Written by Judith A. Burgess Friday, 14 January 2011 00:00
As we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s 82nd birthday this weekend, it is important to remember what he stood for: correcting past injustices, giving the voiceless a voice, righting the wrongs and making the invisible visible. In this spirit, I share some of the results of my research, which shows that African Americans have lived in Westbury since the 18th century and helped to build the village we know today.
My family moved to Westbury in the early 1980s and it was our impression that African Americans were fairly recent arrivals to the quiet suburban village of Westbury. Yet this perception changed dramatically one day at Columbia University as I came across an article that mentioned a group of African American women, who were trying to raise funds in 1892 to establish an institution in Westbury, Long Island.
Among the organizers of the fundraising event were African-American women from Westbury, Flushing, Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York and Jersey City, New Jersey. These women organized as the Afro American Union were soliciting donations to help meet the cost of erecting a building. Their plan was to open a Fresh Air Home in Westbury for working women and girls, a place where they could “resort and find rest, quiet and a fresh invigorating atmosphere.” The article went on to state that the institution was being established in memory of Henry Highland Garnet. Reverend Garnet was an outstanding African-American abolitionist and religious leader, who died in 1882 while serving as the United States Minister to Liberia.
When I first read the article at Columbia, I was more than surprised. I had not come across such a memorial institution to Reverend Garnet in the early history of all of New York. In fact, I had researched the activities of early free black communities in New York, such as Weeksville in Brooklyn and Little Africa in Manhattan and wondered what could have made Westbury an appropriate site for such an undertaking in the late nineteenth century.
Immediately, I wanted to know more about this effort. Who were these women? Did they ever succeed in building this institution in Westbury? Where is it today? Once I started raising these questions, I was driven to search for the answers. My research took a new direction and revealed a significant African-American presence in Westbury that had been hidden until now.
In 2006, I started the quest to find the “Garnet House” by talking with people I knew in Westbury and the surrounding area. The moment I began asking about this African-American institution, I was directed to New Cassel, the unincorporated neighboring area to Westbury that has an African American majority. While many New Cassel residents gave me invaluable leads, none of these early contacts knew of the “Garnet House.”
In Westbury, although they could not recall anything about the “Garnet House,” local history buffs and long time residents directed me to the Historical Society of the Westburys. At the Historical Society, I discovered that no one knew of the place and, in fact, the Society’s walking tour of Westbury at the time only included two African-American institutions, the AME Zion Church on Grand Boulevard (est. 1834) and the Bethel AME Church on Maple Ave (est. 1887).
However, the society’s collection of loosely organized material was a treasure trove. For months, I sifted and sorted through their materials, including large boxes of mostly unlabeled and unclassified documents, as I tried to piece together the puzzle as to the whereabouts of the Garnet House. This labor-intensive process was made even more so because the Society’s materials could be used for only a few hours per week and there were no funding aids.
Finding the Garnet House
The first step I took to find the “Garnet House” was to look for evidence of the building. In addition to the resources at the Historical Society that I had been examining, I began by looking at maps, census data and property records from a number of archives and libraries that I had used in past research.
After about six months, the clues started falling in place. I was guided by the conviction that if the “Garnet House” was in Westbury, it would have some linkage to Westbury’s African American residents or community. I traced the African American presence in Westbury from the 18th to the 20th century. In essence, using primary and secondary historical resources, I documented how people of African descent came to Westbury in the late 1600s and early 1700s as enslaved people. They worked for Quaker farmers, who subsequently freed them, many by 1776, due to their religious beliefs and the persuasion of their leaders.
My research also revealed that Native American inhabitants, who preceded both Quakers and African Americans – were by and large displaced by the influx of these newcomers, except where they joined with African Americans and continued to live in the area. As I followed African American progress in Westbury, I discovered evidence of their struggles to live as free people before emancipation and as freedom seekers fleeing the South to find refuge here.
After slavery came to an end in New York (1827), African Americans in Westbury formed their own free black community, called Guinea Woods, in an area of what is now known as Old Westbury. I also found evidence to show how, a few years after the Civil War, these African Americans had established another community called Grantville, which was located in and around Union Avenue, all of which was part of Westbury at that time.
