Parishioners share stories, faith to keep history alive in Setauket

  • May 26, 2020
Parishioners share stories, faith to keep history alive in Setauket

By Toni Brogna
Fall 2019 JRN 364

The Bethel AME Church in Setauket

In the middle of Christian Avenue in Setauket, alongside residential homes, stands a Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church with stained glass windows, a two-car garage and a parking lot. On Sundays, parishioners come and fill the church’s pews, listening as the pastor preaches his sermons and singing along as soulful songstresses belt out tunes about God and love. This place of worship was built in the 1900s, but a small plaque in the sanctuary denotes that the church dates back to 1848.

“When you say church, it’s actually a community of people,” Reverend Gregory L. Leonard, the church pastor, said.

In the 1840s and 50s, a community with blended cultures and backgrounds began to bloom on Christian Avenue. The area was originally inhabited by Setalcott Native Americans, but as slavery ended in New York, many formerly enslaved black people also moved to the area. The two cultural groups eventually began to intermarry and people of both Native American and African descent formed what would become the Bethel AME church that still operates today.

The community’s traditions have stayed alive through the church and other organizations like the American Legion Hall that is also on Christian Avenue, as well as through oral histories passed down through the generations. Like most of Long Island, though, real estate prices in Setauket are going up and many younger members of the community are leaving to find cheaper living and job opportunities elsewhere. The loss of younger generations could effectively mean the loss of the community’s entire history, culture and way of life.

“The way the model should work with oral history is that the older generation teaches those stories to the younger generation, but if the younger generation can no longer afford to live there… basically, then the community ceases to exist,” Jonathan Olly, curator at the Long Island Museum, said. “Then you move from a community to a collection of individuals, because it’s that shared story they have in common.”

This shared story is also crucial to the identities of the people whose ancestors have lived in the area, Jay Levenson, a Stony Brook University librarian of Mohawk Native American descent, explained.

“If you lose [oral histories], you lose your identity,” he said. “You go through life not knowing who you are.”

Christopher Matthews is a historical archaeologist and anthropology professor at Montclair State University who has been working to help record the neighborhood’s rich past. He has been researching the community, known as the Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District, for over a decade in a project called A Long Time Coming. The district’s history is important, Matthews explained, because it is closely linked to the history of slavery on Long Island, which is relatively unknown.

“When I worked in Louisiana, everyone knows slavery was there,” he said. “But once you come to Long Island, the first thing you have to tell people is that there was slavery here. Projects like Setauket give us a chance to rediscover that there were enslaved African people there.”

A Long Time Coming, run by Matthews and collaborators Robert E. Lewis, a resident of the neighborhood, and Judith A. Burgess, a cultural anthropologist and oral historian, aimed to use archaeology, history and oral stories to piece together and preserve the community’s legacy.

The trio, along with students and volunteers, spent time learning about the community members and their stories. One such story, told by a now-deceased community member named Pearl Lewis Hart, helped them have a better understanding of the neighborhood’s early decades. They cited her in an essay they published online with the Long Island History Journal. In it, Hart explained that her first memory of Christian Avenue was from when she was four years old, when horses and carriages still dominated the streets.

“About 1934 and ’35 the road was widened and a new avenue was added between Christian Avenue, Setauket and West Meadow Road, named Locust Avenue,” she said. “At this time we still had the horse and wagons and my Grandmother, Rebecca Lewis, was going back and forth to Strong’s Neck. The horse was fast and many times I thought the wagon would turn over.”

Stories like this have helped archaeologists and historians like Matthews piece together family trees and hints about the past. With the help of local stories, he was able to discover and excavate two historic sites: the Silas Tobias site and the Jacob and Hannah Hart site. Both sites date back to the 19th century and have ties to people, likely of African and Native American descent, who helped create the community on Christian Avenue.

“Those two sites… are really rich sources of data about people of color living in Setauket who were… founding members of that community at the time,” Matthews said.

“When I worked in Louisiana, everyone knows slavery was there,” he said. “But once you come to Long Island, the first thing you have to tell people is that there was slavery here. Projects like Setauket give us a chance to rediscover that there were enslaved African people there.”

Christopher matthews, historical archaeologist and anthropology professor

Matthews is currently finishing a book about the project that shares its name. While he is mostly focusing on the archaeological finds, he is also including personal narratives of community members, which can be important for other professionals looking to piece together the history of post-slavery Long Island.

Lynda Day, a professor of Africana Studies at Brooklyn College, said that oral histories like the ones Matthews has heard in Setauket help flesh out numbers and figures found in archives and documents.

“Documents tend to be produced by formal government bodies,” she said. “You’re going to get a lot about property taxes, wills, not so much about how people feel or about family life. So you have to try to match the two to come up with as full a story as possible.”

Despite his work being a potential resource for other researchers, Matthews maintains that it isn’t as authentic as hearing it straight from the source. If the younger members of the community leave, historians could lose this important source of knowledge.

“If we let them disappear, there will be no one anymore to tell their story,” he said. “It’ll be in a book that I write… there’ll be things that other people have written. But there’s nothing like having people who are there.”

While Matthews doesn’t know what can be done to ensure community members continue living where their ancestors once were, he said he believes that telling their stories might be part of the solution and that professionals like himself should search for similar hidden stories that need to be preserved and shared.

“What I conclude with the book is a call for preservationists, historians, archaeologists like myself… to develop something like an affirmative action approach,” he said. “We find those who are most in need of the support we have, which is largely the expertise and resources we have as college professors or people working with government agencies. We focus on those who are in most need, rather than what’s available to us.”