Helen Wright Prince dedicated her life to Southold Town. She served as a teacher at the Cutchogue migrant labor camp and Southold Elementary School, volunteered at the Suffolk County and Southold historical societies, helped people trace their genealogies, and more.
Now, two years after her death at 101 years old, Southold Town is giving back to her.
The Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force honored Ms. Prince’s contributions Monday night with current and retired teachers, ABTF members, community members, Supervisor Scott Russell and Ms. Prince’s sons, Bill and Barry Prince — who traveled from Chattanooga, Tenn., and Rochester, N.Y., respectively — all in attendance.
A wall at Southold Town Recreation Center in Peconic was adorned with artwork, poems and essays — created by Southold students in grades 3 to 6 — against bullying and promoting peace and diversity, something Ms. Prince accomplished in her own life.
Ms. Prince taught for 12 years, from 1949 to 1961, at the Cutchogue migrant labor camp school. During her time at the rundown school, Ms. Prince taught students who were as old as 14 but could barely read past a third-grade level, said Tracey Moloney, teen services librarian at Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, who spoke at the event.
Ms. Prince was paid $80 a week to teach in a 20-foot-by-20-foot classroom that was “dismal, dark, airless and viewless,” Ms. Maloney said.
For decades the camp operated as a form of near-indentured servitude, with a camp boss who shortchanged workers fair wages and kept them and their families in poverty for cheap labor at nearby farms. A former worker at the camp later described it as a “hellhole.”
Once, while teaching at the camp’s school, Ms. Prince complained to the head of the labor camp about the poor working conditions and the difficulty of teaching the students with so little financial and emotional support, Ms. Moloney said. Rather than offering help, the head of the camp simply said, “You don’t have to teach them anything. You just have to keep order.”
It was advice Ms. Prince refused to follow, Ms. Maloney said.
As the teen librarian spoke of Ms. Prince’s efforts to educate the youth of the camp, Barry Prince nodded his head in agreement from the audience. When Ms. Maloney finished speaking, he gave her a two-thumbs-up seal of approval.
“I was so blessed to hear [it],” Mr. Prince said.
The day was also significant because Monday was United Nations World Teachers’ Day, a deliberate choice by the Anti-Bias Task Force, said member Leroy Heyliger.
“It really touched me,” Mr. Heyliger said of Ms. Prince’s story, getting visibly choked up. “She was a saint.”
Mr. Russell also spoke highly of Ms. Prince’s contributions to the Southold community, saying she set a standard and an example for the town to live by. He presented her sons with a proclamation.
“Sometimes we tend to over look the small stuff to get to the bigger stuff and that’s a shame, because in my experience in American history, I’ve found you need to look at those, because that’s where the heroes were,” Mr. Russell said. “People like Helen Prince. They were the heroes.”
Audience members also shared stories of Ms. Prince, and both Bill and Barry said they were touched by the number of people who, after the event, shared theirs as well.
After they accepted the proclamation, Ms. Prince’s sons spoke fondly of their mother and expressed their thanks to the Anti-Bias Task Force and the community for recognizing her accomplishments. Barry also shared a letter his mother received in 2009 from a student, Skip Albertson, who said the lessons Ms. Prince taught him in his third-grade class at Southold Elementary in 1967 stuck with him throughout his life and helped lead him to his career as a physical oceanographer.
All the while, a poster with an image of their mother hung behind the podium.
“It was a very emotional experience for me to hear others talk about my mother, especially looking at her face right here,” Barry Prince said. “It was more than I expected.”
Photo Credit: Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell hands a proclamation honoring former North Fork teacher Helen Wright Prince to her sons, Bill and Barry Prince. (Credit: Nicole Smith)