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The Constant Struggle Within Talk: Standing Room Only

It was standing room only at the Koenig Center on Tuesday, Feb. 7 as Denise Evans-Sheppard held a talk and book signing for her family history book The Constant Struggle Within. Family photographs and documents were on exhibit and Ms. Evens-Sheppard explained some of them as she spoke. The book is about the Carll family and her great great, grandfather David Carll, an African Amercian, who purchased land in 1864, using $200 of the $300 he received from the U.S. government for volunteering to serve in the Civil War. Today, the 43-acre wooded estate the family calls Carll Hill, is down to about an acre. “The Carll children were raised by their grand parents, great aunts and uncles. The woods of Carll Hill were our playing ground,” she said.

The original survey of the land no longer exists and the boundaries of the property that were written up such as “the old Locust tree; the wire fence” typical of such maps, are now all gone.  

Ms. Evans-Sheppard would like to see an historic district created in the area where free blacks lived in Oyster Bay, including the Pine Hollow Cemetery where her grandfather and other family members are buried. The family were never slaves, but were always free, she said.

David Carll married Mary Louisa Appleford from Liverpool, England in 1862 when he was 19. Some of the struggles the family faced, Ms. Evans-Sheppard said, resulted from an interracial marriage. She said that some family members had a light skin color, stemming from that mariage.

Each of the nine children of David and Mary Louise Carll were very successful, she said. Their son Herbert moved away to Connecticut and lived the life style of a white person, added Denise.

Prior to WW I, Joseph Carll, her uncle, wrote editorials printed in the Oyster Bay Pilot. One was titled “Should we go to war?” His daughter, Peggy Carll has been trying to find a copy to replace the only copy the family had that was lost over the years. Ms. Evans-Sheppard said in the book that Joseph was told the paper was sold and his services were no longer needed. The family believed it was because people discovered he was a black man. In his photographs, he appears to be light skinned. He went on to found his own newspaper but died of a heart attack the day it would have gone to press. Joseph Carll was a deacon of Hood A.M.E. Zion Church and Peggy Carll has a copy of a sermon he preached there.

Denise’s brother, Tyrone was unable to attend the event, but her brother Eric did. He is a banker, a private lender in Garden City. He started out in the business at age 23. He is a licensed martial artist and operated Kicks Karate in Oyster Bay for a while and is currently a partner in  Kicks Karate on Birch Hill Road in Locust Valley, near the train station. He is carrying on the entrepreneurial spirit of their family.

Denise said it’s important to have family reunions and to put family information down on paper. After doing a great deal of research, she discovered that stories from her grandfather were true. She said she was helped in her research by finding records at St. John’s Church in Cold Spring Harbor where the family lived on the Jones Estate. The Reverend Kenneth Nelson of the Hood A.M.E. Zion Church in Oyster Bay also allowed her to go through their records. She is a member of that church. “So many people want the project to go further,” she said.  

Ms. Evans-Sheppard traces her family history to the American Indians - the Shinnecock, the Montauket and Matinecock tribes.

Underground Railroad Stop

She said the Carlls are one of the oldest families in Oyster Bay who still live here. “My vision is to see if Pine Hollow was a part of the Underground Rail Road,” she said.  There is a trap door in the floor of the living room of her house on Carll Hill that leads to the cellar that she believes might have been used for an Underground Railroad stop.  

When Denise and her husband moved into the house with  the intention of restoring their 150-year homestead, she said, “We looked at the floor and saw the trap door that leads to the cellar. There is also an outside entrance to the cellar, so that makes this more interesting.” The house, as are others of that era, is held up by tree trunks, she said.

Ms. Sheppard-Evans is considering landmarking the entire site, but needs the approval of her uncle. She has been looking into the county records on the property and explained that the town believes part of the problem is that the area was originally under the jurisdiction of Queens County and when it was changed to Nassau County, there appears to be a glitch in the records – and in the property lines, which extend to the Village of Upper Brookville’s property lines.

When she told the group she would like the area around the Pine Hollow Cemetery to be named an historic district,  Dr. Judith Burgess, a doctor of anthropology who has assisted in similar historical research in Setauket, volunteered her help. “I welcome your support,” said Denise.

Vanessa Williams

Iris Williams said her first cousin Vanessa Williams is interested in sponsoring a new façade and gates to the Pine Hollow Cemetery since David Carll, who is buried there is also her great, great grandfather. Iris Williams said she is willing to help Denise with her goal of creating an historic district from Carll Hill to the Pine Hollow Cemetery.

When Ms. Evans-Sheppard asked if there were any comments or questions, Oyster Bay Historical Society trustee Steve Walker asked her if she had any recorded oral histories of the family, and that they would love that to add to their collection.

She said the family does have audio tapes. “That is how most people of color told their stories – with oral histories. Many couldn’t read and write so that oral histories were given. We are lucky in that respect,” said Denise.  

She explained, “Vanessa’s father Milton recorded my Uncle Tom on tape, but she’s moved and has tons of stuff packed up.”

Iris Williams’ husband Milton was a musician and Denise’s father was a bandleader in Oyster Bay.

Denise explained, “Vanessa Williams’ father was a musician who grew up in Oyster Bay. He was encouraged by Oyster Bay High School music director Donald Luckenbill to attend Fredonia University to pursue his musical interests and graduated from there. He became a music teacher in upper Westchester. He and his wife Helen were both music teachers and met at Fredonia University.  

“Milton Williams, Jr. of Oyster Bay was born on Carll Hill and he was the only one of his siblings that went to Oyster Bay High School. His sisters and brothers attended St. Dominic schools. He played the saxophone as well as other instruments,” Denise explained.

Eve Bernstein, who attended the lecture, said Milton Williams was known as a great musician and played in an Oyster Bay band in which Jack Bernstein, Esq. also played the saxophone. Oyster Bay always proves that it is a small town.