The Bethel AME Church in Setauket was built more than 150 years ago next to land the town designated as a “negro burial ground.” The community around the church and the burial ground dates back to the 1600s when members of the Setalcott Nation intermarried with other tribes and blacks who came to the area or were brought on slave ships.
The community flourished as a mixed African-American and Native American community. It’s aging and much smaller now, but community members want to preserve its history and get it on the National Register of Historic Places.
Bethel AME is the center of the Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District, which stretches about half a mile on Christian Avenue and includes the Laurel Hill cemetery, the church, an American Legion building and 30 homes.
Historian Robert Lewis is a descendant of one of the district’s oldest and most well-known families. After one of Christian Avenue’s most historic homes was sold and torn down, he founded the Higher Ground Inter-Cultural and Heritage Association, which has spearheaded efforts to gain federal recognition for the district.
Lewis says his work is not just about federal recognition. It’s about how people tell stories and whose stories are valued.
“This narrative. It needs to be different. It needs to be from the perspective of the people who made it.”
One of the people who built a home on Christian Avenue was Idamae Glass’s grandfather.
“Hello, I’m Idamae Glass. I live at 40 Christian Avenue and I’ve lived here all my life. When we were young, there were very few cars on the street. The traffic wasn’t that heavy. Some people were still riding horse and buggy.”
The early 1900s brought gentrification, with wealthy, white residents from New York City moving to the nearby village of Old Field to build country estates. By 1930, Old Field incorporated as a separate village, and records show that there were no longer any non-whites living there.
“I think most of the black people at that time worked in white people's homes so they didn’t have a home of their own. They stayed in the kitchen. So most of them built their own homes,” Glass says.
Those ancestral homes have been in danger for more than a hundred years. One of the only ways to save them is to tell the stories of the people who first called them home.
Christopher Matthews, professor of anthropology at Montclair State University, excavated sites of former homes in the district. He says the history of the minority community in Setauket has been overlooked for too long.
“Everywhere that there’s history in Setauket there’s a black history or a minority history that’s not told or isn’t the story you hear at first,” Matthews says.
Setauket was home to one of George Washington’s spy rings and it’s reveled in its colonial history but he argues that can’t come at the expense of excluding minority stories.
“It goes into the category of honest mistake, but some communities suffer from honest mistakes more than others right? Everyone is well-meaning in Setauket. They didn’t mean to ignore or leave out or put a community at risk. It was no ill will, but it just happens because it’s a matter of class and poverty and wealth and things and what a community values about its past. So you’re either in or you're out on that. Unless you change it, right? And that’s what they’re trying to do.”
Matthews says a place on the National Register would provide the community with a little more teeth when it comes to the protection and restoration of homes.
The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will send the application to the National Register for Historic Places later this year.
The ancestors of the people who lived and died in this community are ready to tell a new story about an old place.
To learn more about the Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District and see some remarkable photos and archival documents, visit the Counter-Map of Setauket, New York.