Civil rights activists and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Thursday condemned the publication by the County Historical Society Museum during Black History Month of a feature article on the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Suffolk County.
The museum’s online newsletter, published on February 12 and since deleted, according to the office of Suffolk County Law Clerk Jason Richberg, contained a “Photo of the Week” depicting the “Ku Klux Klan in Suffolk County, 1920s “.
Black and white photo from the archives of the Suffolk County Historical Society Library depicts KKK members in ceremonial dress at a community parade.
Below is an invitation from “Riverhead Klan, #31” to a “Monster Klan Gathering in Riverhead LI”. The invite touts “Lunch and Supper in the Field” and “Excellent Camping Facilities.”
It was framed under the banner of the historical society: “Our history, our heritage, our people”.
Richberg (D-Wyandanch), the Legislature Minority Leader, said in a press release that he was “appalled that an agency that receives county funding is producing this material, but not surprised.”
Richberg continued, “I am at a loss for the words they would choose to elevate the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that has been designated a hate group by numerous law enforcement, civil rights, legal and non-partisan – during Black History Month nonetheless. Why now, why is this image, this part of our ‘history’ so important to conjure up at this time?”
Tracey Edwards, Long Island regional director of the NAACP, said the museum’s decision to feature the KKK was “beyond tone deaf”.
Edwards said, “We have thousands of examples to highlight the accomplishments of Black Americans this month. Selecting the KKK as the Photo of the Week under the caption ‘Our History, Our Heritage, Our People’ is more than unacceptable.”
Suffolk Historical Society Museum executive director Victoria Berger apologized in a letter “for distributing racially insensitive material and failing to challenge racism and the narrative of hate”.
Berger said she and staff members will undertake “enhanced sensitivity training.”
Berger wrote, “I want to personally apologize to our community, and especially to all people of color. I hold myself responsible for, and take full responsibility for, the actions of this museum, as well as for the education, policies and actions needed to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
She continued: “I am heartbroken for causing pain and insult to the community, as well as the many relationships and partnerships I have cultivated through our Society during my years here. I listen and I understand where we failed.”
Berger said the Klan photo was previously displayed in the museum’s ‘Hidden and Forbidden’ exhibit in 2013 and was ‘presented in the delicate context of education and addressing the presence of racism. in Long Island”.
Berger acknowledged the story that accompanied the photo in this month’s newsletter, “failed to challenge past acts of racism and reverse a narrative of hate.”
Bellone said in a letter to the county legislature that his office would contact the historical society museum to “take a closer look at our partnership.” He did not specify.
In a separate letter to the historical society, Bellone said the county is “committed to ensuring that such an incident does not happen again in the future. It is our responsibility to consider this part of our history; however , the way the story is told and by whom it is told must be done responsibly.”
Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) told Newsday Black History Month, “should be to celebrate the achievements, accomplishments and contributions of African Americans in Suffolk.”
McCaffrey said the county donates about $350,000 to the historical society each year.
He said the majority of the GOP was “united” with Bellona and others to examine the county’s relationship with the historical society.
“Maybe they need more diversity on their board, I don’t know,” McCaffrey said.
Richberg said in criticizing the museum newsletter that he was not seeking to eliminate information about Klan history in Suffolk.
But he said the newsletter could have added more context or featured the accomplishments of a Black Suffolk County resident as the photo of the week during Black History Month.
“I think that was a glaring oversight and I think we can use that as a learning experience,” Richberg said. “The way we grow is not by removing the story, but by adding context to that story.”
Edwards said she and others questioned whether the historical society’s board was diverse enough and whether staff members received appropriate anti-bias training.