A wall in a hallway of Southold Town Hall has photos of famous local African Americans who contributed to the community.
Councilman Brian Mealy said that one year into his historic tenure as the first Black member of the town's board, he still is humbled when he looks at the photos of those trailblazers who came before him.
Born and raised in Southold, Mealy, 46, a clerk at Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, took an oath of office in January 2022 for a four-year term on the board.
Before his election, Mealy served on several local bodies, including the Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education. In 2018, the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force recognized him with the Helen Wright Prince Award for community service.
Mealy, inspired by his family's roots working with local Polish farmers, also has been active in farm preservation. He previously worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of a project that monitored a pest harmful to potato crops on Long Island and nationwide and sits on the board of a Riverhead environmental nonprofit.
From a Town Hall meeting room, Mealy recently spoke with Newsday about his public service while reflecting on the celebration of Black History Month.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Growing up as a kid, my mom would always try to instill a sense of Black history. In certain ways in the early '80s and '90s, Black history wasn’t really considered part of American history. I want African American history and Black history to be American history. And I know I’m part of the history of Southold, not just as an African American but an elected official. And I want to make sure I make space for the next person of color.
Your mother Dorothy Mealy wrote self-published books about African American history, including "Missing Life: A Matter of Talk" and "Meet the Seniors" that are available at Floyd Memorial Library and the U.S. Library of Congress. Did she ever talk about why that was important to her? Has that shaped or influenced you?
She was told that there was no such thing as Black history. Yet she had the proof. She had to deal with that societal rejection and still continue. She did everything herself in terms of putting the books together, she went to local businesses … she was able to convince them this was part of our town’s history and our overall history. In some ways, I feel like I’m trying to catch up to what my mom has done.
At the start of your first meeting as a councilman, the Zoom comments section was bombarded with racist remarks and death threats. One year later, have you reflected on how it made you feel?
Besides the amazing community support, the way I was raised was that you don’t make a rash decision and you don’t go off in a huff before you get all the details. I got a passionate response from others. I’m so proud we sprang into action … but I’m glad I didn’t add to the tumult of it.
Do you think other people of color will follow you into Southold public offices?
We're still on the journey of acknowledging our diversity. Change isn't necessarily scary, it's just a different group of people. If we can come to terms with that as a town and a society, if you can remove fear from a situation, we can work together on it. It’s going back to respecting people’s cultures and backgrounds. And if we have that, there will be another person who is a barrier breaker.