Suburbs in Black and White: History Professor Reflects on Black History Month

Published: February 07, 2022

It was as a student at Nassau Community College that Tim Keogh, a Professor of History at Queensborough Community College, experienced an epiphany taking a course called Racism in the Modern World. 

“My professor opened my eyes to the ways healthcare, segregation, poverty, housing, and lack of job opportunities are rooted in systemic oppression and racism. He introduced these issues in a global context and took us through history up to the present day. His class had a lasting effect on me. It changed my life.” 

Indeed, years later when Keogh was a doctoral student at CUNY’s Graduate Center, his acclaimed scholarly work, Suburbs in Black and White: Struggling to Live and Work in Postwar Long Island, grew out of that class. The work is under contract with the University of Chicago Press and received the New York State Historical Association’s Dixon Ryan Fox prize for best manuscript on New York State history in 2017. 

His work also stemmed from his birth and upbringing on Long Island, just over the Queens border. Long Island is still considered, says Keogh, one of the most affluent, but also unequal and segregated places to live in the U.S. 

Keogh, who joined Queensborough in 2012, teaches courses in American History, Latin America, and Urban History. His research explores the origins of suburban poverty in an otherwise affluent region in the years after World War II. 

“The white picket fence idea is the image we inherit, but about 1 in 10 people on Long Island were considered poor. They were shut out of opportunities because middle-class suburbanites depended on low-wage workers to sustain their lifestyle and subsidize the tax base. The workers lived on Long Island because that’s where their jobs were, but they didn’t benefit from the same lifestyle others enjoyed. These exploited workers were, unsurprisingly, disproportionally African American. Race and poverty are inseparable and that continues today.”  

Keogh reflected on this year's Black History Month theme of Black Health and Wellness. 

“One of the profound effects of poverty is related to health outcomes. Within months after the pandemic took hold major disparities were revealed: who was getting sick, who was dying, who lived in overcrowded housing, who was losing jobs, who was forced to work. We have improved with outreach and vaccines and testing, but we have not gotten better with protecting people who are on the front lines, getting exposed. Social protection needs to be reinstituted.” 

This was the essence of Bayard Rustin's Freedom Budget for all Americans that followed the major civil right victories in 1966, which included universal health care as a major plank. A major figure in the civil rights era, he held a strong belief that universal healthcare, full employment, decent wages, housing, and clean water were inseparable from civil rights. 

“Rustin was the right-hand man of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was there during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, organized the 1963 March on Washington and joined Dr. King in Memphis when he was assassinated in 1968. Rustin was an activist his entire life.” 

And not only because he was Black. 

“Rustin was openly gay during the 50s and 60s until his death in the late 80s. He was in a long-term relationship and adopted his partner because back then it was the only way to create a civil union--to share a name, to share a life.” 

 In many ways he continued the legacy of Dr. King and blazed a trail for those who wished to create a better life for themselves and their families. 

Keogh’s work on Urban and American History can also be found in Nonsite, the Journal of American Ethnic History, and the Journal of Urban History. 

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