Southampton's African American Museum
Meet me at the old meetinghouse. The historic building at 245 North Sea Road, locally known as “The Barber Shop,” is Southampton Village’s first African American landmark. With plans to transform it into a museum, the ole shop will now be immortalized in Long Island and American history. Since its construction, the barbershop and salon was an instrumental constituent in the community, and the museum’s mission is to continue this legacy. For Brenda Simmons, co-founder and assistant to Mayor Epley, the barbershop-salon wasn’t just a building but a testament of her culture, she said. “We want to share our contributions to the world.”
This is the mantra of the museum—to actively share and educate about African American contributions to the community.
The African American Museum of the East End, known as the AAMEE, has been working towards their mission since 2005. With much of the painstaking paperwork complete, it is only a matter of time now, “Realistically, I’m hoping in the next few years,” said Simmons. However, that doesn’t mean the AAMEE hasn’t been busy in the community. The group has fashioned historical displays at Southampton Town Hall, hosted an annual African American film festival, and thrown the Winter Crystal Ball. This future museum is not just about exhibits hanging on walls, but about exploring history and culture every day. The museum itself will primarily consist of virtual displays due to its size. Well-known African American individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks will be featured; however, the museum, will direct its focus more on the unknown characters of history, perhaps including several local influential African Americans such as Emanuel Seymore and Arthur Robinson, who had a profound effect on the South Fork.
“The Barbershop” has been a touchstone to both the African American Community and the village of Southampton since its construction in the 1940s. Built and originally owned by Emanuel Seymore (the first African American to own a business in the village of Southampton), it was never just a barbershop, but a meetinghouse where friends and families could feel at home. Many of the patrons had originally migrated from the south to the South Fork, carrying with them their southern experience. It became a place of stories and daily gatherings to share with one other their heritage. When Simmons began her mission to restore this old building into a museum, she didn’t want to just physically restore this building with young wood and fresh paint, but to restore is legacy, to allow it to echo throughout the village and the surrounding communities.
When Simmons was a little girl, a mere 10 years old, she would spend countless hours in the salon with her aunt Evelyn Baxter. She readily recalls the memories and the life lessons she learned in that salon. Her aunt taught her and the other girls there, “how to be lady, how to respect yourself,” and most importantly, “how to carry yourself as a lady,” Simmons remembers. Saving the old barbershop and salon isn’t just saving a village landmark, but it will preserve piece of childhood, a piece of culture, a piece of identity. Simmons continues to practice what she preaches with her continuous involvement in the village, mentoring in jails on Sundays, and her daily actions. Simmons embodies what this museum is to be about – preserving cultural identity and furthering our society as a whole. Aunt Evelyn would be proud!
Not to be forgotten is the old restaurant/juke joint that neighbored Seymore’s shop. Like the shop next store, the restaurant was built and owned by Arthur Robinson. It was an oasis for many black Americans to come and kick their feet up, dine and listen to music after a long week of labor in the Hamptons. Unfortunately, the restaurant is no longer there, but its spirit endures.
The hard, laborious work put in by Simmons, Nancy Steven-Smith (Board Secretary), Cheryl Buck (Board Treasurer), and many others has materialized the dream to preserve “The Barbershop” into a quaint museum preserving their heritage and culture.
For those of you too anxious to wait, head down to the Southampton Village Hall to witness some displays, only a sampler of what you can expect in the years to come. Also join the AAMEE for their 6th annual African American Film Festival in November.