center and a counselor at Mamaroneck High School, opened the session by telling of his family’s history in the area, going back to about 1820. He spoke of his happy youth here, but also about his current sadness that the African-American population has dwindled, shut out by the high cost of housing, a lack of good-paying jobs, and the allure of a better life in the South.
150 Slaves in Mamaroneck Township
Ned Benton, professor of public administration at John Jay College and board member of the Larchmont Historical Society, has been digging into Mamaroneck’s slave history. He presented a chart listing about 150 slaves owned in Mamaroneck Township between 1698 and 1822 by such prominent families as Palmer, Richbell, Mott, Munro, and Delancey. (See: Slavery in Mamaroneck Township:Remembering Bet, Phelby, Candice, Jack, Hannibal, Telemaque..) In 1790, slaves constituted 12% of the Township population.
Mr. Benton said historians have speculated that in the early 1800s, as slavery was gradually being abolished in New York, owners may have sold their slaves to traders for resale in the South, where cotton plantations were booming and slavery was still legal.
First African-American Fire Chief
Speakers David Vaughn and Ernie Ricketts both grew up in Mamaroneck and, as adults, aimed to volunteer their services to the community. Both had some difficulties.
Mr. Vaughn is a descendant of Robert Purdy, a runaway slave who came here on the underground railroad and later helped organize what is now the Barry Avenue African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Mr. Vaughn, a professional portrait photographer, is a trustee of that church. As a young man he applied to join the volunteer fire department in Mamaroneck, but was turned down by them for what he believed were insufficient reasons.
He kept after them, using every reference, argument and connection he could muster until, finally, they said yes. In time he made history, becoming Mamaroneck Village’s first African-American fire chief.
He recalled that that as a youngster in the 7th grade his counselor urged him to take shop courses rather than classes that would put him on a college track. A generation later his son, now a successful international lawyer, was put into remedial classes in the high school.
Mr. Vaughn picked up on Mr. Yizar’s earlier comments about the declining local African-American population, saying there used to be “African-American tailors, undertakers, realtors, mechanics, TV repairmen, dentists” and other competent people in town. But “many of the best citizens moved out.”
He urged the audience to get to know individual, local African-Americans as a step toward building an integrated society. He said, with a smile, that many whites tend to think “all blacks look alike.” He allowed that in the past few hours a white man had greeted him as someone else, and a white woman had kissed him, thinking he was Bishop Powell of the Strait Gate Church. Nevertheless, he ended his remarks by saying he was aware that Mamaroneck and Larchmont are very “special places” and great for children.
A Job in the Police Department
With David Vaughn leading the way, Ernie Ricketts didn’t have much trouble joining the Mamaroneck Fire Department. But the Police Department in the late 1970s was another matter. When Mr. RIcketts applied for a position, that department made him believe his services were not required. But like Mr. Vaughn, Mr. Ricketts kept on till he was successful.
In his early years on the force, he perceived he was not regarded as a member of the team and he was careful not to provide any reason for his summary firing. Some years later, he was able to convert critics and was promoted to detective and youth officer. He now has a position with the Rye Neck Board of Education.
Mr. Ricketts said that to become a policeman when he first applied, applicants had to be registered Republicans. Many local organizations did not believe in inclusiveness. African-Americans began to set up their own parallel groups such as the “black Elks.”
“Negroes Moving In”
Glenna Gray, a realtor and former teacher, said when she was in the process of buying her present house in Larchmont, neighbors held a private meeting to see what to do because “Negroes were coming.” When she learned of this Ms. Gray went to see the local Human Rights Commission, which had only one member. She agitated successfully for a more representative commission. It was then increased to three, including her. She ultimately became chairman.
Ms. Gray said there was a time when if a black woman became head of a civic organization in town, the white women would suddenly “find they had to spend more time with their families.”
The Skinny House
One speaker who did not have upsetting racial stories to tell was Gloria Pritts, Mamaroneck Village historian. Her comments picked up in 1830, where Mr.
Benton had left off. She said that by 1840 the community had a stable and free African-American population. Most worked for wealthy residents, saved their money to buy their own homes and were eager to educate their children. In 1850, the township had a population of 928, of whom 33 were African-Americans.
Ms. Pritts said that later in the century many of the African-Americans lived in the Washingtonville area, although there were little groups living in various other neighborhoods. During the great depression, all members of the community suffered. One clever African-American contractor whose house was repossessed, Nathan Seely, was given a 12-foot-wide strip of land at 175 Grand Street by his Italian-descended neighbor. He picked up various unused or donated building materials and put up what is now known as the “Skinny House,” only 10 feet wide and three stories tall.
Today: Multi-cultural Hiring
Mamaroneck Village Mayor Kathy Savolt, who had been listening to the presentations from the audience, stated there will be no new stories about discrimination in the village. She said the present board is determined to open up employment and make it truly multi-cultural. She noted that the Police Department has just hired four new Spanish-speaking officers and that other multi-ethnic hires are planned.
Lauringle Mitchell, Jr,. a counselor at the Hommocks School and football coach at Rye Neck High School, said that, as an African-American, he thought the Mamaroneck School District had taken giant steps forward. In his experience, the district is dedicated to “building bridges” to all sectors of the community.
Who Is An African-American?
As a parting shot, Mr. Yizar told a story about a teacher coming into his office where he, as a counselor, was conducting a conversation about race with four students. He asked the teacher if he could point out who were the African-American youngsters. The teacher pointed to three immediately.
The first was Mr. Yizar’s son, a senior, who pronounced himself a Dominican-American, because of his mother’s origins. A second student said he was a Jamaican-American, because that’s where his parents came from. A third was a Haitian-American. The fourth student, who was the only Caucasian, said he was African-American. His parents came from South Africa.
The Local Summit, which hosted the program, is an informal community council which works to make the community a better place to live for everyone. It holds a regular public meeting on the third Tuesday of the month at the Nautilus Diner.