Struggling Together: Exhibit Looks at Blacks and Whites Fighting for Civil Rights


By Marianna Levine


In honor of Black History month, the Eastville Heritage House on Hampton Road in Sag Harbor will feature an exhibition called “Partners in Progress” open every weekend in February. The exhibit highlights the cooperation between blacks and whites in the abolitionists and civil rights movements.  In light of the recent election and inauguration of America’s first African-American President, the exhibition’s curators, Beryl Banks and Kathy Tucker, wanted to acknowledge and celebrate the interracial collaborations that made Barack Obama’s Presidency possible.

Ms. Tucker explained, “Every year we put up an exhibit for Black History month and this year we wanted to show blacks and whites working together.  We wanted to show whites supporting our efforts, or struggle. We actually called it a struggle. So much of this is what we’ve lived through, we’re seniors, we remember the civil rights movement. We wanted to share this (information) with the community.”

The exhibit itself is rather humble although its message of personal struggle and sacrifice is not. The Eastville Historical Society is housed in what was a Sears & Roebuck mail order house, and therefore the exhibit has a cozy quality as one wanders from one small room to another while listening to songs from the civil rights movement playing over the house’s sound system. In a back room, one can hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech while looking at pictures of Barack Obama’s recent inauguration. There are pictures and newspaper articles displayed on black cloth boards of and about individuals who took a stand against racial oppression, sometimes losing their life in the pursuit of equality.


Of course there are recognizable names such as Rosa Parks that are featured, but there are also less well-known people honored, such as Viola Gregg Liuggo. She drove down to Selma to help with the Civil Rights Movement after being moved by news of the struggle on TV, only to be shot and killed by the KKK for her good intensions. Joanne Carter, a founding member of the historical society, specifies, “The purpose of most exhibits we do here is to bring to the public something that wasn’t necessarily known before.”

It is quite appropriate that Sag Harbor, and specifically the Eastville community Historical Society host such an exhibit since, according to Ms. Carter, it was, “one of the first fully integrated neighborhoods in the country.”

Ms Carter believes African-Americans arrived in the area either to work as freemen on the whaling ships or to escape on them to Canada as part of the Underground Railway.

There isn’t much historical documentation of Sag Harbor’s connection with the Underground Railway, however lack of documentation is a common challenge when studying the histories of minorities, the underprivileged, and women. Yet there are a few things that point to the plausibility of this commonly held belief within the Eastville community. For example, Sag Harbor and Shelter Island were home to a large Quaker population, and the Quakers started the Abolitionist movement in the 1830s. Ms Carter also points to the discovery of trap doors and hiding spaces underneath the altar and back pews of St. David’s church, Sag Harbor’s oldest church in its original site and a historically African-American church. 

In support of this exhibit, Civil Rights Activist, Bob Zellner will give a talk focusing on Obama’s politics of non-violence, and his mobilization of a new youth movement at Christ Episcopal Church on Sunday, February 22 at 2 p.m. Mr. Zellner, a Southampton resident, was a white southern college student in Montgomery, Alabama when the Civil Rights Movement started up around him. He was so moved and inspired by the young black students who were willing to take a stand and get beaten up for their belief in equality that he ended up becoming one of the founding staff members of SNCC. That was quite a departure for the son and grandson of KKK members.

Mr. Zellner recalls, “The leadership of SNCC was mostly young African American men and women from the south, but blacks and whites from the North and South worked together. I was unusual since I was a white southern. However all us southern had more in common than we had differences. We were culturally the same (regardless of race).”

Mr. Zellner comments, “What we did in the civil rights movement is now bearing fruit with the election of President Obama.”

And he noted that during the inauguration President Obama asked John Lewis, an early comrade of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to stand up and be honored during his inaugural speech. 

Despite all the progress that has been made in terms of racial equality, Mr. Zellner stresses that younger generations still need to be taught the importance of critical thinking. Exhibits such as this one may help younger generations to remember the struggles of the past and continue to uphold interracial respect and equality for the future.