The Historical Information Health of Black Communities on Long Island

Stony Brook University Honors College Senior Thesis

Case Study 2: Sag Harbor

The Village of Sag Harbor with schools, libraries, and other points of interest. Map by Arielle Martinez.

INTRODUCTION

When slavery in New York ended in 1827, many freed blacks formed their own communities on Long Island. The Village of Sag Harbor on the East End of the island has one such neighborhood, Eastville, which developed near a church founded by former slaves. After World War II, other black neighborhoods formed in the village. But now demographic changes and housing developments threaten the historical character of these communities. This conflict has provided both local and national media with many stories.

BACKGROUND

Geography

Sag Harbor is a village split between the Towns of Southampton and East Hampton in Suffolk County. It sits near the eastern end of the Peconic River on the northern coast of the South Fork of Long Island. It has a total area of about 2.3 square miles, according to the 2010 Census. It has 2,169 residents, a density of about 943 people per square mile, according to the census.

History

Sag Harbor was settled in 1707 when the people of a settlement south of the harbor, Sagaponack, used the coastal area as a port. The new settlement, called Sagg Harbor after the older settlement, became a prominent whaling port (Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce).

During the Revolutionary War, Sag Harbor was occupied by the British until May of 1777, when colonial forces attacked the British garrison there, destroying its supplies (Village of Sag Harbor).

In 1789, Congress passed — and President George Washington approved — an act naming Sag Harbor an official port of entry for the United States (Village of Sag Harbor). The Sag Harbor Historical Society also claims that the village had the first custom house in the United States, the first volunteer fire company in New York, and the first newspaper on Long Island (“A Brief History of Sag Harbor”).

In 1846, the Village of Sag Harbor was incorporated. But the whaling industry began to decline around the same time (Village of Sag Harbor).

Construction of the Long Island Railroad reached Sag Harbor in 1870. Other industries came to the village, including the E.W. Bliss Torpedo Company and the Bulova Watchcase Factory, one of the last industries in Sag Harbor with its closure in 1981. Since then, the primary industry in the village has been tourism (Village of Sag Harbor).

In the early 19th century, the neighborhood of Eastville was home to many of the free blacks who were employed on whaling ships. “Many were sailors expert at climbing ships’ high rigging and were valued as skilled harpooners,” wrote Alexandra Eames in her book “Oh, That’s Another Story: Images and Tales of Sag Harbor.” The AME Zion church in Eastville was also likely a part of the Underground Railroad.

“The one criterion for work on a whaler was great courage, regardless of skin color. A sense of tolerance grew here,” Maryann Calendrille wrote in her book “Sag Harbor Is: A Literary Celebration.” “Despite the danger, harsh conditions and low wages, sailing attracted black freemen to the adventure of life at sea. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville accurately depicted an interracial New England whaling crew, and early local records indicate that 20% to 30% of Sag Harbor’s sailors were either black or Native American” (77).

After World War II, undeveloped land along Sag Harbor’s shores was opened up to black buyers. Lots were sold for $1,000 or less. This led to the development of three black shoreline neighborhoods: Azurest, Ninevah and Sag Harbor Hills. Three other neighborhoods in the interior of the village — Eastville, Chatfield’s Hill and Hillcrest Terrace — also attracted black homeowners. “The racial makeup kept home prices down” in those areas, according to an Aug. 26, 2016 New York Times article about Sag Harbor. “White buyers tended to choose other parts of Sag Harbor” (A16).

In a column in the Oct. 23, 2014 issue of the Sag Harbor Express newspaper, writer Hope Harris told the story of resident Blanche Whisnant and her encounters with the subtleties of housing discrimination in Sag Harbor when she moved there from the Bronx in 1960:

“ ‘We were of mixed blood and though we could LOOK at houses in the main part of town, we were only allowed to live in Azurest’ ” (5).

Since then, the demographic makeup of Sag Harbor has changed greatly. “Now some of the children and grandchildren of the original African Americans have moved elsewhere and the six communities are evolving,” Eames wrote in “Oh, That’s Another Story.” “Young white, year round families are moving into the quiet streets.”

Demography

Sag Harbor’s population of 2,169 is 87.0 percent white, 7.2 percent black, 1.0 percent American Indian and Alaskan Native, and 1.4 percent Asian, according to the 2010 Census. People of two or more races make up 1.6 percent of the population, and Hispanic or Latino people of any race make up 13.1 percent. About 1,796 people, or 82.8 percent of the total, are over the age of 18. And about 470 people, or 21.67 percent of the total, were foreign-born, according to the 2015 American Community Survey.

