Submitted by Kevin Mann
Dec 22, 2022
History Happens here attempts to provide interesting glimpses into our exciting local history.
Do you know what was the 1st African-American owned community on Long Island? Based on the title you guessed correctly: Gordon Heights. Despite the community existing since 1927 few folks outside the Gordon Heights community understand its history or the tremendous obstacles that this community has continues to face.
Gordon Heights started as the brainchild of real estate developer Louis Fife. It is rumored that he asked his driver where he would like to build a home on Long Island. The driver who was African-American replied; "I can't own land on Long Island. No bank or mortgage company would give me a loan." Louis Fife bought a large parcel of land from Pop Gordon, hence the name, and began to plan his homestead community. His goal was to provide African-Americans the chance to own small farms and build their own homes. Fife went to Harlem knocking on doors to recruit folks to buy lots in Gordon Heights. Lots could be bought for $10 down and $10 a month. Soon Fife sold five lots and the Gordon Heights Development Corporation was born. The owners, all African-Americans, were artists, performers, transplanted Southern farmers and Caribbean people all in search of home ownership. Some were part time residents maintaining homes in Harlem as well. Some were full time residents seeking an escape from the strict racial boundaries around Harlem.
Despite being an island in a sea of white neighbors who were far from welcoming, Gordon Heights thrived. It established a strong sense of community despite the lack of electricity and running water. Fife published a newspaper called the Gordon Heights Bulletin. A number of African-American owned businesses were established including a candy store, grocery store, two delis, a restaurant and a hotel/bar. Establishments like the Black Pearl bar/hotel and Red Rooster (restaurant) served not only the community but also traveling artists. Even though African-American artists performed in the Hamptons and Montauk, they were not allowed to stay there overnight. The building of a church provided a spiritual anchor for a community that had no official recognition by the Town of Brookhaven.
In 1946 the church in Gordon Heights caught fire providing a chilling example of the tremendous obstacles faced by its residents. The Coram and Yaphank Fire departments responded to the fire but decided they had no obligation to put out a fire in Gordon Heights. The two fire companies watched as the church burned to the ground as a total loss. The Gordon Heights community responded not in anger but with determination. In 1948 the Gordon Heights Fire department was born. It was the 1st African-American Fire Department in New York State. Due to the very small area it protects, only 4,000 souls, it is the most expensive department to operate on Long Island. It should be noted that, at that time in history, Coram and Yaphank Fire Departments did not agree to train the new firemen. Thankfully the Medford Fire Department assisted with training.
Gordon Heights has always had a strong tradition of education. It was very difficult to get education for their children as there was no school in Gordon Heights. Children went to school in Yaphank until that school closed. Older children went to Port Jefferson Schools until the Middle Island District, now Longwood was developed. One of the community's leaders, Tyrell Wilson, was voted onto the Middle Island Board of Education in 1948. He was the 1st African-American school board member. In 1951 he successfully lobbied for the hiring of Mrs. Samuel Ferrell, the 1st African-American teacher in the Middle Island Central School District.
One of the stars of the community is Kerry McCoy. Born in 1974 Kerry wrestled heavyweight at Longwood High School. He went on to Penn State where he was a two time NCAA champion and a three time NCAA All American. Kerry went on to be a two time Olympian and a four time World Cup qualifier. Kerry was inducted into the Longwood Hall of Fame in 1998. He currently leads the wrestling program at Maryland.
Gordon Heights has faced many challenges. Every challenge has been met with a strong community response. One person who has made a personal commitment to the youth of Gordon Heights is Keith Owens. Keith established a charity called KOCARES. Keith runs programs with the police to improve community relations as well as a myriad of other programs: literacy programs, cooking programs, bicycle tours and mentoring. Due to his tremendous efforts many youth have stayed in school and on the path to being productive adults. If anyone is interested in supporting his efforts please, contact me for further information.
Despite being only 1.7 square miles and a population of roughly 4,000 people, Gordon Heights has developed and maintained a very strong sense of community. One of their biggest recent challenges is the "dumping" of troubled individuals into their community. Halfway houses and group homes have created real issues in Gordon Heights. With no formal government, the Gordon Heights Civic Association is the only lobbying group to fight this troubling trend. While they have made great progress, the battle is not over. Gordon Heights continues to struggle successfully to overcome a number of obstacles. As Gordon Heights approaches its 100th anniversary in five years it is clear that this is a community that does not back down in the face of adversity.