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‘Offensive, repulsive and insulting.’ Members of NAACP condemn historical societies for sharing ‘reprehensible’ material

Suffolk County Historical Society and Southampton History Museum have temporarily suspended their executive directors for two weeks after circulating what was characterized as Ku Klux Klan propaganda at lectures and online. 

The announcements were made Friday at a press conference hosted by the Eastern Long Island branch of the NAACP at the Riverhead Free Library. Several NAACP members from across the island condemned the materials and called for the historical societies to do better.

“This was offensive, repulsive and insulting,” said Lawrence Street, president of the Eastern Long Island branch. “These acts of discrimination further adds to the divisiveness in our society and opens up a door for those white supremacist groups to use the East End as a place to continue their racist propaganda and protest. As you all know, the first act of this unconscious bias is represented in the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead in their photos of the week.”

SCHS featured a 1926 advertisement for the KKK in its Feb. 12 “Photo of the Week” newsletter with a summary of KKK activity on Long Island in the early 20th century, without broader context. The weekly newsletter, which is usually sent on Saturdays, features an image from the museum’s archive with a brief description and information on upcoming exhibits.

“To repost this piece is reprehensible and unacceptable because it was not in context,” Mr. Street said. “Why would someone go back in the archives and repost this insulting flier now?”

The SCHS board of trustees issued a letter of apology Thursday, expressing “deep regret” over the photo, which “depicts one of the shameful groups that have existed to bring fear into our communities and suppress residents of color.” The image was pulled from a previous exhibit, “Hidden and Forbidden,” that the SCHS said was meant to educate and address the presence of racism on Long Island.

Southampton History Museum hosted a Feb. 10 webinar titled “The Clansman: A Novel that Reignited the KKK with Joan Baum.” A description of the event said Ms. Baum would “look at how [the film and book] might be used to expand civil discourse in a constructive manner that would find acceptance in classrooms around the country.” 

“That doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Street said. “You’re trying to press Black history, but at the same time, you want to promote white superiority. This is Black History Month. Why would someone decide to promote and showcase this propaganda? I mean, if we look at our state of affairs today, we can see indicators that want to strip us of our rights and abolish our history.”

Members of the NAACP held a press conference Friday to condemn the recent actions by the Suffolk County Historical Society and Southampton Historical Museum. (Credit: Brianne Ledda)

He pointed out that some people are “diligently” trying to erase Black History Month, and the lack of voting rights protection. He further pointed to gerrymandering, efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory and initiatives to ban books in school districts, suppressing Black history.

“These are oppressive tactics to visibly try to erase our gains in justice as a people,” he said. “If these people that are responsible did not recognize these indicators, then I have to say they’re directly contributing to our demise as a people. However, we cannot sit idly by and allow this to happen without taking measures by any means necessary to immobilize these efforts.” 

Mr. Street said he’s tired of apologies and “teachable moments.” 

“This is not a mistake, this is a conscious decision to once again exploit African Americans,” he said. “We are not invisible. And trust me, we are not going anywhere. And we will continue to fight the good fight. And when we fight, we win.”

Reverend Saba Mchunguzi, president of the central Long Island NAACP branch, said he is “appalled and absolutely amazed” that issues like this are still coming up in 2022.

“If you ask any Black person in this room right now, they will have a story or two or many stories of things that they have gone through and things that their elders and their family members have gone through as well,” he said, emphasizing that racial trauma for African Americans dates back more than 400 years. “Yes, an apology is nice. However, the message needs to go out throughout this land that, especially a situation like this, was preventable. This was preventable. All someone had to do was to call up somebody Black, to pick up the phone, to send an email, to reach out to Reverend [Charles] Coverdale or Larry Street, the NAACP.” 

He added: “The NAACP is the oldest and largest civil rights organization in this country. And we are tired. We are tired of fighting battles that we should not have to fight. We are hoping that people wake up, we are hoping that our elected officials wake up and speak out.”

SCHS Executive Director Victoria Berger accepted responsibility for the newsletter. (Credit: Brianne Ledda)

Black History Month should highlight and lift up achievements from Black Americans throughout history, said Reverend Charles Coverdale, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Riverhead. He pointed out that the KKK still exists on the East End, as well as the lack of diverse representation on local governing bodies.