I continued to document the presence of Westbury’s African American citizens through the “Jim Crow” era and up to the 1930s when the Village of Westbury eventually became incorporated. This historical research gave me the backdrop as well as some of the specific information about key people, events and places in Westbury’s history, black and white, that led to the development of the “Garnet House.” After uncovering this information, I concluded that this approach was the right one. For out of searching for the African American communities of Westbury’s past, I found evidence that the Garnet House was more than an idea. It was a reality.
The Garnet House
I first found the Garnet House on a 1914 map of Westbury. It was located in Grantville on the corner of Union and Grant Street, the street that marked the name of this historic black community. The women who organized the Afro American Union had begun solidifying their plans to develop the Fresh Air Home in 1892, when they purchased land from Mr. Charles Levi, a prominent African American resident of Westbury. Levi was a farmer, businessman, landowner, manager of the Hick’s Coal Yard and a descendant of one of Westbury’s most high achieving families.
In a good will gesture or perhaps to show support for the women’s cause, Mr. Levi donated some of the land to the Afro American Union for the building of the Fresh Air Home. By September 1895, newspapers carried the story announcing the groundbreaking ceremony and the laying of the cornerstone of the Fresh Air Home. In addition to the funds they raised among their over three hundred members, the women also took out a mortgage and completed the payment with “a jubilee reception and mortgage burning” ceremony in 1902.
After locating the house on various maps, my next goal was to see if I could find any photographs of it. The archives at the Historical Society proved to be an invaluable resource. Working with the librarian, I found the first photo of the house. It was among a large collection of photos marked “Westbury Small Houses” and it had been donated by a former resident of Westbury. The very brief notation on the back of the photo noted: “A vacation home for Negroes.”
Since that time, other photos have emerged from subsequent owners of the house and from descendants of the original Grantville residents who came forward to talk with me after one of the PowerPoint presentations I made (in 2007 and 2008) at the Westbury Memorial Public Library. In addition, a local Scout Master and avid Westbury history buff downloaded an image of the house that appeared on Ebay – he did this precisely because it was identified as a house in Westbury, even though he could not identify it. He subsequently learned of its identity from my research and gave me a copy of that image.
The “Garnet House,” locally known as the Fresh Air Home, remained in operation up to 1954. It was then sold to a prominent local resident whose family has been very helpful in providing me with useful information. The house passed through a number of subsequent owners and tenants including the Mother Goose Nursery School, the Westbury Day Care Center, the North Shore Child Guidance Center, a dentist office and finally it became an overcrowded boarding house.
The old cornerstone of the “Garnet House” and the records of the Afro American Union have never been located. However, former residents of Grantville who agreed to be interviewed provided their recollections of the building to give insight into what it was like to be a part of this community.
The house was described as very beautiful by Grantville community members. According to architects, with whom I have consulted, it appeared to be a simplified “Folk Victoria” style house. One former Grantville resident remembered entering the house when she was a child. She said it had a large front porch and swings in the yard for families to use. The elegant dining and living rooms were located downstairs, the bedrooms were upstairs. The house had 11 rooms in all.
I was told that the house was managed by two women who came out each spring to open up the house and get it ready for the fresh air vacationers from the city. Another Westbury resident remembered seeing the women as they came off the train at Westbury Station of the Long Island Rail Road and made their way down to the Garnet House. These female vacationers were seen wearing white airy dresses and appeared to be happy to come to Westbury for their holiday in the countryside – right up to the 1950s Westbury still maintained some vestiges of its former farm identity.
By 2002, the “Garnet House” was demolished in order to erect the Apex I affordable housing complex established by the Kimmel Foundation. Today the Apex I building is located where the Garnet House once stood. With no fanfare or historical marker to commemorate this lost 117-year-old African American institution, the “Garnet House” became a footnote in Westbury’s history, until my journey to find it brought it forth.
The Aftermath of the House & Its History
Since I started my research on the Garnet House, I have had many opportunities to share it with the Historical Society of the Westburys and others. This year, I also plan to reach more people with the story and perhaps win the house and its organizers some recognition and visibility. Recently, I noted that the walking tour for Westbury now includes most of the African American sites I detailed in my analysis and presentations to the Westbury Historical Society in 2007 and 2008. Westbury’s hidden history is gradually being revealed.
Dr. Judith Burgess is an Anthropologist and Historian who has studied African-American communities in New York for over 20 years.