In a book dedicated to Wilfred Ferguson, the son of Charles Ferguson, teacher and historian Christopher Verga resurrects the story of two Roosevelt, New York brothers killed by a Freeport police officer in 1946.
Verga opens The Ferguson Brothers Lynchings on Long Island: A Civil Rights Catalyst (History Press, 2022) with an account of the long history of racism on Long Island and in the Freeport area including Ku Klux Klan activity. The background to the 1946 killings takes up the first third of the book. The book is well researched and referenced with extended quotes from official court documents and newspaper accounts.
On February 5, 1946, two African American men, brothers, were shot and killed by a white probationary police officer in Freeport, New York. The officer claimed that the men were part of a group of four, all brothers, who were using “abusive and threatening language” and that one of the men he shot had stated that he had a .45 and was going to use.
The officer’s first shot struck 27-year old Charles Ferguson, a World War II veteran, in the heart and killed him instantly. The second shot wounded Joseph Ferguson, aged 20, and then struck Alphonso Ferguson, aged 25, in the head. Charles and Joseph Ferguson were both wearing military uniforms when they were shot. Alphonso Ferguson was taken to Meadowbrook Hospital in East Hempstead where he died. The fourth brother, Richard Ferguson, also a veteran, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 100 days in jail, but his conviction was overturned on appeal.
Military tribunals later cleared the brothers of any blame in the incident. Charles Ferguson was buried at the Long Island National Cemetery with full military honors. At the time of the shootings, Freeport was a segregated town. There were no Black police officers there or teachers in the Freeport school system and Black children were all zoned to attend one elementary school regardless of where they lived.
After Nassau County District Attorney ruled that the shootings were justified, the New York Committee for Justice in Freeport, the American Jewish Congress, and Congressional Representative Vito Marcantonio of Manhattan demanded that Governor Thomas E. Dewey authorize a new investigation. In July, Dewey appointed Lawrence S. Greenbaum, as a special investigator to hold hearings and examine witnesses.
Greenbaum, a lawyer, was a member of the NAACP. A petition to Governor Dewey condemned the Nassau County District Attorney for “not properly and without prejudice carry out his duties in the presentation to the February grand jury” and the Freeport Village Board for prejudicing the proceedings by exonerating the white officer before the grand jury had heard the case.
The petition also asserted that the brothers were not drunk as the police claimed, and that the incident had been precipitated when the operator of a lunch counter had refused to serve the men because they were Black. Legendary folk singer and activist Woodie Guthrie wrote a song, “The Ferguson Brothers Shooting,” to support the campaign for justice for the Ferguson family. The cop said that we had insulted the joint man.
He made us line up with our faces to the wall;
We laughed to ourselves as we stood there and listened
To the man of law and order putting in his riot call.
The cop turned around and walked back to young Charlie
Kicked him in the groin and then shot him to the ground;
This same bullet went through the brain of Alonzo
And the next bullet laid my brother Joseph down . . .
The town that we ride through is not Rankin, Mississippi,
Nor Bilbo’s Jim Crow town of Washington, D.C.
But it’s greater New York, our most fair-minded city
In all this big land here and streets of the brave.
At the hearing, held in Manhattan, the two surviving brothers testified that the police officer first kicked Charles and Joseph Ferguson and then drew his pistol and lined the four brothers against a wall. The police produced witnesses to support the accused officer, including an African American by-passer, and no cross-examination of witnesses was permitted. The officer repeated his accusation that Charles Ferguson claimed to have a weapon and that he shot Alfonso Ferguson when Ferguson was charging at him.
The officer and the other police witnesses admitted that they never saw a gun and no gun was found at the scene. A spokesperson for the New York Committee for Justice on Freeport charged that the investigation was a “white-wash” and an “unvarnished fraud’ because witnesses were not cross-examined. At the final inquiry session on July 23, most of the audience walked out in protest.
After the special investigator’s report was released on August 2 and exonerated the police officer and the Nassau County District Attorney’s office, Governor Dewey closed the inquiry. The report claimed that the police officer acted because he believed his life was in danger and there was reason to believe he would have acted differently if “the four men before him had been white and not colored.”
The killing of the African American men in Freeport became an issue in the November 1946 gubernatorial election as Dewey, a Republican, campaigned for reelection. Democratic party candidate James M. Mead charged that the shooting was a lynching and accused Dewey of endorsing Southern-style racism. However, once Dewey was reelected, the Freeport case dropped out of the news.
A side story in the book is the role of the American left including the Communist Party in the push for the special investigation into the killings and for justice for the Ferguson family. While the NAACP also called for the inquiry, it avoided being too closely associated with the left groups and being branded as communist or communist directed.
State and federal law officials investigated communist influence in the campaign, perhaps more carefully than they investigated the actual incident. In Nassau County and in Freeport supporters of the police officer used left involvement in the campaign as a way to discredit the specific charges and deny underlying racism in the area.
Verga concludes the book examining a similar story about an African American veteran attacked and gravely injured by police in South Carolina and other incidents of racism in the United States and on Long Island after World War II including the notorious racial covenant banning African Americans from purchasing or renting Levittown homes.
Verga note that at least demographically, Freeport and Long island have changed since the deaths of Charles and Alponso Ferguson at the hands of a police officer in 1946. Christopher Verga is a New York City social studies teacher at the East River Academy High School on Rikers Island and an instructor in Long Island history and the foundations of American history at Suffolk Community College. He is the author or editor of Civil Rights on Long Island (Images of America, Arcadia Publishing), Bay Shore (Images of America, Arcadia Publishing), Saving Fire Island from Robert Moses (The History Press), World War II Long Island: The Homefront in Nassau and Suffolk, and Cold War Long Island (The History Press). Verga has a Masters of Arts degree in education from Hofstra University and a doctorate in education from St. John’s University.
Photos, from above: Charles Ferguson’s enlistment picture into the Army Air Corps, 1941; Charles Ferguson’s grave at Pinelawn Cemetery; Charles’s widow, Minnie, and their three sons; the NAACP, local veterans’ groups, and concerned citizens at Freeport Village court meeting with Chief Elar, expressing concerns over the shooting; The Daily Worker’s pamphlet “Dixie Comes to New York: Story of the Freeport GI Slayings;” the leaflet “New York’s Lynching Goes Unanswered” detailed the slow response from New York State and the rise of racial tensions from a resurgence of the Klan; Ferguson brothers solidarity march of New York City garment workers and civil rights activists; and The Ferguson Brothers Lynchings on Long Island: A Civil Rights Catalyst book cover.