In a year defined by the global coronavirus pandemic, Americans incensed at the death of George Floyd — a Black man killed in police custody in May — began confronting the proverbial elephant in the room: a pandemic of racism systemically embedded in the structures of society.
Calls for justice and equality reverberated from the streets of Minneapolis across America, arriving on Peconic Lane in Southold in early June.
Hundreds of North Fork residents gathered on the fields at Jean Cochran Park, carrying signs crafted from posterboard and discarded Amazon boxes, all with messages and slogans like “Black Lives Matter,” “Say their names,” and “White silence = violence.”
They stood quietly, listening to an impassioned, honest speech made by organizer Kenny Black, a Southold native who works as a manager at Lucharitos in Aquebogue.
“There is strength in unity,” he proclaimed. “We are here for a specific reason and it starts with ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And that is not to take any credit away from any other lives, whether they are white, Asian, Hispanic. We all matter. But we can’t all matter until Black lives matter.
“[This protest] is by no means ‘F— the cops.’ I know a lot of officers … and I know they mean well,” he said, cheered on by the crowd.
For his efforts in organizing a peaceful protest with a powerful message echoing one heard nationwide, Mr. Black is The Suffolk Times’ 2020 Community Leader of the Year.
“He just has this thing about him — he’s like a beacon,” said Marc LaMaina, who owns a growing number of Lucharitos restaurants across Long Island. “He knows how to provide a good time, which is why he knows how to run a restaurant. But he’s also serious about his cause for equality.”
Under Mr. Black’s management, Mr. LaMaina said, the staff at each location reflects diversity in their communities, which stands out on the East End.
“He’s a natural-born leader,” Mr. LaMaina said. “He’s all in with whatever he does.”
Mr. Black, 27, said he was inspired to hold a protest on the North Fork, on the same fields where he played football and soccer growing up, after attending a similar demonstration in Riverhead. To spread the word, he invited his friends list on Facebook and figured a few dozen would show.
“I never thought that my voice would be heard or would actually make a difference,” he said.
Addressing the crowd, Mr. Black reaffirmed calls for police accountability and involving young people in the community. “These are the people who are going to be leading this fight down the road,” he said. “This isn’t a white vs. black issue. This is an everyone against racism issue.”
For Mr. Black, who graduated from Mattituck High School in 2010, the protest was the spark to creating local change, starting with how people of color are perceived.
After the rally, he worked with Tracey Moloney, teen librarian at Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, to produce a virtual forum entitled “Let’s talk about race, racism and antiracism” that drew over 20 participants of all ages from across the North Fork.
Penny Kelley, teen librarian at Southold Free Library, said she was incredibly moved by the rally and couldn’t recall another demonstration in Southold that drew so many people together.
“He spoke from the heart and answered questions,” Ms. Moloney said, describing the forum, which comprised predominantly white community members. “He talked about growing up as a young Black man and things he had experienced. I think he opened some eyes in the community about issues that Black people face on a day-to-day basis.”
Mr. Black’s mother, Connise Black Williams, also offered insight into her experience as a Black woman raising a family on the North Fork.
“We were the only Blacks on the block,” she said, in both Mattituck and Cutchogue. “I had to constantly tell my children we can’t do this or do that because we don’t want the neighbors to think we’re bad. My children are good children, as you can see,” she said, proudly motioning to her son.
Ms. Williams knows her children are good people — that’s how they were raised.
“My son is amazing. But that still did not stop me from worrying when he would come home at night from working, being a bartender, smelling like liquor, driving home. Let’s keep it real,” she said. “There’s privilege, and there’s those that are afraid every day.”
Though sweeping, systemic changes remain to be realized, starting the conversation is a big step in the right direction. “It was really an eye-opener for our community about what’s going on right here,” Ms. Moloney said.
*The award was previously called Civic Person of the Year
2018—Rev. Dr. Ann Van Cleef
2017 — Mindy Ryan
2016 — Valerie Shelby and Sonia Spar
2015 — Don Fisher
2014 — Designer show house organizers
2013 — Ron and Doris McGreevy
2012 — Group for the East End
2011 — American Legion Post restoration volunteers
2010 — Peggy Murphy
2009 — North Fork Community Theater
2008 — Lori Luscher
2007 — Committee for Phil McKnight
2006 — Relay for Life organizers
2005 — Merle Levine
2004 — Christine Roache
2003 — Barbara Taylor
2002 — Kim Tetrault
2001 — Elinor May
2000 — Mark Miller
1999 — George Hubbard Sr.
1998 —Ed Siegmann
1997 — Freddie Wachsberger
1996 — Shelley Scoggin
1995 — Craig Richter
1994 — Stewardship Task Force
1993 — Walt Krupski
1992 — The Eklunds
1991 — Bill Grigonis
1990 — Merlon Wiggin
1989 — Jeanne Marriner
1988 — Ray Nine
1987 — Bessie Swann