The Mary E. Bell House in Center Moriches, which embodies the rich history of African Americans on Long Island, has been recommended for inclusion on the state and national registers of historic places.
The Bell House, located at 66 Railroad Ave., gained Brookhaven Town landmark status in 2015 and is owned by the town. It currently serves as a museum.
The house has particular significance for its role in the Black community of Center Moriches during the 19th and 20th centuries.
It is among 18 properties that the New York State Board for Historic Preservation recently recommended for inclusion on the state and national registers.
The two-story house was built in 1872 on land purchased by Selah Smith, who lived there with his wife and five daughters.
Smith was among the growing number of African Americans purchasing land on Long Island during the 19th century, according to a draft of the house’s NPS historic register registration form. The draft explains that he and other African Americans during this time sought “a ‘safe space’ in which to nurture families and educate children.”
The African Methodist Episcopal Church on Railroad Avenue was the nucleus of this safe space. The Smith family’s house was down the road from the church, where they attended steady growing services.
Mary inherited the property when her father died in 1891 and she became increasingly involved in keeping the congregation together. She married Ernest Bell in 1895.
Mary Bell helped to foster the congregation’s transition to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination in 1897, which allowed women to have more rights and authority within the church.
Bell became the leader of the Varick Christian Endeavor Society in Center Moriches — a youth group with an educational and social mission — and held prayer meetings at her home. After her death in 1923, the congregation renamed itself the Bell AMEZ Church in her honor.
Jennifer Betsworth, a staff member in the State Historic Preservation Office’s Survey & National Register Unit, said in an email that the Mary E. Bell House “is such a great illustration of how a simple building can be rich with stories. More than telling the story of one family, it provides insights into how Black families on Long Island built successful lives and communities during the nineteenth century.”
For Bell AMEZ Church Elder Stanley Sneed, securing the Bell House on the national register “would mean everything.” “For Black people,” Sneed, 60, of Center Moriches said, “we would have something that we could say represents us, that we have a landmark.”
Nominating the Bell House for the state and national register creates a new opportunity for the representation of African Americans within Long Island History. “In general there’s the issue of the Black history of Long Island being just erased or never spoken about,” historian and author of “Making A Way to Freedom: A History of African Americans on Long Island” Linda Day said. “Just invisible though in plain sight. Landmarking the house raises it to the level of visibility within the historical landscape.”
Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine, a longtime Center Moriches resident, said in a statement that the Mary E. Bell House “is another treasured landmark that has a story to tell about our community and the people who have called it home.”
Betsworth said “members of the New York State Board for Historic Preservation were enthusiastic in their support for this nomination and we hope to hear a positive result from the National Park Service in a few months.”