Sag Harbor- Sunrise and Sunset
This is a story about a community, about a people, and, importantly, about a slice of American history as experienced by Black and Native Americans from the 1800’s to the present day.
Close your eyes: imagine a blue sky and a bluer stretch of water. Imagine a pristine crescent beach forming the southern border of that water; add sunbeams sparkling as they reflect off the gentle waves lapping at the shoreline. You’ve just imagined what the pioneers who began the communities of Sag Harbor Hills, Azures, Ninevah Beach and Lighthouse Lane saw.
Why these communities? What the newcomers saw post WWII was an extension of a history dating back to the communities of Eastville in Sag Harbor and Freetown in East Hampton. Eastville’s history starts in the early 1800s when Sag Harbor was a port and whaling community. It began as a working class community in the pre-Civil War era. It was a community created by segregation- by race and by class. Whalers and boatmen were at the bottom of the social and economic order and, because of this, whaling provided opportunities for Black and Native Americans that were not available on dry land. Wealthy whites, including captains and business owners that supplied the ships, lived closer to the port in the village. Eastville was multiethnic and included free Blacks, Montauketts and Shinnecocks as well as European immigrants; most worked in the whaling industry. Importantly, Eastville represented an example of free black labor, land ownership and religious practice despite segregation. It is where Lewis Cuffee and others founded the St. David A.M.E. Zion Church in 1840. At the time, Black and Native Americans who attended the Methodist church in downtown Sag Harbor were segregated to the balconies and the rear of the church.
As the demand for whale oil declined, the whaling industry contracted. The men of Eastville sought employment as boatmen and clammers while the women worked as domestics and seamstresses for wealthy whites who I’ve in the village proper. In the late 19th century, a new wave of economically advantaged Black Americans arrived, renting summer homes in Eastville; many became full-time residents and set the foundation for the development of Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, Ninevah Beach and Lighthouse Lane.
Fast forward, it’s 1951. The community of Sag Harbor Hills consisted of Parker, North, Dudley, Parks, Jones, Pickens, Cuyjet, Sinclair, King, Granger, Letcher, Williams and Norman. In Azurest, there were the Richards, Logues, Williams and Hairstons and in Ninevah Beach the Paynes, Dukettes and Brannens. These were folks who had the means to have gone anywhere but were restricted by the boundaries of segregation and Jim Crow. They were educators, doctors, dentists, lawyers, judges, artists and entrepreneurs. These were folks who formed social clubs and entertained at home because they had to. They were familiar with Eastville and its history; a place where Blacks could live as well as rent during summer months. They were a collection of educated, professional and successful post WWII families seeking , not quite asylum, but a place to gather and relax, a place to decompress and a place to create a larger sense of family.
The houses built in these communities were for summer use but some were quite exquisite- one with a rooftop barbecue pit and surrounding garden, another with a forty-foot living room facing the water. The beach, however, was the anchor for the community, the communal lynchpin. It’s where families socialized; where we, as children, learned to swim, fish, scallop and clam. On weekends, the adults clustered under beach umbrellas with an ubiquitous black Zenith TransOceanic radio providing entertainment. More importantly, we developed friendships that still exist.
As we grew older, it was where romances began and ended. It was where families gathered to have barbecues and cookouts, clambakes and fish fries. It was an environment where we could experiment and not worry about consequences other than ones imposed by our parents, grandparents, or our proverbial aunts and uncles. For everyone, it was a life spring from which we drank to revitalize our spirits after a fall, winter and spring of isolation in separated communities. It was, in the truest sense, regeneration.
Now move inland from the beach, past the beach grass and scrub pine and beach plums. Enter a community of dirt roads and party lines and houses where every adult was an aunt or an uncle, a special designation symbolic of the true sense of community and bonding among the members and, perhaps, an acknowledgement that it takes a community to raise a child. It was a designation of honor and respect. It was a community where you obeyed the house rules in whichever house you were in. And it was a community where you couldn’t wait for Aunt Barbara to make fried chicken and biscuits or Aunt Cynthia to make clam chowder. Birthday parties and hurricane parties were rites of celebration.
Enter a land where you went next door to borrow a cup of sugar or flour- or whatever else you needed. Enter a place where each house had a ship’s bell, each with a distinctive tone and rung when we were summoned back to the homestead. Enter a place where we, as children, were released in the morning as a skittering horde to imagine our day- off to the beach to swim or waterski, or the creek to explore, or the woods to hunt. Imagine a place where we were released to the universe of our imaginations to create a reality for the day- until that bell rang.
As children we had a freedom that is unimaginable today. When did you last see children riding from the back of a station wagon sitting on the open rear flap? We picked beach plums and helped our grandmothers make beach plum jam or we turned the crank to make peach ice cream. And we watched young ladies doing water ballet at the annual Labor Day Block party. Every summer we built soapbox racers for the big race down the hill in Ninevah Beach. And I can’t forget the benches- perched on a small bluff above the beach; the evening place to congregate. Nor can I forget the basement parties with blue lights and the Isley Brothers singing “Shout” or the Diablos crooning “The Wind.”
It’s now 2016. Skinny Hill is now Harbor Avenue; the roads are paved; most of the ship bells are gone and forgotten (but not all). Families have come and gone but each is woven into the fabric of the community- Pinderhughes, Rhoden, Gibbs, Lopez, Segre, Simons and many more. And the beach, that life spring, is still there- a communal resource where lifelong friendships are made. So, my wife and I see our daughter, a fourth generation Sag Harborite, clasping a bluefish that she just caught. But I also see first kisses like a memory; and I see generations walking the beach together; and I see folks simply enjoying, unstressed, the sun and sand. I see what our parents saw in 1951 and what the early Eastville settlers saw before, now shaped by the prism of 65 years. What I see is folks who are relaxed; folks who are smiling; folks who are, for the moment, free to be themselves.
And perhaps that’s the core- our parents had a vision: creating a haven for themselves and their children and grandchildren- and maybe, just maybe, a few generations more. They saw more than a blue sky, blue water and a pristine beach. They saw an opportunity to unchain the shackles of race, if only for a few months. Sag Harbor is where Howard University meets Harvard University. It’s where barefoot on the beach is de rigeur and where you can sport your straw hat as if it was the Easter Parade.
Sag Harbor Hills is now a community 65 years old. We have weathered hurricane together; births, marriages and deaths; we have celebrated and mourned together. We’ve seen children grow and marry and start their own families. Some of us, like my wife and I, have been here since the beginning. I can sense ghosts of the past and harbingers of the future. We still have, on Labor Day, what we refer to as a tribal congregation on the beach. We share food and stories- an old fashioned gritbone, an experience so delicious it seeps into the very core, the marrow, of your being. The sunset signals the end of another summer before the tribe disburses. But, even better, the sunset signals the anticipation of another summer to come.
But I worry how our sun will ultimately set. The grim irony is the fact that these communities have become “hot” properties in the Hamptons and our traditional sense of community is fragile at best. My hope is that the markers for Terry, Cuffee and Richards Drive and Harbor Avenue don’t simply become historical reminders of a history that began in Eastville but exists no more.