Sunday, Jan. 18 was a day of remembrance and commemoration for the black community in Oyster Bay. Not only was Black History celebrated in a service at Christ Church, on Martin Luther King Sunday, but a memorial was held in the Oyster Bay High School Performing Arts Center to commemorate the life of Ronald J. Simmons, a graduate of the Class of 1978. The young black man was the president of the Student Council, and a star basketball player who went on to be recognized as a great entrepreneur. He fought sickle cell anemia only to succumb to cancer brought on by a rare cancer gene in his second kidney transplant.
Rosemary Colvin, co-advisor for the OBHS Student Council said, "This is the most amazing class. Here they are 30 years later. They came together so quickly and a lot has to do with the wonderful spirit of Ron Simmons."
They came from New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Virginia - wherever Ron's spirit touched people. A memorial service was given in the business community of Richmond, VA, where he worked; one in California, where he died; and now in Oyster Bay where he grew up.
Although he was on dialysis for many years, he never let the diagnosis run his life. He was told in his 20s that he would live 35 years and never have children. He lived to the age 48 and had three children.
Listening to his eulogies it seemed that Ron was the spirit and heart of the class. Susan Nazarewicz Bozek said what made the class so great was that "Everyone was friends with everyone else. There were no clicks, the mothers knew each other, everybody supported everyone. A lot grew up together in middle school and even kindergarten."
Ron had a way of including everyone in what he did.
His brothers, Karl and Abraham, said what Ron wanted was to continue his legacy of bringing people together. "He could not lead you except in a positive way," they said.
This year, as Barack Obama was installed as the 44th President of the United States there is a greater impetus for the community to explore the work of black people.
The Rev. Kenneth Nelson of the Hood A.M.E. Zion Church said his congregation has celebrated Black History among themselves in past years, but felt this year they would like to share it with the community. "On Sunday, Jan. 18, we worshiped with Christ Episcopal Church and it was a great event. It is Martin Luther King Sunday, Monday is his birthday and Tuesday is the Inauguration of Barack Obama."
Mr. Nelson said on Sunday, "I mentioned the other events coming up including the consecration of slaves' graves at Youngs Cemetery on Sunday, Feb. 1, at 4 p.m. If you have been there, you might have seen them. They are the graves at the top of the hill as you go up to Theodore Roosevelt's gravesite. There are little white wooden crosses that mark where the slaves are buried. We will try to involve all the churches in the community and try to get some of the politicians too," he said.
Nick LaBella, superintendent of Youngs Cemetery, has been working on the project for some time. It began as he worked with Betty James who died in 2007. The original project was focused on July 4, 1827, the date when slavery was abolished in New York State.
Recently he was informed that the project was in the works again with the Rev. Kenneth Nelson and Sandra Rogers, a church member, to consecrate or re-consecrate the ground and pay tribute to the slaves buried there. They will sing a few spirituals, songs the slaves themselves might have known, and will read a poem by Maya Angelou.
Ms. Rogers, who sings in the Hood A.M.E. Zion Church Gospel Choir, said she has been trying to find the names of the slaves but it has been a hard task.
She called Mr. LaBella but he explained he had little information. She also went to the Oyster Bay Historical Society; John Hammond, Town of Oyster Bay historian; and Raynham Hall Museum. The best information she received was from Claire Bellerjeau who curated the slave history exhibit at Raynham Hall Museum when the Slave Bible was bought at auction. Ms. Bellerjeau is going to give the church the names of all the slaves on Long Island which will be displayed at the church.
"Claire Bellerjeau has done a lot of historical research for Raynham Hall Museum and they gave us permission to use the names so we can put them on the wall," said Rev. Nelson.
Ms. Rogers said, "It wasn't until the law required people to report the slaves they had and then they only gave a first name or just 'baby.' It's not a lot of information at all," she said.
Nick LaBella said the only actual name he has found is "An Elizabeth Townsend, faithful colored servant. All of the other 50-plus grave sites are marked in the book as 'unknown.' It is the area right up front with a stone under the spruces that says, 'the crosses mark the graves of faithful slaves of the Youngs family,'" explained Mr. LaBella. "Youngs Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in the entire U.S.: let's consider, Jamestown 1607; Plymouth 1620; and Youngs around 1640."
Several other families in Oyster Bay had slaves, including the Townsends, as was noted in the exhibit Ms. Bellerjeau curated for Raynham Hall Museum.
The Rev. Nelson said, "We don't want to disturb the families that had slaves. It is just to recognize these are the former slaves and make it known to the community that these people have been here, " said Rev. Nelson.
He said that on Feb. 7 they will do a PowerPoint presentation at Hood Church on the history of famous blacks that had something to do with Long Island including Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, and Fredrick Douglas: they all were on Long Island at one time, he said. It will include many more black people of note who lived on Long Island.
"On Feb. 14 we are having the Hempstead Acapella Choir doing spirituals in the fashion of Wings Over Jordan Choir," said Rev. Nelson.
"And on Feb. 21 we are having a soul food dinner and on Feb. 27 we are having a another black history program at the church. It's the first time to really talk to the community about black history. Before we did it for ourselves only - and there is a lot of history on Long Island that people should know about," said the Rev. Nelson.
What is so wonderful is that the history is still being written in lives of people such as that of the late Ron Simmons. - DFK