Compared with the Towns of Southampton and East Hampton and with Suffolk County as a whole, Sag Harbor has a larger percentage of black residents (7.2 percent in Sag Harbor vs. 5.2 percent in the Town of Southampton vs. 3.4 percent in the Town of East Hampton vs. 7.4 in Suffolk County) but a smaller percentage of Hispanic or Latino residents of any race (13.1 percent in Sag Harbor vs. 19.9 percent in the Town of Southampton vs. 26.4 percent in the Town of East Hampton vs. 16.5 percent in Suffolk County). Sag Harbor also has a larger percentage of white residents (87.0 percent in Sag Harbor vs. 84.2 percent in the Town of Southampton vs. 84.8 percent in the Town of East Hampton vs. 80.8 percent in Suffolk County) and a percentage of Asian residents that is larger than that of the towns but smaller than that of the county (1.4 percent in Sag Harbor vs. 1.1 percent in the Town of Southampton vs. 1.3 percent in the Town of East Hampton vs. 3.4 percent in Suffolk County).

There are several historically black enclaves in the Hamptons region. But today, the black populations are tiny. In the Village of Southampton, near the Shinnecock reservation where blacks have lived among and intermarried with Native Americans, the population of 3,109 is 81.8 percent white, 9.9 percent black, 1.8 percent Asian and 16.2 percent Hispanic or Latino of any race, according to the census (Day 89). In the nearby Village of East Hampton, where former slaves set up a settlement known as Freetown, the population of 1,083 is 92.7 percent white, 0.7 percent black, 1.1 percent Asian and 11.8 percent Hispanic or Latino of any race (Day 51).

Historical census data compiled by the National Historical Geographic Information System from the last five decades shows that the already small black population of Sag Harbor has been shrinking. The percentage of black residents in Sag Harbor rose from 8.25 percent in 1970 to 9.76 percent in 1980, then fell to 9.56 percent in 1990, to 7.44 percent in 2000, to 7.24 percent in 2010 (Minnesota Population Center).

Economy

The estimated 2015 median household income in Sag Harbor was $100,900, according to the 2015 American Community Survey — 26.44 percent higher than the estimate for the Town of Southampton ($79,799), 23.48 percent higher than the estimate for the Town of East Hampton ($81,715), 13.80 percent higher than the countywide estimate ($88,663), and 87.24 percent higher than the nationwide estimate ($53,889). In 2015, the unemployment rate in Sag Harbor was 5.7 percent, according to the survey. At that time, the unemployment rate was 4.3 percent in the Town of Southampton, 6.1 percent in the Town of East Hampton, 6.4 percent in Suffolk County, 8.2 percent in New York state and 8.3 percent in the United States.

TRADITIONAL PROVIDERS OF NEWS AND INFORMATION

Local government

Because Sag Harbor is an incorporated village, it has a village-level government to provide services and information specific to the community. The two towns that Sag Harbor is in, the Town of Southampton and the Town of East Hampton, have populations of 56,790 and 21,457 respectively, according to the 2010 Census.

Various government officials serve the Sag Harbor area at the village, town, county, state and federal government levels:

The special districts serving Sag Harbor are:

Schools

In the early 19th century, Sag Harbor had three public schools. In 1862, the three schools joined together into one school district, the Union School District. A hotel on Main Street known as the Mansion House was converted into a school called the Union School in 1871. But in 1907, after the state government condemned the Union School building, a local philanthropist, Margaret Sage, donated funds for a new building on Division Street. That school, Pierson Middle-High School, was named after the ancestors of Sage’s mother. The old Union School later became the Municipal Building, which today houses the village government (Eames).

Library

Sag Harbor’s library, the John Jermain Memorial Library, was built in 1910 by Sage. It is named after her grandfather, Major John Jermain. In 1912, Sage deeded its grounds and equipment to a board of trustees (“A Brief History of the John Jermain Memorial Library”).

News media

One of Sag Harbor’s earliest newspapers, The Corrector, was first published in 1822. The Corrector merged with another paper, The Sag Harbor News, in 1919 and became The Sag Harbor News and Corrector. The News and Corrector was then bought in the late 1920s by another newspaper, The Sag Harbor Express, which had been founded in 1859. This merger left The Express the only Sag Harbor newspaper (“History of Sag Harbor’s Newspapers”).

