THE HISTORY OF GORDON HEIGHTS
The community had its beginning in the 1920's when a man by the name of Mr. Louis Fife went to the black communities and churches of New York City in search of presenting a dream to a group of Black Americans. Little did he know that these black people had already dreamed of a place in the country to plant families, crops, and a future for themselves.
As Mr. Fife knocked on the doors of these people in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, he stirred up their hopes and desires. Financially, this proposition would mean sacrifice, but these early pioneers knew it would be worth it for their families. Land was offered as low as $ 10 down and $10 monthly or $10 weekly. Building on that land would have to come later. This meant more sacrificing and saving.
Who were these people? They were workers in factories, private homes, office buildings, and whatever jobs were available. They were sincere and hardworking family people. In many cases, both parents worked. They were participants in community functions and organizations to better their families. They were concerned about the quality of education of their children. They were concerned about hours away from home and their children's well being as a result of the over-crowded situations in the city.
From where did these people migrate? They came from the West Indies and the South. They came from strong cultural backgrounds that knew the importance of land and ownership. They knew what it meant to have and build a homestead and lay foundations for a solid well-knit community. Many of them had come from such communities. They had come to the big city with their past experiences, and had to defer their dreams. The opportunity to buy land on Long Island revived a dream deferred.
And so the pilgrimage to Long Island began in 1927 when Louis Fife sold five one hundred-by-one hundred acre plots to these black pilgrims. His son, Herzl, some years later offered this explanation of his father's land transactions: "It was an ordinary commercial venture. But it also happened that my father was able to place people from the slums of Harlem in a rural and wholesome atmosphere. On the whole, it was a moderately profitable venture."
Louis Fife's thoughts were "When I decided to offer Gordon Heights as a community of small farms to the public, it filled a need. I was a lone pilgrim in those days. There were other projects, but they belonged rather to the fly-by-night, get-rich quick variety. From the very start, we began to develop to build homesteads, and lay the foundation for a solid, well-knit community of small farms. Bankers, both in the city and on Long Island, would not extend any mortgage credit, however small. 'It will not last,' they said. So I had to do it myself, and make it last. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a call, "Back to the Land," and followed it through till the end of his days. He wrote, 'A nation of home owners, of people who own a real share in their land, is unconquerable.' The 'Back to the Land' movement caught on, and the public turned to Gordon Heights, which showed promise of becoming a real community of homesteads.
"There followed hard years for our country, years of depression, years of W.P.A., of bare subsistence. People were willing, but they did not have the means for a homestead. Many developments, some of the fly-by-night variety, and some honestly planned, could not stand the strain, and they went under, causing heavy losses to their investors.
The early settlers in Gordon Heights wanted elbow room, a feel of the soil, and a chance to grow things and live. Harlem then was a small area. The area called Sugar Hill was forbidden territory, as was the East Bronx. The East River became the River Jordon for the residents. The city was overcrowded.
The settlers heeded the call of the Gordon Heights Development Corporation. They began their purchasing of land and slowly moving their families and properties -- come as summer dwellers at first and some weekenders. They found it hard and very much a struggle to survive. However, they became true homesteaders almost immediately.
They raised vegetables, canned their produce, raised chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and pigs.
They made roads where there was only wilderness. They built their homes and secured all necessary utilities. They eventually had their churches, civic associations, fire department, and sports and social clubs.
Banks opened their doors to the black residents for loans for repairs, additions, and new homes eventually.
Jobs in the early days were not available to the new black residents. Many of the residents traveled back and forth to the city daily and some stayed over during the week in order to afford their place in the country. Later, jobs opened for these residents.
Mr. Fife came to the theatres seeking blacks who wished to fulfill that dream of country living. Mrs. Hall's cousin was interested, and between 1927-28, they bought property on Dunbar - the present home of Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong.
This was known as Mr. Fife's hunting lodge. People who came out to look at property and the area were also fed and rested at this site.
When Mrs. Ellis decided to return to the theatre, after some illness, she resold the house to Mr. Fife. While she lived in the house, it was also a chicken farm, and Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Ellis shared a business with Mr. Fife of country egg selling to city dwellers. When Mrs. Ellis returned to the city and the theatre, Mrs. Hall remained and ran what was the first water system in this area. Mr. Fife leased out water to the new homeowners with a well and pump which remains in the Armstrong home. It was from this system that the first water came to Gordon Heights. It served the young community for many years.
Mrs. Hall also produced, directed, and participated in many original presentations for the community with many of the young people. She knew many people in the theatre and they came out to help her. This was a form of entertainment for the community, especially the participating young people.
Mrs. Hall also remembers how the young community enjoyed bus outings, picnics, swimming, and other activities. The night entertainment spot was the Casino, later to be bought by Mr. McNeese and known as Gordon Heights Rest. This building, located on Granny Road, was bought by Mr. Fife as an entertainment center in order not to use the churches for non-church activities. When Mr. McNeese later bought the hotel area, the place was combined. People now enjoyed entertainment and a place to live (the hotel).
Mrs. Hall remembers how difficult it was for Mr. Fife to secure property and to build in this community for lack of money or a place to secure it. Whites in certain areas knew who Mr. Fife was buying and building for. Racism and discrimination dominated thinking and attitudes towards the young black settlement.
