The East End of Long Island is often lauded for its storied past. For generations, the historical narrative has been dominated by accounts of the area’s founding families and, over time, has grown to include information on Indigenous North Fork residents.
From Revolutionary War encampments to rumrunning and potato farming, the history told here does not often celebrate people or communities of color.
As she uncovered stories of her own family members, Marylin Banks-Winter sought to change that. She began advocating for the recognition of Aquebogue’s Bell Town as a key heritage area; an initiative that took several years and was finally celebrated in May.
For her efforts to bring to light an often unacknowledged part of local history, Ms. Banks-Winter is the Riverhead News-Review’s 2022 Community Leader of the Year.
“She’s fearless,” said local historian Richard Wines, chair of the town’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. “She’s also extremely energetic and willing to get things done.”
In the 1930s, four brothers, the sons of a self-taught Black farmer and the grandsons of slaves hailing from Powhatan County in Virginia, made the move to Aquebogue, joining the millions of African Americans who left the South in search of better lives as part of the “Great Migration.”
The four Bell brothers, — Mansfield, Condry, Ezekiel and Melkiah — worked a variety of jobs in Riverhead and bought 16 acres on the north side of Hubbard Avenue, which were divided into 32 residential lots that they sold to family and friends who also moved north from Virginia. The lots include what is now Bell Avenue, Hobson Drive and Zion Street.
Ms. Banks-Winter began researching their history more than five years ago. Her mother, the Rev. Mary Cooper, is the daughter of Mansfield Bell.
Riverhead is very, very important to her and it’s imperative that it thrives and that people thrive hereTijuana Fulford
The Bells were instrumental in starting several area Baptist churches and built a self-sufficient community. “They were basically pioneers and they were here to help,” Ms. Banks-Winter said in a 2021 interview about her research, pointing out that one brother owned a garbage truck, one had a cesspool company, another farmed and another worked as an accountant. “Each one of them had a particular skill so that they were able to serve the people in the area.”
Mr. Wines recalled how Ms. Banks-Winter approached the Landmarks Preservation Commission and began telling the fascinating history. “She wanted to find a way that history could be honored,” he said. “It’s important to acknowledge that community because the Great Migration made a huge contribution to Riverhead’s wonderful mix of people, and it’s a heritage that doesn’t get acknowledged often.”
Like her ancestors, Ms. Banks-Winter is also civically and entrepreneurially engaged.
A graduate of Riverhead High School, she proudly served the country in the United States Army for eight years.
She is the president and CEO of A&M Electric and previously ran a talent agency that represented R&B, hip hop and gospel singers as well as models and actors.
Ms. Banks-Winter is also the founding president and co-chair of African American Educational and Cultural Festival, Inc., a nonprofit that promotes diversity and family by providing youth mentoring and college planning, workshops, enrichment, cultural and historical trips and other programs at local schools and libraries.
She’s served on a wealth of committees, including the Riverhead Town Anti-Bias Task Force, Downtown Revitalization committee, the Suffolk County Executive’s African American Advisory Board and is a member of the Riverhead Central School District’s Diversity and Cross Cultural Task Force. She has also served as a trustee for the Riverhead Free Library and is a former board member of the East End Arts organization.
“[Ms. Banks-Winter] served our country in the U.S. Army and now she serves our community through numerous boards and committees,” said former town councilwoman Catherine Kent, who got to know Ms. Banks-Winter well during her tenure on the Town Board and recruited her as a member of the downtown revitalization committee.
“I immediately saw what a civic-minded person she was,” Ms. Kent said. “I thought she had a good vision for downtown — and she’s not shy about speaking up.”
Her positivity and proactive spirit are evident in her support for the downtown corridor, as she frequently attends ribbon cuttings and press conferences, but also manifests in timely social issues. Ms. Banks-Winter has helped register people to vote ahead of elections and was a voice of peace during demonstrations held locally in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
“She’s good at bringing people together in a diplomatic way,” Ms. Kent said, recalling how during those demonstrations, she organized a group of young leaders to meet with community leaders to ensure they had a voice, but that the protests remained peaceful.
Ms. Banks-Winter was also recognized by the Butterfly Effect Project at a “Wo/Men Empower Wo/Men” event earlier this year for her community work.
BEP founder and director Tijuana Fulford described Ms. Banks-Winter as a “complete Riverheadian” with her pulse to the ground.
“She tries her best to uplift everyone in the community and she walks with grace and integrity,” Ms. Fulford said. “Riverhead is very, very important to her and it’s imperative that it thrives and that people thrive here.”
In May, around 100 people attended a ceremony along Hubbard Avenue in Aquebogue as a sign was unveiled to commemorate Bell Town as an official heritage area, the first of its kind throughout the entire town.
“She brought together an amazing group of people to do that,” Mr. Wines said, reflecting on the event. “And managed to get the street closed for the whole morning. It’s probably the nicest sign we have anywhere in Riverhead.”
Addressing the crowd, Ms. Banks-Winter referred to the step as the first towards “rectifying the incomplete history” of Riverhead and its citizens.
The sun shone down as she spoke about her grandfather and his brothers; the new lives they began here against all odds — and legacy they’ve left nearly 100 years later.
A legacy that, thanks to Ms. Banks-Winter, lives on.
*The award was previously called Civic Person of the Year
2021: Kelly McClinchy
2020: Lillian Pennon
2019: The McMorris family
2018: Charlene Mascia
2017: Ron Fisher
2016: Dwayne Eleazer and Larry Williams
2015: Tony Sammartano
2014: Thelma Booker
2013: Vince Taldone
2012: Georgette Keller
2011: Nancy Swett
2010: Rich Podlas and Chuck Thomas
2009: Tom Gahan
2008: Keith Lewin
2007: Open Arms and Bread & More Inn
2006: Mike Brewer
2005: Sid Bail
2004: Kathy Berezny
2003: Jill Lewis
2002: Chrissy Prete
2001: Joe & Gloria Ingegno
2000: George Klopfer & Lt. Col. Anthony Cristiano
1999: Louise Wilkinson
1998: Charles Ramsey, Gwen Mack
1997: Judy Jacunski
1996: Peter Danowski
1995: Sherry Patterson
1994: Barry Barth, Bobby Goodale
1993: Arnold Braunskill, Don Owen
1992: Bernice Mack
1991: Judy Weiner
1990: Nancy Gassert, Gwen Branch
1989: Betty Brown
1988: Paul Baker