Suffolk County residents will have the opportunity to head to the polls multiple times this year: for special elections, for primaries and for a general election that will determine the U.S. …
Suffolk County residents will have the opportunity to head to the polls multiple times this year: for special elections, for primaries and for a general election that will determine the U.S. presidency. But the right to vote was not always guaranteed.
2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, and the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the government from denying a citizen’s right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It is no wonder, then, that the theme of this year’s Black History Month observance is “African Americans and the Vote.”
This month is a time to honor those like Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose storied legacy includes the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and immense contributions to the civil rights movement. It is also a time to recognize Suffolk County’s own black heroes.
There was Pyrrhus Concer, a whaler and entrepreneur who was born a slave in Southampton in 1814. As a free man, he settled in Southampton, where he operated a ferry service. The stone that marks his grave bears this inscription: “Though born a slave he possessed virtues without which kings are but slaves.” James T. Johnathan, an African-American entrepreneur, was a self-taught photographer who documented Bay Shore in the early 20th century.
In Suffolk County’s more recent history, the first African-American legislator, Elie Mystal, was elected in 2004. His successor, DuWayne Gregory, would go on to serve as Suffolk County’s first African-American presiding officer. Errol Toulon Jr. in 2018 became our first African-American sheriff and the first African-American elected to a non-judicial countywide position. And Victoria Gumbs-Moore this year became the first black Family Court judge in Suffolk County as well as the first black woman elected to countywide office.
More locally, the Patchogue-Medford Hall of Fame is full of trailblazers. East Patchogue-born Denise Jefferson Casper, for example, was the first black female judge to serve on the federal bench in Massachusetts. There’s also the late W. Burghardt Turner, who was one of the first African-American teachers here in Patchogue. He tirelessly crusaded for civil rights on Long Island and helped to found the local chapter of the NAACP. He also was chairperson of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission and the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk County; as one of the first African-American faculty members at Stony Brook University, he introduced courses in African-American history as well as Native American history. A fellowship program for underrepresented minorities there now carries his name.
Of course, there have been many other important figures, too many to name, but all of whom we honor this month.
Even with all of this progress and pioneering we should not rest, as there are still challenges we must face head-on. Our county workforce overall — and even the makeup of our 18-member legislature — does not reflect the demographics of our constituents, and we have seen how racial issues continue to play a role in so many facets of society, including our local housing market.
That stops now. 2020 is ramping up to be the year that diversity in Suffolk County gets the attention it deserves, with two major changes in county government that will help stamp out discrimination that has been perpetuated for far too long.
First, as presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, I have raised the issue of diversity to a committee level. The need to increase diversity in county hiring and in our neighborhoods is great, as we have seen through reports coming out of our Civil Service department and recent news investigations. Starting this year, the legislative committee — whose jurisdiction includes government operations, personnel and information technology — is also taking up diversity. This will put a spotlight on the issue and ensure that giving all residents equal access to jobs and housing stays at the forefront of our priorities and discussions.
Second, on Feb. 11 the Suffolk County Legislature approved the county executive’s proposal to create a new position in county government: a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. This new hire will focus on improving diversity in county hiring and personnel practices, as well as identifying, evaluating and making recommendations to improve work teams. Part of her challenge will be reaching out to untapped pools of potential employees who might not normally consider working in government. It is critically important that our public sector employee population better represent Suffolk’s constituent population, because at its heart, government is all about representation.
Diversity is good for us all. It makes our businesses more engaged, our communities stronger and our collective mindset more connected and open. Promoting diversity is how we will all learn to understand one another and work together to keep Suffolk County a place we all love to call home.
As we celebrate Black History Month, may we remember not only the national historical figures who lit the torch of change, but also the local ones who continue to carry it, in ways both big and small. May we join them in protecting our country and our democracy and promoting peace and equality.