Cover Story

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Signs Of The Times
The Historic Lives Behind
Southeast Queens
’ Streets And Places

BY STEPHEN McGUIRE and SHAMS TAREK

If you live in Southeast Queens , you can’t help seeing and saying names like Van Wyck, Guy Brewer and Francis Lewis nearly every day.

But who were these people anyway?

Actually, many are the names of people who helped shape our borough, city and nation today.

This week, the PRESS takes a look at some of the historic names behind Southeast Queens ’ street signs and places. Here are a few names you may have heard before:

Roy Wilkins: Roy Wilkins Park

Civil Rights Leader Roy Wilkins brought great gains for blacks and other minority groups in the United States and spent the last 30 years of his life in Queens.

Wilkins served as executive secretary of the NAACP for 22 years and was instrumental in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

His death in 1981 marked the end of an era for leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Phillip Randolph and Whitney Young, who played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Of his life, Newsweek magazine wrote “He was among the last generation civil rights leaders who pulled and tugged and cajoled the nation through decades of change so profound that many Americans cannot imagine, still less remember, what segregation was like.”

Wilkins lived at 147-15 Village Rd., Parkway Village in Flushing .

Francis Lewis:

Francis Lewis Boulevard, Francis Lewis High School

Even with a high school and one of the borough’s major thoroughfare’s named for him, few people know who Francis Lewis was.

Born in Wales in 1713, Lewis arrived in New York at age 21, an active and sharp businessman. He became an agent for supplying British troops in New York with uniforms during the French and Indian War.

Lewis was a delegate when the Stamp Act Congress met in New York and fully supported its measures. But when England reacted with the Declatory Act, which denied colonists the right to oppose British legislation in the colonies, he withdrew from business and retired to his country home in Whitestone.

Lewis was one of the first to join the Sons of Liberty, formed to resist the power of the colonial governors. At the Second Continental Congress in May of 1776, Lewis – a delegate from New York – was responsible for determining the needs of an army preparing for Revolution.

Lewis was in attendance when the congressional resolution that called for independence was proposed by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and seconded by John Adams.

Lewis was also present on July 4 when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by all of the congressional delegates and was one of the signers of the document after New York ratified it.

In the fall of 1776 the British, who learned that Lewis and his family lived in Whitestone, arrested Lewis’ wife and a calvary unit was sent to his home to destroy it.

Then General George Washington obtained Mrs. Lewis’ release the following year in exchange for the captured wives of two high ranking British army officers.

Following the events of 1776, Lewis went on to be instrumental in the process of forming a government for the State of New York and following the war, was known as a man of God who was a vestryman of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Flushing .

Rufus King:
Rufus King Park, Rufus King Avenue

A few blocks from the 21st century hustle and bustle of Jamaica Avenue ’s shopping and entertainment center near Parsons Boulevard is a quiet and hidden old farmhouse nestled in an 11-acre patch of historic green.


Rufus King Park in Jamaica,
which holds King Manor is named after its original tenant, one of the central authors of the
U.S. Constitution.
PRESS Photo By Ira Cohen  

The home, King Manor, belonged to statesman, diplomat and Constitutional penman Rufus King.

It’s now a New York City landmark, National Historic Register house and center of a whole lot of interesting things to see and do for Southeast Queens .

“King rubbed the nation’s conscience raw,” said Roy Fox, King Manor’s caretaker who gets a lot of joy out of introducing kids to the local founding father and abolitionist. “It’s a wonderful opportunity we have here—that’s why we work so diligently.”

 King, one of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and one of the five delegates in its “Committee on Style” (a.k.a. the inner circle), was recruited for his well-known way with words.

“He was to be part of the committee given the final chore of pulling all the strings together,” Fox says in one of his lectures about King, “creating a literary tapestry that would breathe life and vitality into a nation stalled in its tracks.”

Guy R. Brewer:
Guy R. Brewer Boulevard, Jamaica

Of all the main streets in Queens , Guy R. Brewer Boulevard is one of the most recently named. Formerly New York Boulevard , the name was changed by a council law sponsored by Archie Spigner and signed by Mayor Koch in 1982 to honor the late State Assemblyman.


Guy R. Brewer Boulevard is
named after a the late
African
American
New York
State Assemblyman.
PRESS Photo By Ira Cohen  

That particular boulevard was chosen because it was the site where Brewer had purchased a building which would house the United Democratic Club on the corner of 117th Avenue and New York Boulevard . The Club went on to be one of the strongest in the borough.

 

 

Abraham/Robert Van Wyck:
Van Wyck Expressway

There is an ongoing debate that still rages hard over this one. Some say the famous highway to John F. Kennedy International Airport is named for the former Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck, who was mayor of New York City when the borough of Queens joined the municipality.

Others say nay – that the highway was named after none other than Abraham Van Wyck, the real estate investor who opened Van Wyck Avenue in Jamaica in 1834. Van Wyck Boulevard and Expressway followed roughly the same road.

John H. Sutphin:
Sutphin Boulevard, Jamaica

Described by the Long Island Press as “a model of public endeavor” John H. Sutphin served as County Clerk of Queens for 10 consecutive terms, receiving bipartisan support for two of those runs. He also was president of the Bank of Long Island and the Jamaica Savings Bank, as well as being Democratic county leader for 28 years.


Sutphin Boulevard is named after
John Sutphin, a philanthropist who worked in
Jamaica and supported dozens of families.
PRESS Photo By Ira Cohen  

Having amassed a large personal fortune, he also did a great deal of philanthropic work in Queens , and, at one time was paying the rent of 55 needy families in addition to other “excessive” charity work. He died in 1907.

 

 

The Lefferts Family:
Lefferts Boulevard, Kew Gardens/Richmond Hill

Named for one, some or all members of the Lefferts family, Lefferts Boulevard is the last remaining testimony to the existence


Lefferts Boulevard – named after a wealthy and civicly active Richmond Hill family.
PRESS Photo By Ira Cohen

of a civicly active, landowning family. The Lefferts lived in one of the five farms later brought by Albon Man, the eventual founder of Richmond Hill . Lefferts Avenue , which is what it was originally called, was in place by 1905.

– Shonna Keogan and Kenrick Ou
contributed to this story.

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