Much has happened in the wake of the Press’ story about the potential destruction of Booker T. Washington’s historic summer home in Fort Salonga ["This House Is History," July 16].
Northport resident John Rice, who purchased the house and its surrounding 1.7 acres for nearly $1.3 million in 2007, has been attempting to get its historic status revoked so it can be replaced with a new, much larger, retirement home. Washington’s house, a cedar-shingled two-story with a breathtaking view of the Long Island Sound, received historic designation from the Town of Huntington in 2005. Rice and his attorney petitioned the town’s Historic Preservation Commission with his plans on June 22, arguing through hardship papers that the house is unsafe, uninhabitable and must be removed to secure the property from erosion—it’s slowly slipping off the side of a bluff.
Following the Press article, Rice hired new legal representation and postponed a scheduled July 27 reconvening on the matter. The Commission will take up the issue again at its August 24 meeting.
Elise Morris and Thelma Jackson-Abidally, Northport residents spearheading awareness efforts about the home’s plight, organized a group, Friends of the Booker T. Washington House, to galvanize an increasing outpouring of support for the homestead, which, they say, has resulted from the Press’ story.
“The feedback has been overwhelming and extremely positive,” says Morris.
The two have been circulating petitions and working with Washington’s descendants, who are also trying to get the word out. They’ve been enlisting the help of Tuskegee and Hampton University alumni and drumming up support via Facebook. They’re launching a website, friendsofthebookertwashingtonhouse.com. They’ve also been trying to get the house national historic designation, recently partnering with the nonprofit Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities in that pursuit.
To supporters, the house represents the civil rights pioneer’s very spirit, all he accomplished—and belongs to everyone.
“Booker T. Washington was a national figure,” explains Abidally, author of 2000’s African Americans in Northport, An Untold Story. “It would just be a crime to have this house demolished.”
And preservation efforts haven’t just been homegrown. George Fosty of Levittown, a documentary filmmaker, historian, Canadian citizen and president of the Society of North American Hockey Historians and Researchers, contacted the Press about the group’s efforts to preserve Washington’s house.
Two years ago, Fosty says, the organization, on behalf of the Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame Conference (which Fosty co-founded) in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, approached the property’s real estate agent, offering to purchase the house for $1 and move it from the property. The group sought to restore the house and turn it into a museum in honor of the Colored Hockey League (CHL), an all-black league that existed in Canada in the 1890s.
According to Fosty, the CHL was built on Washington’s principles. His group’s offer, though turned down, still stands, he says, and his organization is eager to work with others interested in saving the house. To him, its significance transcends time, race and borders.
“They were all followers up in Canada of Booker T. Washington and he actually went up to Nova Scotia just a couple months prior to his death and had secret meetings with some of the original players and founders,” explains Fosty, co-author of 2004’s Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925.