“We are members of the community. We are what makes up the fabric of our society in our country. And you know, right now across the news, it’s been in stressful condition,” he said, questioning why the historical societies haven’t focused on issues such as the history of racism in Riverhead or the mistreatment of minorities in Greenport.

Father Patrick Edwards, president of the executive committee at the Southampton History Museum, said he has spent most of his life working toward “racial reconciliation, peace and justice.” Standing on the other side of that is “the lowest point” of his life, he said.

“The Southampton History Museum has a very profound sense of regret and sorrow, but also deep gratitude for the broader community and for the NAACP chapter that has worked with us through this difficult and sorrowful time,” Mr. Edwards said. “This lecture was intended as a critical examination of that infamous book, its influences on and reflections of the calcifying racism associated with that era, but also with the ongoing echoes of racism evident in our own age. We hoped that this would teach our communities about the troubling parallels between these two centuries in our society.” 

The museum now understands, in hindsight with the help of the broader community, that the images and materials used were “obviously insensitive, offensive and hurtful.”

“Our collective dismay and regret are deeply felt and sobering,” he said. The museum has removed the materials and lecture from all online and physical locations and has “resolved to take steps” to prevent future incidents. 

The museum plans to include a new and expanded partnership with the eastern Long Island chapter of the NAACP. “Our action plans, our next steps and our intentions will be done in partnership with them” as the museum works “to expand the diversity of our leadership, our presentations and our program,” Mr. Edwards said, thanking the NAACP for helping the museum improve.

SHM executive director Tom Edmonds has been suspended for two weeks. 

SCHS issued two-week suspensions to a librarian and Executive Director Victoria Berger, who claimed responsibility for the photo’s circulation.

SCHS Board of Trustees president Bob Barauskas said the board is also responsible and is mapping future steps to address education; implement diversity and sensitivity training for all staff and board members; begin an ongoing conversation with groups like the NAACP and Suffolk County Anti-Bias Task Force to elevate improved race relations; invite the public to a series of talks led by experts “immersed in the understanding of the African American experience;” and diversify the board of trustees. 

SCHS Board of Trustees president Bob Barauskas addresses the group. (Credit: Brianne Ledda)

Mr. Barauskas said the board plans to invite two African American candidates to join the trustees. 

“I at this time accept and understand the call for my temporary suspension. I think it’s appropriate,” Ms. Berger said. “I think it’s a time for pause, for reflection, and a time to work diligently on building the communications, listening to the voices of my community.”

She plans to spend the time working with community leaders, continuing conversations with the NAACP and other organizations, as well as researching diversity strategic plans at other New York museums. The SCHS previously did not have one and currently has no African American board members.

NAACP members described personal experiences with racism, including from town councils and school boards. Mr. Street said his tires were slashed after he reported to police that a KKK flier had been put on his windshield a few years ago. 

“There needs to be more representation in our society when it comes to perspective,” said Marcus Duffin, a member of the Babylon Anti-Bias Task Force and deputy commissioner of Babylon’s Human Services department. “I have an 81-year-old mother and she’s watching this, and she’s saying I marched when Dr. King spoke and you’re still doing this.”

The Anti-Bias Task Force in Riverhead is hosting monthly events with the Riverhead Free Library, including a workshop on Saturday on how to be an ally. NAACP members suggested supporting the organization through membership as a way to be an ally.

Marylin Banks-Winter, president and co-chair of the African American Educational and Cultural Festival, Inc. pointed to a Black History display at the Riverhead library that talks about “leaders to legends” in the community and nation.

“Historically during Black History Month, the nation stops to consider not only the progress African Americans have made toward equality in this country, but also highlight their achievements,” she said. “Exhibiting a Klan post during Black History Month is not just devastating in the Black community, but to those who have come so far … since the era of the 1920s in Riverhead.”

Suffolk County legislators Bridget Fleming (D-Noyack) and Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who are both running to represent New York’s 1st Congressional District, showed up to support the NAACP, in addition to the mayor of Southampton Village.