Before there was a United States of America there was slavery. And, always, there was music. “Lift Every Voice: A Celebration of Music, Culture and Tradition,” is the title of this year’s annual Black History Month event sponsored by the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm in partnership with Eastville Community Historical Society (ECHS) at Bay Street Theater this Sunday, February 25.
The event is named for the “Black National Anthem,” the powerful hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” penned by poet James Weldon Johnson in 1900. This is the song that marched out of churches to inspire protesters during the Civil Rights Movement:
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
The rich history of local settlements informs the proceedings. Sylvester Manor, the northern provisioning plantation founded on Shelter Island in 1651 was once a Native American hunting and fishing ground. The Manor has been home to 11 generations of its original European settler family. Inhabited by an extended household of Manhanset and Montaukett Native Americans, Europeans and Africans for centuries, Sylvester Manor, over time transformed from a slaveholding-provisioning plantation to an Enlightenment-era farm, then to a pioneering food industrialist’s estate and, in 2009, to an organic educational farm. The Eastville Heritage House, located in the Eastville neighborhood of Sag Harbor, commemorates the African American, Native American and European Americans—mainly Irish—who settled the Eastville enclave of Sag Harbor.
This will be the fourth year that Sylvester Manor and the Eastville Historical Society have offered a joint event in honor of Black History Month. Donnamarie Barnes, curator and archivist at the Manor, notes that the musical part of the program will follow a “loose structure, see what happens when we make music and celebrate it.”
A panel discussion will be led by Eastville Community Historical Society Executive Director Dr. Georgette Grier-Key and will feature musicians Henry Maxwell Letcher II, an East End Jazz DJ, musician and Jazz historian; Shane Weeks, a member of the Shinnecock Nation, drummer and dancer; Karl Schwarz, a Gospel musician who also performs traditional Blues and is a member of New Moon Acoustic Blues Band. To prepare questions, Grier-Key “looks at current scholarship and the different genres artists bring.”
How music—traditional and modern—informs and celebrates the East End’s diverse cultural heritage is what it’s all about. Letcher asserts, “Culture is something you feel; it’s not something you can take notes on. Music is in the air; it’s not something you can touch and manipulate. The joy of music is there are no real rules, but your sincerity will determine how people value it.” Music itself—in both its words and sounds—preserves important cultural information.
East Hamptonite Letcher has had a long and fascinating life in music. Related to music royalty, he grew up in Washington D.C., but summered in Sag Harbor. Letcher used to watch and study the way his cousin, jazz legend Duke Ellington, played piano. Describing it as “spontaneous, never being played in the same way, almost like a football game.” Many locals remember Letcher playing steel drum on Sag Harbor’s Long Wharf every Sunday as part of a seven-piece band known as the Merrymakers Steel Band.
Black History Month is every month. Weeks reflects, “we [Native Americans and African Americans] were both oppressed. We’re both proud. And we both dealt with a major attempt to eradicate our history and culture from our own recollection. It’s a doomful history for colored people. But the fact that it’s preserved is important, so the story can be told. We honor our ancestors by acknowledging our history. It would have been illegal in the past to speak openly about our history and culture, but now we can acknowledge who we are without the threat of death.”
Sometimes, when the oppressed can’t speak openly, their response comes out in music. As Schwarz says, “My heritage is of America, thus singing songs of labor and love in America speaks to the experiences of all my relatives and of my own time here. Singing songs that so emotionally speak to heartache and day-to-day struggles is a form of responding to our society rather then searching, as an escape from it.”
Telling the stories of the previously silenced is a big part of Sylvester Manor’s mission. As their website declares, “We envision a farm, a community, and a world where people celebrate food, arts, and inventiveness in the everyday, with a spirit of fairness and joy.”
On Sunday, the idea of this worldwide spirit of joy will be realized in microcosm, with so many different cultures merging. Schwarz shares that “understanding and sharing knowledge of American history is one of my favorite pastimes. I feel crazy honored to be invited to take part in this event to both open an honest dialogue of our country’s past and how it relates to our wealth of cultures, and to celebrate Black History Month with such talented and knowledgeable artists as Henry Maxwell Letcher II and Shane Weeks will be a rare treat. I’m looking forward to learn from these two men and to share our views with our honored guests who come to share their afternoons with us.”
To bring so much history and culture together under one roof echoes what one finds at Sylvester Manor. Similar to the way music talks, Barnes says, “I share the house, I talk to the house, let them [former inhabitants] know what I’m doing. It feels right. I say all the time that the house gives up its secrets at the appropriate time, to fill the holes in history. The day after the 2016 election, I go into the vault [and pick up a] box with a note from Aaron Burr to Ezra L’Hommedieu about the contested election of 1796 and the uproar in Washington because Jefferson won in the electoral college while Adams won the popular vote!”
Bay Street is at the very heart of the matter. As this year’s program explores the intersection of music, culture and tradition, it does so in a unique nexus of geographic space and history. Sag Harbor Village, where Bay Street Theater is located, lies between Sylvester Manor to the northwest and the Eastville neighborhood to the south.
Barnes, who, like Letcher, grew up summering in Sag Harbor, says, “the East End is the home of my heart and my soul.” In the words of Weeks, music has the power “to bring people together. It’s a rhythm that mimics the heartbeat of the people.”
Lift Every Voice: A Celebration of Music, Culture and Tradition, Sunday, February 25, 2-4 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. Tickets $15 in advance/$20 at the door, purchase tickets at sylvestermanor.org.
You can follow Stacy’s informed and opinionated adventures on Twitter @hamptonsepicure. She is currently at work on a Hamptons-centric cookbook with co-author Hillary Davis.