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Hofstra University Library Special Collections

Diverse Suburbs Oral History Collection

Theme: Civil Rights

Clips from the David Bythewood Oral History Interview conducted on April 22, 2011

Transcript Part I

JL: And do you remember, like how old were you when you think that the neighborhood­
did you ever consciously notice that white families were moving out?

DB: No, I was pretty naive. The first-but I will talk about my first, I sort of think of it as recognition but I didn't really fully comprehend what I was recognizing, the racial thing. When I was in third grade and I believe this was before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built, there was a ferry boat. We went south for the first time. Now, my mother's from Columbia, South Carolina and my dad had relatives in Columbia, the Peny's, Herman and Ruth. And they had a son Herman who is a little older than I am. And then my mother had a cousin named Cora Bookman. So we went down to Cora’s house, no, that was my Aunt Cora-Ellen Bookman ... Aunt Cora and Ellen Bookman. I don’t remember what Cora’s name was... So we went there and on the way, we were traveling in a caravan, three cars. And my Uncle Reggie who was a New York City police officer was with us and of course he was armed. I didn't understand the significance. I didn't really know that or, you know, they told about it later on so I understood the fear that, you know, the potential problems that could happen. So we're on the ferry boat and we're about to come to shore and my mother turns to my cousin, Reggie Junior, who is my Uncle Reggie's son, who is darker complexion than you are and said to him, Reggie, you and the boys go to the bathroom now because we're going to be coming to shore soon and we're not going to stop for some time. So we’re going to the bathroom and we’re walking down the ferry boat and Reggie stops us and says you guys can go in there. And I looked up and it looked like so sparkling, it looked to me like the sun was shining in this place. And I looked up and here’s this sign, "White Men Only." So I said to Reggie, well, where are you going? He says, I got to go down there. So I said, well, we'll go with you. So we went to a bathroom that was in the bowels of the ferry boat that said, "Men." It was filthy and smelly. But, you know, we went to the bathroom, we came back, we survived it.

JL: It didn't say "Colored"...

DB: No, it just said "Men." But the one up there, the pretty one, where you had all the white porcelain tile and everything and you could see by looking into it was really clean and sparkly said "White Men Only."

JL: This is third grade.

DB: This is third grade.

JL: Did you have a strong racial identity then? I mean, did you think it was strange to be pointed to a "White Men Only" or did you ... ?

DB: My mother was so fair. Most people thought she was white. She was as fair as you. So you know what people don't understand is that black people come in all shades. And I'll tell you another little story. And you might want to get into this-and this happened in Sag Harbor. Are you familiar with Sag Harbor?

JL: A little bit, yes.

DB: What do you know about Sag Harbor?

JL: [indiscernible].

DB: Well, Sag Harbor is the first place where black people own resort or vacation holiday property on the water. That was the thing that was done by Maud Terry, Fred or Iris Richard's mother. She had been a Virginia schoolteacher and she kept approaching this woman named Elsie Gale. Now her real estate place is still here. Gale Realty is here all around. So that she could put together a group to buy what's known in Sag Harbor as Azurest. Elsie Gale refused for years and then when her son comes home as Maud told me, she relented and agreed to sell to them. When the word got out that blacks were buying Azurest, then the adjoining communities of Sag Harbor Hills, Nineva Beach and Lighthouse Lane started looking to sell to blacks and the whites who were in there, they didn't have houses who had property there, they wanted to sell.

JL: This is what years are we talking about?

DB: This is in the early 50's, the very early 50's. And the first black family to actually move into the development was the Pickens' family. Now, Billy Pickens is my contemporary, a few years older than me but it's either his great grandfather or great, great grandfather who was James Robinson, the singer. Now, our development in Sag Harbor, it was very accomplished black families from different places, primarily the New York area.

JL: Was there any discussion of class amongst your friends, like, you got a big house or. .. ?

DB: No. We lived where we lived and understand that black communities were not divided by class. They were divided by race. So no matter what your class was, you were in the black area.

JL: Which wasn't true when you were first born?

DB: Well, you see, they didn't want to sell anybody, any black person, a house in a white neighborhood. That went on for years. In 1969, I had a German girlfriend and we were looking for an apartment in Long Beach. And I called this lady who had an apartment for rent and I don't have any particular accent that would identify me on the telephone as being black. She says to me, oh, I'm so glad you called because there's this very nice black couple that wants to rent this apartment but my neighbors are so much in arms in it and it would be so nice if you rented it. Isaid no thank you, goodbye.

Transcript Part II

DB: It was not the type of thing that should have happened, you know. And you come through your young years, Hempstead High School. We all recognized when I was in high school, you know, the racial divide. But Hempstead High School in the late 50’s and early 60’s was quite a wonderful place. And I can't say that I felt much racial impact at the high school. It's different in Jackson Street School. I know in kindergarten I got all of these bad letters coming home telling my mother I was trying to be a dictator. And the only thing I was trying to do and I remember it very clearly that I wanted to play with the blocks as much as the little white boys and I was being prevented, okay.

JL: By teachers?

DB: By teachers, so.

JL: Do you remember-can you tell us how that happened?

DB: I don't remember the – I just remember I was stopped and that they sent a bad report card home for me telling my mother that I was trying to be a dictator, so.

JL: And the teachers saw you as white?

DB: No. No. There was no question that I was black, well, it was colored then. It wasn't black. We didn't have black. That was something that spun out of the Civil Rights Movement.

JL: So the teachers wanted you to play with the white kids?

DB: No. I was trying-the white kids were playing with the blocks. I wanted to play with the blocks, okay.

JL: I thought you said blacks, I'm sorry.

DB: No blocks, b-1-o-c-k-s. And they would stop me. And then they sent a bad note. So I was punished for it. I was, you know, these things suppressed my abilities, which lasted with me for a long time before I came out of it as far as my learning abilities. I was doing algebra when I was four years old, okay. Remember, my older brothers were 10 and 12 years older and they were teaching me algebra and I was doing it. And they could tell you. They’re still alive. Charles lives in [indiscernible]. Chris lives in Arden, North Carolina. Yeah, they'll tell you about it because I was, I guess, the amazing little brother, so, yeah.

JL: And then something changed in the early years because...

DB: Well, I had difficulty in school and I think...I can only attribute it to the impact of the teaching environment. I didn't recognize it as something. I didn't mark things down but my performance was not good. And then later on I came through it and I finished law school and I'm doing what I'm doing now. So obviously I wasn't that poor a performer or my capability was far superior to that which I was exhibiting in school. But there was, you know, racism in Hempstead at that time. As I got older, I was more and more aware of it and there were certain neighborhoods we just didn't go into. And we knew to be very careful going into Garden City.

JL: What does that mean "being very careful?"

DB: Well because it was a white area that we could run a foul of the police and the people there.

JL: So when someone says "be careful," what does that translate into?

DB: It meant don’t go there because you could get hurt or in trouble. I mean, it was even in Hempstead. In 1968, my parents sold the house on Bennett Avenue and bought 120 Ingram Boulevard, which is a large Georgian colonial house with columns and everything else. A guy named Doug Thomas lives there now. It doesn’t have the big columns anymore. They came down when he had it and put these little skinny things up there. But when we moved in, I remember coming over there and here are these white kids on bicycles going by and looking and I'm no kid anymore. This is 1968. I'm born in '44. I'm 22 years old, okay, saying, "Look at the niggers. Look at the niggers."

JL: Literally those words.

DB: Literally those words. That's what the neighborhood was like. Of course, they ended up pretty much all moving out.