Interestingly, however, there was an old white man known as "Pop" Gordon. He owned, originally, most of the property around the area - sections I - 4 - among which was the hotel which Mr. Fife bought. Mrs. Hall remembers him as a kind, old man. The community was named after him. It became Gordon Heights.
Mr. Hall, who came to Gordon Heights later (around 1933), was a member of the first black fire department of the community and New York State. He was one of the few blacks who did not have to travel back and forth to the city for his livelihood. He ran a taxi from the community to Medford and worked at Northport Hospital. Mrs. Hall continued her work with Mr. Fife in the Armstrong home for many years. Along with her was a white man employed by Mr. Fife as caretaker, Mr. Smith, and later, a Mr. Johnston, also employed as a caretaker.
And so, the first homesteaders came and began to build a life and a community.
As the community grew, Mr. Fife gave names to the various roads, later streets. Beach Lane was named after the Beaches; Adams Lane was named after Mrs. Thelma Adams Hall; Carr Lane was named after the Carrs. There was even a Robeson Lane named after the famous Paul Robeson, black singer and opera performer.
The roads became smoother and were the first thing that intrigued Mr. Beaton as he drove, in 1932, to Gordon Heights. He described it as a "smooth concrete ride from the city down Jericho Turnpike to Gordon Heights."
There were eight homes in the community at that time. These were the homes of Mr. and Mrs. Rich, Mrs. Brodie, Mrs. Ellis, Mr. and Mrs. Gray (Prof. Gray) and his sister-in-law's house, Mrs. Foster, Mrs. Carter, and Mrs. Morris-.
Mr. Beaton built his home, but with a different builder than Fife because of a difference of opinion in price of building and building a very different kind of home with much larger rooms. Mr. Beaton remembers discrimination and racial problems with getting money to build and problems Mr. Fife faced securing additional sections of land in Gordon Heights, most specifically the land near Jericho Turnpike which is now Wilson Avenue.
In spite of prejudice and building problems, blacks continued their pilgrimage to Gordon Heights. Around 1936, the Fredericks came, and later, the Beaches, the Henrys, the Gilmores, the Flats came to make their home.
Children traveled a mile to school in Yaphank. The school in Yaphank was closed and then they were transported to Port Jefferson by bus. The bus came to Granny Road first and then later came closer to the homes to pick up. Later, of course, schools were erected and the area became centralized and known as Middle Island Central Schools. A very unique black man became the first black to serve on the Board of Education. His name was Tyrell Wilson.
Tyrell Wilson came to Gordon Heights to live in 1940 with his family. He planted his roots firnily as he continued his involvement in the improvement and concern for mankind. He came to this community already a devoted civic worker. In 1946, after the first presidency of Walter Brown of the newly chartered Gordon Heights Progressive Association, Tyrell Wilson became president of the Civic Association and served for ten years as its president. During that time, the Civic Association fought for more telephones and telephone service, better roads and lights for the community. Under his direction, the Civic Association was able to get power lines in 1947.
Because again there was a problem of where to meet, land was finally secured by this Association on its present site. It was planned that this site would eventually serve two functions - a meeting place and a place to house fire equipment.
Building materials were donated by the residents for the building and the men of the community gave their labor. An earlier fire, the first church building by Mrs. Spence, had proven without a doubt the need for a fire department. And so this building would serve that function too.
Prior to the Gordon Heights Progressive Association, there was a Civic League with the same objectives as the Progressive Association. They very soon merged their efforts to make for a stronger community.
Mr. Wilson's civic work continued and he retired in 1970. He is still active, however, in the development of Gordon Heights.
The community continued to grow and continues. More sections of the community opened up as rapidly as the earlier sections. The Coram sections of land became available and land was bought throughout the Coram sections.
Many residents either through their professions or talents contributed so much. Mr. Sydney Murray worked long and hard with real estate and also found time to be a poet and singer. He also served many years as president of the Progressive Association.
Let us not forget the great women in the settlement of this community. Mrs. Alberta Beach, who worked long and hard with the Ladies Auxiliary during those early years in the establishment of its work. She was also the black reporter for the community to the Long Island Advance while also serving as financial recording secretary for many years to the Progres-sive Association. She was very involved in church work also.
Mrs. Zeathe Armstrong was a very devoted and kind mother to many homeless children for-many years in the community. There were others - many -- like her.
Mrs. Hall's involvement in the community was mentioned earlier. Mrs. Spence was responsible for the first church build-ing. Mrs. Woodburn worked with the youth of the community in recreation for many years. Mrs. Hylton Pinto also worked with the Progressive Association and programs with the youth especially her sewing classes at St. Michael's. Mrs. Haynes, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Henry, Mrs. Una Smith, Mrs. Brooks Payne, Mrs. T. Wilson, Mrs. M. Carpenter, Mrs. Hattie Jackson, Mrs. B. Allman, Mother Hudson, and Mother Christian were all contributors in the building of this great community. And the list goes on and on.
The history of this great community is still developing. Homes are going up each and every day. There are many builders involved in this development today. The movement from the city to Long Island and Gordon Heights continues. The desire for a piece of land to grow things and to find growth for families and a community goes on.
The original organizations are growing and many community needs are being met. New organizations and cultural needs are being discovered. People are beginning to become as involved as in earlier years. More families, however, are finding that they must maintain their jobs in the city as with the earlier settlers, but jobs have been available for a few.