Three generations share their story of growing up black in Greenport

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Amei Wallach (from left) moderates a discussion as William Cosby, Josephine Watkins-Johnson, Val Shelby and Sheena Walsh discuss their experiences as Greenport natives.

William Cosby, a 33-year-old emergency medical technician and Greenport native, said he didn’t experience direct prejudice during his childhood.

“[There] wasn’t really a lot of racism,” he said. “It was known, not shown.”

Mr. Cosby was part of three generations of an extended local black family who shared their stories about living in Greenport during a presentation held at Peconic Landing Saturday evening.

Mr. Cosby was joined by his aunt and former village trustee Val Shelby, former Greenport Board of Education member Josephine Watkins-Johnson, and Sheena Welch, a recent alum of Boston College,  in the Black History Month lecture.

The panel gave a unique, and often conflicting, insight into a part of Greenport history that’s not often discussed: the black experience.

Ms. Welch, who returned to Greenport after graduating in 2008, said she didn’t experience the same prejudice Mr. Cosby detected. When he mentioned how black students at Greenport High School were relegated to remedial classes, Ms. Welch, who is seven years younger, was shocked.

“I feel like we didn’t go to the same school,” she said, adding that she never felt racism during her childhood in Greenport.

The eldest of the group, Ms. Watkins-Johnson, who moved with her family from Virginia to the North Fork when she was two years old, said she could remember the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross each Friday night. However, she said, the Klan never seemed to bother the black community.

“They really weren’t out for the blacks,” she said. “They were really more after the Catholics.”

Ms. Shelby, 61 and one of 14 children, said she used to be afraid of retaliation against blacks, and remembered hearing rumors during her childhood of black men in the area who were murdered. She recalled watching The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on television and feeling worried that the crowd would be attacked for demanding civil rights. But by the end of the speech, Ms. Shelby said, she felt at more at ease.

“It struck something deep in me,” she said. “After all, it’s not [about being] black or white.”

Later in life, when Mr. Cosby was dating and eventually married a white woman, Ms. Shelby said she objected at first, wishing for him to “stick with his own kind.” Now, she said, her feelings are different.

“I have the best daughter-in-law, and she’s white,” she said. She doesn’t like to be called an “African-American,” saying that people should be treated as simply “American.”

All of the panel agreed that society has changed, in many ways for the better, since their childhood, and in general is more accepting of blacks.

Amei Wallach of Mattituck, a former reporter for Newsday and PBS’s Newshour, moderated the discussion and  she said oral histories like these are a way of preserving the stories of people who otherwise may have been forgotten.

“You see all these ‘North Fork Native’ signs. Well these are North Fork natives and nobody knows their story,” Ms. Wallach said.

The lecture, which was videotaped, will be provided on DVDs to local schools and historical societies to allow students and residents to learn more about Greenport’s history.

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