‘Everybody has a story to tell,’ new historical society exec director says

Exclusive SERIES: Changes at historical society |Part 3


Denice Evans-Sheppard, 51, became the executive director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society on Oct. 18. Her goal, she said, is to bring her love of history, through “positive programs and events,” to her hometown.

“We feel Denice is suited to the job,” said Stephen Walker, president of the society’s board of trustees. Evans-Sheppard served on the board and was first vice president before taking on her new position. “She brings great excitement to the job,” Walker added, “and we are thrilled she accepted our job offer.”

Historical society visitors are immediately greeted by Evans-Sheppard, who is respectful, warm and friendly. Blessed with a laugh that is contagious, she is a people person, always willing to share what she loves about Oyster Bay.

She is a lifelong resident, and her family has lived in Oyster Bay since 1795. Many still live in the hamlet at Carll Hill, property purchased by her great-great grandfather David Carll before he joined the 26th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment as a private in the Civil War. Evans-Sheppard’s relatives have lived in the Pine Hollow area ever since, prompting it to be called Carll Hill in the 1940s. She lives in David Carll’s house.

“I was fortunate to be co-raised by grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles,” she said. “That’s when I fell in love with history, when they told me what it was like in Oyster Bay when they were young.”

She has many fond memories of her own, too. “Oyster Bay was no different than what it is today,” she insists. “We walked to the movie theater where BMW is now, went to the roller skating rink where the Stop & Shop is today, and then we’d go to Carvel, where CVS is. I have great memories of growing up here.”

Although it always seemed a possibility, she never became a historian, working for 29 years at the Nassau County Department of Probation/Juvenile Detention in Westbury. She began by working directly with incarcerated children and eventually became the supervisor, a position she held for 10 years before her retirement last September.

She was also a member of the Glen Cove Community Development Agency when U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi was mayor of the city in the 1990s. She worked to acquire grants, a skill that will come in handy in her new job at the society.

Walker said that Evans-Sheppard was hired in part because of her many years of administrative experience working for the county — and because of her love of Oyster Bay and her “intense personal connection to its history from her family.”

Her predecessor, Phil Blocklyn, who retired on Oct. 7, was not a historian either.

“If you have that background, it’s a plus,” Evans-Sheppard said, “but if you have a passion to do a job, that makes a difference.”

She plans to continue Blocklyn’s vision for the society, and will add to it. “There was nothing at the society that reflected people of color here in Oyster Bay,” she explained. “My goal is to share the stories of all of the people that made this town what it is today.”

Blocklyn, came to his position of leading the society gradually, initially writing book reviews for the society’s quarterly newsletter, then joining the board, and finally, in 2010, becoming executive director.

Although Evans-Sheppard’s involvement with the society has been different, she too has been involved for years. She and Thomas Kueh-has, the executive director of the society before Blocklyn, began working together in 1994.

Evans-Sheppard had self-published a series of multi-cultural books for children that incorporated art and music. She needed a New York State Council of the Art Grant to complete the vision that she had for the books, and asked Kuehhas for a sponsorship from the society.

Acquiring the grant, she went on to create a program for schools and libraries, and was enjoying much success with it when she decided to change course. “I was led astray to work on my family historical books,” she said, adding that the children’s stories were those that had been handed down to her by her grandparents.

Why not actually tell the story of her family? Her great-great-grandfather David Carll’s parents, Lewis and Catherine, were of Native and African-American descent. David had married Mary Louisa Appleford, a white woman from England. It was the first interracial marriage in the Town of Oyster Bay.

Evans-Sheppard came from a long line of entertainers. Her first cousin twice removed is Vanessa Williams, the first African-American winner of the Miss America pageant and a well-known entertainer, whose father, Milton, was raised on Carll Hill. Some of Evans-Sheppard’s cousins were dancers at the Cotton Club, and many were musically inclined too, playing in different bands. Her grandfather Percy Carll was in one of the first bands of color in Oyster Bay that began in 1919.

She began by working with Blocklyn in 2015 to uncover information about David Carll for a book she and her cousin Frank Carll were writing about the Civil War veteran. “I discovered there wasn’t anything there about him or the other Oyster Bay African American Civil War vets,” she said.

Undeterred, she was able to get additional information from family members including a family Bible, which listed David’s family. She also found maps, photographs and deeds, but not at the historical society.

Agreeing that programs on black history would benefit the community, Blocklyn supported Evans-Sheppard’s plans to lead them.

“I started by bringing programs to the society regarding the significance of colored troops, based on the research I had done with my cousin Frank for our book, ‘Footsteps of a Forgotten Soldier, The Life and Times of David Carll’” she said, adding that they were very popular.

She asked Blocklyn to review records that she’d found from her church, the AME Zion Church of Oyster Bay. They ended up working together on a program on the church and the Pine Hollow community in 2015.

“When Phil said he was leaving, I said, ‘But we’re just getting started!’” she said. “I was excited with all the work we had done over the years engaging the church in the project that Phil had started.”

“Before it was hard getting them involved in telling their history, bringing out their pictures,” she said. “They weren’t comfortable speaking about their past prior to this.”

Blocklyn encouraged her to apply for his job. “He told me that I have a lot of historical information on people in this town that the society could benefit from it,” she said, adding that he was also impressed by how well attended her programs had been.

Melanie Derschowitz, the society’s collections manager, is glad Evans-Sheppard was hired. “From day one, Denice has shown exuberant enthusiasm for her new position as executive director,” she said. “Her in-depth knowledge of Oyster Bay history, from her years of genealogical research and her experience in community activism and outreach, stand out as her greatest strengths and will serve her well in her new role.”

Evans-Sheppard said she is happy. “I’d like to bring in a Native American program here and to engage the community,” she said. “Everybody has a story to tell.”