Hempstead Freedom Walkers Challenge Long Island Segregation

Forty strong, the eighth graders marched out of the middle school cafeteria singing.

"Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around, turn me around, ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around, turn me around, gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, marching to the freedom land."

The temperature on Thursday June 9, 2011 was in the mid-90s, but it could not weaken their spirits. They were the Freedom Walkers, wearing tee-shirts of their own design demanding an end to racial apartheid on Long Island. They were marching from overwhelmingly Black and Latino Hempstead to neighboring overwhelmingly White Garden City, where they planned to have a picnic in a local park. I was glad to be with them and part of their campaign.

It was a one-mile walk to the Hempstead-Garden City border and another mile to Grove Street Park. Each time they came to a "Stop" sign they chanted: "The sign says stop but we're not stopping." They gathered at a sign demarking the border between Hempstead and Garden City and sang "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around" again.

In Hempstead the Freedom Walkers passed older wood frame homes. Some were in poor condition. Many had "for sale" signs in the front yard. The people they saw were Black and Hispanic. At Meadow Street they entered Garden City. Suddenly there were well-kept Tudor brick homes and tree lined boulevards. The only non-White people they saw were gardeners and nannies. Behind the homes on the south side of Meadow Street was a wood fence separating Garden City and Hempstead. It is a frail fence but it is symbolically important. It represents many of the racial and ethnic divisions that continue to exist on Long Island.

The sign at the entrance to Grove Street Park says "town residents and guests only." However, the Garden City Recreation Department graciously gave the students permission to enter the park and have a picnic. When the Freedom Walkers gathered at the entrance to the park, I spoke with the group. "Why can't all the people of Long Island share their parks? If people can play in parks together, maybe we can go to school together. If we can go to school together, maybe we can live together. If we can live together, maybe the world will change."

The eighth-grade students at A.B.G.S. Middle School in Hempstead, New York have been studying about the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They learned that the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education meant that schools could not be kept segregated based on race. They learned how Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King challenged racial segregation laws in the south. They learned that 2011 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Riders, who traveled through the South in racially mixed teams to integrate public transit in the United States. Many of the Freedom Riders were attacked and seriously injured, but they maintained their commitment to non-violent civil disobedience and ultimately succeeded.

But these eighth graders also know that the towns and neighborhoods on Long Island continue to be racially and ethnically segregated even after all of these struggles. Along with their teachers Dawn Sumner and Claire LaMothe, and with the support of the social studies education program in the Hofstra University School of Education, Health and Human Services, they organized the Freedom Walk to honor the 1961 Freedom Riders and to make a statement that racial integration and equality should still be valued by our society today.

Few people realize that the struggle for civil rights and racial integration had a northern component and many battles were fought in the New York metropolitan area. Palisades Amusement Park in Fort Lee, New Jersey would not permit African Americans in its famous saltwater swimming pool until 1961. Levittown on Long Island originally required homebuyers to sign a contract that they would not sell or rent to Blacks. Many local battles of the Civil Rights era took place in Hempstead, so Dawn Sumner and Claire LaMothe had students learn about these struggles.

Students discovered that in August 1963 the Hempstead School Board voted unanimously to approve a motion requesting that the Hempstead school district merge with neighboring Garden City schools to "end racial imbalances." At the time, Garden City schools were nearly 100 percent White while Hempstead schools were 89 percent "Negro." The merger never took place and almost fifty years later, the school districts remain racially segregated.

According to the New York State District Report Card, Garden City schools today are 95 percent White, one percent Black or African American, and four percent Other. Hempstead has changed demographically over the decades. The student population is now 46 percent Black or African American and 53 percent Latino or Hispanic. However, there are almost no White children in the district.

The Freedom Walkers march from Hempstead to Garden City was favorably covered in Newsday, a local newspaper specializing in Long Island news stories. Some residents of Garden City and local teachers have questioned the legitimacy of the Freedom Walkers campaign as misleading and as educationally inappropriate. I welcome their questions but strongly support what Dawn, Claire, and their students did, and we plan to march again next year. In Nassau County each small town has exclusive use of its own parks, but it does not have to be that way. I live in Brooklyn, a borough of New York City with a very diverse population of over two and a half million people. In Brooklyn the parks are for everyone and everyone uses the parks.

It is also important that we were not calling the people of Garden City racist because they live in a nice community. Just like during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, the Freedom Walkers were challenging a system that divides people and which we believe must change, but recognize that people of good will live in many communities and come in all colors and ethnicities.