Black History Month: African Americans in Sag Harbor.

In honor of Black History Month I am featuring one of the most historic African-American communities in America. It is the sophisticated and exclusive area of Sag Harbor in The Hamptons. If you have been there you know vacationing in Sag Harbor or The Hamptons means fine dining, exquisite shopping, beautiful beaches and celebrity spotting. What many people do not know is the rich and long history of African Americans in Sag Harbor.

The Hamptons are located roughly 2 hours from New York City and Sag Harbor is located on Long Island in between East and Southampton. Although Sag Harbor is 85% White and 7.5% African American, the African-American presence is definitely felt. As recent as 2009 the population of African Americans in Sag Harbor in three neighborhoods was 100%! The history of African Americans in Sag Harbor dates back to the 1800s. Sag Harbor had a profitable whaling business so many African Americans flocked there seeking employment prior to 1840! Early life there was not easy as Native Americans and African Americans in Sag Harbor faced segregation that included sitting in balconies and rear areas of churches. The Eastville area in particular stands out as a thriving place for African Americans which is where, along with Native Americans, they built the St.David’s AME Zion church. This church is believed to have been a part of the Underground Railroad. Another African American community which I visited years ago is Azurest which was founded in 1947 by Maude Terry and her sister Amaza Lee Meredith. They had a dream to create a summer community for African Americans in Sag Harbor and did so by purchasing lots and selling them for $1000 or less! Other known African American communities in Sag Harbor are Ninevah, Sag Harbor Hills and Hillcrest Terrace.

When the whaling industry declined you could find men seeking other sea jobs while women worked as domestics to rich white people in the Hamptons. In the 19th century many financially sound African Americans bought and rented summer homes in Sag Harbor. Look around and pay attention to the street names which recognizes many of the early African American settlers to the area. “Terry Drive” and “Meredith Avenue” are named after the sisters above, “Paul Robeson Street” after the famous activist and “Cuffee Drive” named in part for Whaler Cuffee who was a sailor in 1832 and “Hempstead Street” named after David Hempstead-one of the founders of the AME Zion church mentioned above.  Most interesting to me is “Pickens Place” which is a landmark for the Pickens family estate that dates back to the early 1900s. I went to the University of Virginia with one of the Pickens! When I visited Sag Harbor he invited us to a block party in the Azurest area which was unforgettable. To see so many affluent and influential African Americans in Sag Harbor was comforting and inspirational. Notable black inhabitants of Sag Harbor included Harry Belafonte, Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington and more recently Ken Chenault-chairman of American Express, Susan Taylor-former editor of Essence Magazine and restaurateur B.Smith.  One of the main issues facing this historic area is keeping real estate in the hands of black families due to rising house and land prices. Most African Americans in Sag Harbor believe in preserving their communities. They believe in having a place where their children can grow up with and socialize with others like them. They believe in a place where they can be with like minded adults and a place where no one can tell them or their children that they do not belong.  Others welcome diversity to the area as long as the new residents embrace the community feel of the area. Some African Americans in Sag Harbor recognize the financial needs of some Black families to sell to the highest bidder and the younger generation not holding the same need to preserve the history and community values of their ancestors.  There are many Realtors in the area who work diligently towards preserving the African American presence in Sag Harbor communities.

The Own network by Oprah Winfrey currently has a documentary called “Sag Harbor” which discusses the history of African Americans in Sag Harbor as well as profiling many of its famous residents mentioned above. In an interview with Newsday magazine, B.Smith’s husband and business partner  Dan Gasby ,who moved to Sag Harbor 25 years ago, stated that the documentary is “letting people know that all Black people ain’t poor and all poor people ain’t Black”. View the trailer above and check Own TV for more information and local listings.

African Americans in Sag Harbor. Seafood at B.Smith's Restaurant. Photo courtesy of BSmith.com
Seafood at B.Smith’s Restaurant in Sag Harbor in the Hamptons. Photo courtesy of BSmith.com

My experience visiting Sag Harbor was a positive one as a young black professional.  I enjoyed laying out by the bay in Azurest and dining at B. Smith’s restaurant which had an  open air feel and views of yachts on the water. Although B.Smith’s has been sold there are many other great restaurant options in Sag Harbor. Main Street in Sag Harbor is very quaint with dining, shops and specialty markets. Be sure to go to The American Hotel for drinks or dinner! There is also the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. Relax on Foster Memorial Beach or Havens Beach. What I enjoyed the most was seeing, meeting and greeting so many successful Black people living, vacationing and being at home in an area that in most other states would be predominantly white. This is absolutely a great place to take Black children to teach them this part of African American history.

Have you been to Sag Harbor or The Hamptons? If so share your thoughts with us!

N.S.W.

Photo credit. Seafood picture courtesy of http://bsmith.com/restaurants/sag-harbor/#

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