Column: Eleanor Lingo’s life is a history lesson

In every way, Eleanor Lingo has been a pioneer in Southold Town and across the region. At nearly every stage of her life she broke one color line after another, from her job on the sales floor of a Connecticut department store in 1944 to her position in the business office at Greenport’s Eastern Long Island Hospital in 1954.

She was a first. You could even call her the Jackie Robinson of Southold — and it would be historically accurate.

Ms. Lingo is the sole surviving child of seven siblings born to Thomas and Anna Morris, who came north from rural Virginia to work in Southold, where Eleanor was born in 1926. She turns 98 on April 28.

American history has shadowed her all her life. She believes her mother’s father, Frank Falcon, was born enslaved in Powhatan, Va. There are no records to prove it; as with many Black Americans born in the 19th century in the Deep South, birth records are scarce or nonexistent. 

Her paternal grandfather, who also came north to Southold, never had a birth certificate. He could only guess at his age or what year he was born. His biography was a mystery to his family, lost in the country’s past.

“He told me a story once of the boss coming into the field where he was working” Ms. Lingo told me as we sat last week in an office at the Southold Town Recreation Center in Peconic. The center’s ping-pong tables were busy with happy players, as was one of the pool tables at the opposite end of the building. “The boss had a switch in his hand and he went to strike my grandfather,” she recounted, “but he moved out of the way and the boss hit a cow and split the hide wide open. That was the only story he ever told about his past. He wouldn’t talk about it.

“He was a wonderful man,” she added, holding up a photograph of a handsome, gray-haired man in a sharp suit. “That’s him.”

Another photograph she shares is of her mother and father, Thomas Morris and Anna Falcon Morris. “I owe everything I was ever able to do to my parents,” she said. “Everything. They brought me up right.”

Ms. Lingo’s well-deserved recognition has come in bundles. In 2017, for example, she was named both The Suffolk Times Person of the Year and Suffolk County’s Senior Citizen of the Year. She began working with the Southold Anti-Bias Task Force from its inception in the 1990s. She has stuck with it ever since.

She graduated from Southold High School in 1944, one of very few Black students in the school. Across the North Fork, hundreds of southern-born Black men and women lived in farm labor camps. One of those camps, on Cox Lane in Cutchogue, had its own school on the grounds.

“My parents came up from Virginia looking for a better life,” she said. “My father went to work on Benjamin Tuthill’s farm, where we lived. I was born there.”

Her parents helped start Shiloh Baptist Church in Southold, where her father became a deacon. The church, on County Road 48, still stands. What is missing on the site is a historical marker noting its beginnings as a place of worship for Black families who lived and worked on potato farms back when those farms were everywhere.

Talking to Ms. Lingo, hearing her stories of growing up in Southold, of getting jobs for which she was the first Black person hired, it’s easy to see her as part of something that should be remembered. For history to be an honest telling of the past, it needs to be expansive and candid, unafraid to deal with actual events. It can’t be hidden away.

Ms. Lingo is as critical a part of the area’s history as the familiar tales of English settlers who arrived in 1640. Yes, they are foundational stories — but there’s much more to be told than just their accounts. Within a relatively short time after their arrival, the English displaced the Indigenous people from this fertile land and claimed it for themselves, then brought in slaves from Barbados to do field and house work.

Local history, and how to tell more of it, was a theme at an April 8 meeting in Greenport called “Coming to the Table,” where five high school students presented their research on the institution of slavery on the North Fork before it ended in 1827. Each of the students wowed audience members with their work. Greenport’s school superintendent, Marlon Small, sat in the audience and said how proud he was of the students. Ms. Lingo was there as well, a living connection to the past.

One of the most fascinating stories Ms. Lingo shared concerns a gravestone in the cemetery next to First Presbyterian Church in Southold. As a teenager, she would walk by the cemetery on her way to school and took notice of some of the markers. On one of them was inscribed: Negro Slave Lady. 

After her mother died in 1954, Ms. Lingo would visit the cemetery to put a wreath on her grave. She also made a wreath for the “Negro Slave Lady.” One year she went and found another stone. On it was just one word: Bloom. Nothing more. She put a wreath on that stone, too.

“Every year I made a wreath for my mother and for Bloom,” she said. “I did this for 30 years. Something told me there was more to it. A friend of mine was working in the cemetery one day. I asked him if he would clear around the grave.

“Sure enough, he dug around the stone and there was an inscription. It read ‘Negro Lady Died 1810.’ ” 

Some later research suggested “Bloom” was a young girl abandoned on the shore of Long Island Sound in Southold by the crew of a British ship. The girl was later adopted by the Mulford family, according to several accounts.

“I was very happy to find that,” Ms. Lingo said. “She will always be remembered.”

Steve Wick is a senior editor at Times Review Media Group.

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