Celebrating Bell Town: Riverhead’s African American Pioneer Families Share Their Stories

The story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern United States to the north in the 1930s is not often told locally, but it has shaped our communities in ways that are finally being told.

On May 21, seven years after Marylin Banks-Winter began researching her family’s history in Bell Town, an area of African American self-determination and entrepreneurship just off of Hubbard Avenue in Aquebogue, Riverhead Town celebrated a piece of this history by designating Bell Town as the first Heritage Area in Riverhead.

In the early 1930s, four brothers from Powhatan, Virgina — Mansfield, Condry, Ezekiel and Melkiah Bell — sold their family’s farm and joined other family members living in the area around Jamesport and Aquebogue, Ms. Banks-Winter told a crowd gathered on Hubbard Avenue for the dedication of the Heritage Area.

This move was to escape racial violence, pursue economic and educational opportunities and obtain freedom from the oppression of Jim Crow,” said Ms. Banks-Winter, who is the granddaughter of Mansfield Bell 

The brothers, who worked on duck and potato farms and as baymen, were told by local Native Americans from their future wives’ families, of “a wooded area of former native land, similar to the homeland they left in Powhatan, property on Hubbard Avenue that was once called “The Boulevard,” which was then owned by Walter S. Downs.

The brothers first purchased the area surrounding what is now Bell Avenue from Mr. Downs, later assembling properties on what is now Hobson Drive and Zion Street, a total of 32 residential lots on 16 acres.

Their extended families and friends began to build lives for themselves there, opening businesses and running a “bakehouse, dairy farm, smokehouse, poultry and pig house,” said Ms. Banks-Winter, while the men formed a group of masonry workers to help build one another’s houses, and a community center at the end of Zion Street.

The brothers, who became successful in business, eventually bought Cadillacs and Buicks and drove to First Baptist Church — they had helped build the second and third First Baptist Church buildings on Raynor Avenue and on Northville Turnpike, and were instrumental in the construction of what is now Friendship Baptist Church at the end of Bell Avenue in Flanders.

“They were avid readers, who read the bible and taught their children how to read and write,” said Ms. Banks-Winter. “That’s why it’s important to keep your family history, because the Census has them as illiterate. They were not illiterate. They were proud and they were educated. They educated themselves and their children.”

Ms. Banks-Winter’s mother, Rev. Mary Bell Cooper, was one of the children who benefited from this childhood experience, and she played a key role in the May 21 ceremony, leading a closing prayer urging those in attendance to “love ye one another as you love yourselves.”

The morning’s ceremony was filled with messages of both contrition and solidarity from a crowd of mostly white officials.

“Riverhead has not been very good about celebrating people of color and the role they’ve played in its history,” said the town’s Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Richard Wines, adding that Ms. Banks-Winter had approached him last year to ask what could be done to rectify that. 

He said the story of the Bell brothers echoed the stories of more than 1,000 people who came to Riverhead in the 1920s and 1930s, forming a “tributary of the river” of African American migration during those years.

He added that, as of the 1920 census, just one percent of Riverhead residents were black, but that number jumped to 13 percent by 1930.

“The four brothers were the grandchildren of slaves, and they came here from a south wracked by lynchings. What the Bell brothers did here was important,” he added.

“I want to recognize that we are on the ancestral lands of a lot of Long Island’s indigenous people. We all should embrace it — that history needs to be spoken,” said John v.H. Halsey, President of the Peconic Land Trust, which recently purchased the former Broad Cove duck farm across the street from Bell Town, which had been owned by the Celic family, and where many residents of Bell Town worked.

“We look forward to working with the Bell Town community to tell the story of that place,” he said of the duck farm.

“I want to acknowledge the pain, suffering and heartbreak being felt in Buffalo. that act and the ideology underlying it — racism and hatred — is something we must all speak up against,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. “This is an act of standing up and declaring what we believe in in this community. Four brothers, despite all obstacles, made their way here and created something extraordinary. That legacy is alive today and still being felt.”

Mark Wooley, the District Director for Congressman Lee Zeldin, grew up not far from Bell Town, and played drums with Kenny Bell in high school.

“He never mentioned his family’s history to me, and I drive through Bell Town almost every day,” he said. “The County Executive is right. There couldn’t be a better time to show that Riverhead is not about tearing people apart. It’s about bringing people together.”

He then presented Ms. Banks-Winter with an American flag that had recently flown over the U.S. Capitol in recognition of the day’s ceremony.

Johnny Smith prays for understanding for those on a hard journey.

Several members of the Shinnecock Nation were also on-hand to celebrate the occasion, including Jonathan Smith, who gave a prayer.

“The creator looks at us as leaves from the same tree, made from the same sand,” he said. “Our ancestors from ago, African American and the indigenous people, we suffered through some oppressions. So, those difficulties that we suffered, we had a bond that joined us and part of that bond is that we recognize the creator, that oneness. Today, often we forget as people that sometimes difficulties and sorrows in our personal lives are actually blessings in disguise.”

“There is a prayer that the spirit gave us that helps us understand the depths of the difficulties and sorrows,” he added. “The spirit tells us is that what is more than knowledge and what is more than wisdom is understanding. Suffering and difficulties are like the morning dew on god’s green pasture. Suffering and difficulties are like the wick on god’s light that lights earth and heaven. All the great prophets have had their difficulties and their sorrows. As strange as it sounds, I still love you and I am happy that you have had your difficulties and sorrows.”

The prayer, in the native language, he said, says that “this road that I have chosen is hard and difficult, but I love this way.”

The dignitaries in attendance then unveiled the historic marker, across Hubbard Avenue, adjacent to the Long Island Rail Road tracks that separate Bell Town from Indian Island County Park and the former Broad Cove duck farm. 

“Preserving and documenting Bell Town history is vital to the complete history of Riverhead,” said Ms. Banks-Winter. “It is the untold story of ancestors, trailblazers and unsung heroes who shaped the struggle of freedom… We cannot let our own voice of history be lost or only told by reading the writings of our ancestors’ enslavers.”

Ms. Banks-Winter said she hopes this Heritage Area will spur interest in funding a building for an African and Native American cultural center and museum in Riverhead Town, through the African American Educational and Cultural Festival (aaecfinc.org), a non-profit based in Riverhead “that has been telling our stories for 21 years.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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