Long Island town renames school, street for civil rights hero

HEMPSTEAD, Long Island (WABC) -- Major General Joseph A. McNeil changed the course of history in America. So why not change local history as well?

Both a street and an elementary school were re-named in his honor on Long Island Tuesday.

General McNeil has been a resident of Hempstead for the past 50 years. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and also a hero in the Civil Rights movement, as a founding member of the "Greensboro 4." He refused to give up his seat at a Woolworth's lunch counter back in 1960, and his actions sparked a national sit-in movement that would set the tone in the battle against segregation and set a non-violent precedent for many civil rights leaders to come.

At the ceremony, McNeil shared his memories of the emotions he felt that day, so many years ago.

"Anger, pride, intense emotion, and a faith," he said. "The faith that goodness will win out in the end and prevail."

And so, Angevine Avenue was re-named General Joseph A. McNeil Avenue, while one of the region's oldest schools -- The Franklin Elementary School, founded in Hempstead 92 years ago -- now bears his name.

Some students already know the name McNeil from the Hempstead mayor's small tutoring sessions.

"I said, 'General McNeil, I only have three students,'" Mayor Don Ryan said. "He says, 'I'd come if you only have one student.' So that tells you about him."

Meanwhile, those who don't know him are learning.

The new McNeil Elementary School principal told her students McNeil is a role model.

"(He) stood up for social justice and equality in the face of adversity," she said, insisting the retired General has now "given the new McNeil Elementary School a new charge."

It took a number of years to get the change made. All too often, renamings like this do not happen until someone has passed away. In this case, students of Hempstead got to meet a living legend. They also got a new source of pride in the form of a civics lesson, learning about the difference youth can make.

As for McNeil? He was delighted.

"It's like my dad is up there someplace smiling," he said. "And he'd say proudly, 'That's my boy.'"

The students greeted McNeil with applause. And McNeil applauded them right back.

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