The past, present and future are colliding on the East End as the region marks its first Black History Month since racial justice protests triggered a national reckoning on inequality last year.
This year’s celebration of Black Americans’ contributions comes amid a flurry of local public hearings on how to enact New York State-mandated police reforms in response to the murder of George Floyd, a Black man allegedly killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. The annual celebration also comes as the Plain Sight Project leads the way in unearthing how widespread slavery was in the Hamptons dating back to Colonial times, not just in the South. And it comes as local officials and advocates are advancing efforts to establish two museums in Southampton commemorating the role of historic Black figures from the area.
“Most people don’t know that slavery was in Southampton until the 1830s,” Tom Edmonds, executive director at Southampton Historical Museum, said during a recent lecture.
Discrimination on the basis of skin color didn’t end with slavery, of course. Even since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination nationwide, studies show Long Island remains one of the most racially segregated areas in America today. To combat persistent disparities, state lawmakers recently passed legislation to combat housing discrimination and last year Gov. Andrew Cuomo made Juneteenth a state-recognized holiday marking the end of slavery, among other measures.
Local efforts to address the issues go even deeper.
While many believe that slavery was limited to Southern plantations from the nation’s founding in the 1600s until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, experts are pulling back the curtain on the East End’s slave-owning past.
The Plain Sight Project, a research initiative that launched in 2020, is on a mission to identify slaves and free Blacks, as well as locate and preserve burial grounds, habitations, and work sites in East Hampton’s historic district — and to create a template for other communities to follow suit.
“The work that we’re doing … is to provide agency to this unknown population who were apart of this community from the very beginning, from its very founding,” said Donnamarie Barnes, an archivist at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm — a former plantation on Shelter Island — and co-director of the project with David E. Rattray, the owner and editor of The East Hampton Star.
Rattray said the project started in 2017 when he and his staff uncovered documentation of early slaves in hardbound volumes of early Town of East Hampton records.
“We think that we identified maybe a third of the enslaved people who were ever here in East Hampton and the crazy thing about all of this and why we call it the Plain Sight Project is it really was that simple: It was opening the book to page 584 and there’s these names,” Rattray said during a lecture at The Arts Center at Duck Creek.
Among the findings were that the earliest known reference to an enslaved person in East Hampton was a child who died on Gardiner’s Island in 1654, the first named reference to an enslaved person in East Hampton was a woman named Boose three years later, and in 1676 a free Black man named John was allowed land for a house and garden.
Perhaps the most well-known incident involving slavery on the East End came in 1839 — years after New York State outlawed the practice — when the infamous slave ship Amistad was seized by federal authorities off Montauk Point following a mutiny. Director Steven Spielberg of East Hampton was nominated for four Oscars for his 1997 film about the uprising.
The most high profile attempt to address current-day racial injustices is the wave of public hearings that East End town and village police departments are holding after Cuomo ordered police to devise reforms addressing discrimination or risk grant funding after Black Lives Matter protests nationwide, including in the Hamptons and on the North Fork.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the hearings used the gather community input on proposed reforms are “to make sure bias and discrimination were not playing a part in the policing.”
Some hearings and surveys are continuing ahead of the April 1 deadline for law enforcement agencies to submit reform plans to the state. Southampton Town Police were the first to issue their recommendations on February 16 when the department released its report suggesting the use of body cameras, among other measures. Local police brass say they are optimistic that the reforms will lead to more state funding to better train officers.
“As a part of the reforms, we are all hoping Albany also creates funded training courses, certified by the state or by the federal government with which we can ensure officers have opportunities to attend,” East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo has said.
Where the proposed reforms will lead is a story for another day.
The East End’s Black history is also its future thanks to a pair of projects in the works to celebrate the community’s historic contributions.
The Southampton African American Museum is being developed in a building known as The Barbershop, which was a local gathering place for area African Americans from the 1940s until its closing. The Southampton Village Historic Preservation Board designated the building as the village’s first African American historic landmark a decade ago.
“We want to share our contributions to the world,” Brenda Simmons, executive director of the Southampton African American Museum, previously told Dan’s Papers. The museum has been hosting virtual events and hopes to open a physical gallery at a later date. It’s motto is to “treasure the past, tend to the present, transform the future.”
And, after years of wrangling, local officials are finally making progress on rebuilding the historic home of Pyrrhus Concer, a free slave who was a whaling captain in the village. The end goal of the reconstruction team is not to simply rebuild as Concer’s home once was, but to expand the 19th century house into a museum dedicated to his legacy, his home’s architectural significance and his importance in Southampton and American history.
“We are finalizing the plan, and we have a construction consultant now to help us with the pricing,” Southampton Mayor Jesse Warren told Dan’s. “A big goal for 2021 is to really begin the construction of this project. It’s been a long time coming!”
-With David Taylor and Taylor K. Vecsey