• Sun. Apr 11th, 2021


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Hate crime against Black couple jolts beach town known for tolerance

The town’s police chief offered the same assessment.

“It had to be someone who knew that a Black family lived there,” said Ocean Beach Police Chief George Hesse.

“It’s a shame that after all these years and all of the things that he’s accomplished in his life,” Hesse added, “that he has to put up with this crap.”

That a hate crime would target a Black family in a place as remote and historically tolerant as Fire Island reflects the virulent climate in the U.S. ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

A place from a bygone era

Located about 4 miles off the south shore of Long Island, New York, Fire Island has long provided a sun-drenched haven for New York area residents seeking a summer escape.

The 32-mile island is home to several small communities and a thriving gay scene. It feels like a place from a bygone era: Cars are banned and the narrow walking paths are often visited by groups of deer.

The family-friendly town of Ocean Beach is the most bustling community on the island, filling up with day-trippers and renters on summer weekends. Yet serious crime is rare. The most common calls to the Ocean Beach police force, which employs four full-time officers and 28 part-timers, involve bike thefts and drunken revelers acting up.

A deer on one of the walkways leading to the beach on Ocean Beach, Fire Island.Jackie Molloy / for NBC News
The Ocean Beach police force employs four full-time officers and 28 part-timers.Jackie Molloy / for NBC News

The Parhams began visiting Fire Island in the early 1960s. They were both from Atlanta, started dating in the 11th grade and had been together ever since.

“All we heard about Fire Island was there were gays there, so we figured there was a level of liberalism, at least in regard to renting,” Johnny said.

Ann was a counselor in an anti-poverty program based in Manhattan. Johnny was a social-worker-turned-nonprofit-director who had been twice arrested while participating in civil rights demonstrations in Georgia and Maryland.

Johnny would go on to spend his career in leadership positions at organizations dedicated to improving educational and economic opportunities for African Americans: the National Urban League, the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund. Ann became a guidance counselor in the New York City school system.

The Parhams rented a share house in the community of Kismet for a few years, but when Ann became pregnant, they switched to Ocean Beach because it had a drug store and a doctor. Many other African American families also rented there at the time, the Parhams said.

Eager to have a place for themselves, the Parhams purchased their summer home in November 1971. Their son, Johnny III, was just a couple months shy of his second birthday.

“Growing up in the city and coming out here, this was a place where I could really be a kid,” he said.

Johnny III now has two sons of his own — Cole, 12, and Jack, 10 — who have spent many summers on the island just like their father did as a young boy.

Cole was staying with his grandparents on the weekend their walkway was defaced.

“I’m used to racism. My grandfather tells me stories about it all the time,” Cole said. “But I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

A neighbor’s surveillance camera captured at a distance three young white men walking toward their house around the time the epithets were scrawled on the footpath. A second, blurrier video showed at least one of them in front of the house kneeling on the ground, authorities said.

The videos were turned over to the police, and investigators went to work trying to identify the trio.

Police have yet to make any arrests despite the existence of surveillance footage that captured blurry images of the presumed suspects: three young white men.Neighbor’s surveillance camera

The Parhams soon installed a surveillance camera above their door — a move that would have been unthinkable before this past summer.

To show they were not intimidated, the couple ordered a Black Lives Matter banner and hung it up in their front yard. In a show of solidarity, their 95-year-old neighbor across the street, who is white, did the same.

“When your best friend is attacked, you need to show up and do something,” the neighbor, Edith Mendolsohn, told NBC News.

“I’m outraged,” she added. “It’s revolting that anything like that would happen around here.”

One evening in early October, two people found Mendolsohn’s banner torn down from her fence and tossed on the ground. Johnny went outside and discovered that the Black Lives Matter banner had also been soiled with dog feces.

“How dare they!” Mendolsohn said in an interview at her home.