Nassau and Suffolk counties comprise one of the nation’s oldest suburban regions, and they are changing rapidly. News media and policymakers have especially recognized the growth of new immigrant groups. But the region has long been home to residents of many different backgrounds and incomes, even if segregation left the stories of some Long Islanders hidden from conventional history. The story of suburban diversity is a complicated one of immigration waves, wealth and poverty, social mobility and exclusion, discrimination, toleration, and integration.

This Hofstra Suburban Oral History Project provides a platform for Long Islanders who often have been left out of most narratives – especially those who do not fit the stereotypes of Long Islanders as affluent, native-born, and white. Long Island’s story is a uniquely American one that demands to be told in the voices and images of all the people who live here. The NCSS determined that the first people whose memories must be recorded for posterity are older residents – including the people of color who were pioneers in postwar all-white communities. Their stories were rarely heard beyond their own neighborhoods. Now they are told and preserved – and, thanks to a unique and compelling partnership, heard well beyond Long Island.

These stories and related artifacts came to the attention of one of the world’s most heralded institutions dedicated to the Black experience, Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. The partnership produced a highly-regarded exhibit, which ran at the center for months, called “Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson.” Focusing on Long Island and other suburbs around the country, the exhibit offered a poignant view of the variety of extraordinary experiences —struggles, sojourns, successes—characterizing the history of Black people who sought the American Suburban Dream from the late 1940’s to the present. It was curated by Dr. James Levy, historian, professor and former adjunct assistant professor at Hofstra, under the overall direction of NCSS Executive Dean Lawrence Levy and then-Schomburg Director Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

Thanks to a generous grant by Richard and Jack Turan, through the Turan Family Foundation, the Hofstra Suburban Oral History Project has been capturing and disseminating these stories and related artifacts to schools, scholars, libraries, and museums. In addition to professional researchers, interviews have been conducted by students and community members who have been carefully trained to acquire valuable skills that can be applied locally in schools and neighborhood centers. In bringing together young and old, rich and poor, black and white, this Project can bridge social chasms and inspire change.

Phase I: Black Suburbia

The project’s first phase focused on the African American residents who lived here at the “dawn of the suburban era,” and who have shared insights into their reasons for moving to Long Island, everyday life and family relationships, and experiences with segregation, discrimination, and civil rights activism on Long Island. The project was directed by Dr. James Levy PhD. Other participants included Dr. Louise Skolnik and Dr. Richard Skolnik, and project fellows Debra Willett and David Byre-Tyre. Outreach events engaged community members in the development of the project, which culminated in the exhibition and events series at the Schomburg Center.

In addition to collecting histories, the team worked with Streetside Stories of San Francisco and the Long Island Social Studies Teachers Association, to develop the project’s interviews and materials into curricula that have been adopted in middle school social studies classrooms, particularly the 8th grade unit on the Civil Rights era, making sure that Long Island’s story is told as part of its teaching.

Phase II: Latino Oral History Project

Latinos compromise the single largest share of foreign-born people in counties hailed from Latin America. In Nassau, the number was 49.5% from 2018 to 2022. For decades now, a diverse group of immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Dominican Republic, and other parts of Central and South America have come to the United States and made Long Island their home, a process that has forever transformed the cultural and racial dynamic of communities across this suburban New York landscape.

Who are the people that make up these communities? What is the experience of the Latino immigrants as they arrive, adapt, and become an integral part of the local fabric? What are some of the challenges they face in terms of racial discrimination, economic opportunity, affordable housing, adequate education, and political participation, and how have they overcome these challenges through community organizing and grassroots mobilization?

These are some of the questions explored in our five-part podcast about the Latino immigrant experience in suburbia, Qué Pasa, Long Island: The Story of the Secatogue Nine. Focusing on a David vs. Goliath-like court case, brought by a Hofstra law clinic, the podcast followed tortuous experiences of nine Latin American immigrant families living at the Secatogue Apartments in Farmingdale and their significantly successful eight-year legal battle after they were displaced from their homes. This podcast is the product of a multi-disciplinary collaboration between the National Center for Suburban Studies, the Law Reform Advocacy Clinic at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, and the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication’s online hyper-local news site, The Long Island Advocate. Involving many students, as well as the immigrant families, the podcast – which has been heard widely – took six years of intensive, meticulous work to complete.

The ruling in favor of the families continues to stand as a major victory for advocates for immigrant rights and equitable development. Yet, the outcome of the case still resonates today, with national implications. This podcast highlights the importance of community participation and inclusion in decision-making, particularly at the intersection of the immigrant rights battles taking shape throughout the country, and the ongoing debates about suburban revitalization, local development, and gentrification.

It also contextualizes the stories of a diverse population that for too long has been, at best, misrepresented by the dominant political and media circles, and at worst, deliberately marginalized and discriminated against due to racism and xenophobia.