Eleanor Lingo is never in a hurry, even though she’s busy, splitting her time between church and the various community groups she belongs to. But she’ll always stop to say hello on the street and, “if you act like you wanna talk, I’ll sit and talk,” the longtime Southold resident said.
“I always look for the good. I don’t look down on anybody, even when I walk the streets,” she said. “This is the way I am. I just love people.”
Suffolk County saw the good in the 91-year-old, recently naming her Senior Citizen of the Year. The annual award recognizes a senior citizen who has made significant contributions to their community as an advocate, role model, volunteer or community leader.
Ms. Lingo meets every one of those criteria, having promoted the importance of education and committed countless hours to organizations such as Southold Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, Community Action Southold Town and the Southold-Peconic Seniors Club.
“Eleanor Lingo’s kindness, compassion and commitment to helping others demonstrates how ordinary residents can have an extraordinary impact in touching the lives of others,” County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement. “As a trailblazer for African-American women on the East End, she unknowingly helped to break down barriers for many Suffolk County residents today.”
Ms. Lingo said she was shocked to learn she’d been chosen to receive this year’s award.
“I didn’t ask for this honor,” she said. “My thanks goes first to God and then to my parents for instilling in me to do the best that I could and it’s paid off.”
Born and raised in Southold, Ms. Lingo was always around older people. She and her siblings would tag along with their parents wherever they went. Both her parents, Thomas and Anna Morris, were involved in the community. Her father was a founder of Shiloh Baptist Church in Southold and her mother always attended Parent Teacher Association meetings.
They always encouraged her and her seven siblings to get a good education, Ms. Lingo said. It’s something she’s passed on when invited to speak to children at Town Hall, reminding them that “you never know who’s watching.”
“I didn’t get the education to pick potatoes and work in the farms so that was not my thing, so that’s when I left Southold,” Ms. Lingo said.
She left after graduating from Southold High School in 1944, working on the sales floor at F.W. Woolworth in Bridgeport, Conn., where she was the first woman of color to do so.
She broke similar barriers as the bookkeeper for a record company, then a manufacturing company until she returned to the North Fork in 1954 and became the first woman of color to work in the business office at Eastern Long Island Hospital.
“Every job that I had I was breaking a color line,” she said. And she was always a perfectionist on the job.
“I was always with figures and if I was out a penny I would have to find a penny,” she said.
Ms. Lingo returned to a town that looked vastly different from what she knew growing up.
“When I came back, oh my goodness it was such a change,” she said. “It was like I had come to another country. Where there was all farmland, there were developments and houses and so forth and if you asked me where a street was I couldn’t tell you because I was like a new resident of the town.”
Known as Aunt Ellie to many, Ms. Lingo is notable for placing a wreath each December on the grave of a slave woman at the Old Burying Ground in Southold. She did so anonymously for years. She had noticed the grave while walking to school as a teen, and when her mother died in 1954 she decided she would put a wreath on her grave as well.
It took some digging, literally, to find the gravestone of the woman known as “Bloom,” but Ms. Lingo was certain it was there. Sure enough, the stone, which reads “Negro woman, died 1810,” was revealed.
“I was shocked and very happy that this was one of the people of color because being in Southold Town when I was a little girl there were few Afro-American families here,” she said. “Me decorating this grave — it was like a part of my family.”
Ms. Lingo’s niece Lizette Malone, who lives in New Jersey and is “like a daughter” to her, will carry on the tradition of placing a wreath on the grave, as well as the graves of family members there. Ms. Malone said she wants to do it to honor the legacy of her aunt, who does not have children of her own.
“If I can do all the things that she does as a volunteer, I would love to be in her health and still give back to the community,” Ms. Malone said.
As a child in one of Southold’s few African-American families, Ms. Lingo said she did not notice a color difference growing up. It’s something children learn from their parents, she said, and she didn’t really notice it until she was older.
“My grandfather, he did an excellent job, they never slighted or anything of the sort,” Ms. Malone said. There was a color barrier, she said, but her grandfather made her aunts and uncles feel like everyone else.
Today, as a member of the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, Ms. Lingo is part of a group that aims to promote diversity, unity and understanding.
Task force co-chair Sonia Spar said that, as a younger woman trying to help the community, she looks to Ms. Lingo as a role model. She said her recognition from the county is well-deserved.
“It’s a testament to her commitment not to let life pass by without taking any action,” Ms. Spar said.
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said he’s had the privilege of working alongside Ms. Lingo for several years.
“She is one of the most decent and hardest-working people anyone could ever know,” he said in an email. “She is an excellent choice and the fact that she was selected over so many other outstanding candidates illustrates just how special she is. Her commitment to this community and her compassion for others sets a standard that we should all try to achieve.”