When it came to reporting on the black communities in Sag Harbor, the early newspapers published very few stories on the “civic and life-supporting information” that is so emphasized in the Knight Commission’s report (19). They tended to focus on the more frivolous and scandalous goings-on of the neighborhoods. The elopement of young black couples seemed to be a favorite subject, as illustrated in this excerpt from a story in the Oct. 16, 1890 issue of The Sag Harbor Express:

“The quiet little village of Eastville, a small settlement of colored people lying at and adjoining the south-east side of the village of Sag-Harbor, had a slight matrimonial ripple passing over its unusually unruffled quietude last Saturday. It appears that Thomas Greene, a son of Mrs. Lewis Cuffee, and a native of Virginia, some 23 years of age, had fallen in love with Carrie King, a young lady of color who had not yet reached her eighteenth year. They had loved long and well, that is long for those so youthful as they, and would, ere this, have been known as husband and wife had there not been strenuous objections thereto by Robert King, the paternal sire of Miss Carrie. As, in this case, the course of true love did not run smooth, owing to objections beyond the control of the youthful pair, they resolved to put out and seek a home for themselves, where the matrimonial knot could be tied and husband and wife live without molestation. To this end plans were formed, matured, and would soon be put into execution, were it not for a great and that which might be termed an insurmountable barrier — the lack of funds — for while both were rich in love they were poor in purse. While thus suffering the excruciating pangs of poverty, and not knowing which way to turn, a thought crept into the heretofore honest heart of Thomas and he resolved to borrow, without her knowledge, some $150 which his mother had stowed away for a rainy day. He took it; he took the young and blooming damsel which he loved; and he took the steamer Manhanset for Greenport Saturday noon, where he disembarked and took the train for Brooklyn. No sooner had he gone than the flight of the birds was discovered, and what was worse, that the money had flown also — money which was to keep the wolf from the door during the pinching days of winter and to furnish warmth when the rays of Old Sol became less heating” (2).

“An Eastville Elopement. He Stole the Girl’s Heart and Then Stole Money” on Scribd

And here is another example from the June 7, 1902 edition of The Corrector:

“Eastville, a settlement of colored folks, a suburb of Sag Harbor, has had a real sensation this week. On Monday, Emmett Crippin, a coon-shouter and ragtime song and dance artist who has gained some local prominence, and Miss Sophie Cuffee, daughter of Mr. Christopher C. Cuffee, eloped. The girl is 15 years old, with light complexion and is quite pretty. Crippin is still in his ‘teens. It is not known where the flying pair have gone, but it is believed they are in New York where Crippin has relations. Mr. Cuffee objected to the attention shown his little daughter by Crippin, but the dusky lovers met clandestinely and arranged to ‘skip by the light of the moon.’ On complaint of Mr. Cuffee, Police Justice Tooker has issued a warrant for Crippin’s arrest on charges of abduction and seduction” (3).

“An Eastville Elopement” on Scribd

But most other news items concerning Eastville were simply listings of church events, like this one from the June 23, 1888 issue of The Corrector:

“The ladies of the African M. E. Church, Eastville, are to hold a festival on the afternoon and evening of Independence Day, the proceeds going towards the benefit of their parish-church” (3).

As stated above, the only weekly newspaper that primarily covers Sag Harbor today is The Sag Harbor Express.

Much of the paper’s coverage of Eastville focuses on the Eastville Community Historical Society (see below) and its efforts to preserve the history of the neighborhood, including its preservation of the St. David AME Zion Church and cemetery, its occasional exhibits, and its annual Black History Month celebrations.

Other coverage of the black neighborhoods of Sag Harbor tends to focus on the efforts of residents of those neighborhoods to push back against what they see as threats to the character of the neighborhoods.

One big news story from 2013 was the backlash against plans for the expansion of a service station in Eastville:

“Over the course of the last month, over 40 letters have been filed with the Sag Harbor Village Building Department about the Harbor Heights Service Station expansion plan, which will be before the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), next Tuesday night. And not a single one supports the project. … According to Anita Rainford, president of the Azurest Property Owners Association, a number of residents — including many throughout the Azurest, Eastville, Ninevah, Chatfield Hills and Sag Harbor Hills communities — fear the project will not only bring a larger commercial entity close to their communities thereby threatening their quality of life, but also that it could harm the historic character that makes Sag Harbor, and these neighborhoods so special” (1).

“Opposition Mounts to Harbor Heights” on Scribd

Several stories in 2015 were dedicated to the village’s enactment of a moratorium on construction projects, like this story from July 16:

“WITH AN OVERFLOW — and supportive — audience in attendance, the Sag Harbor Village Board on Tuesday adopted a six-month moratorium on large scale residential construction projects to give it time to craft new laws to keep development in check and in keeping with the village’s historic character. ‘This village is being assaulted,’ said Bill Pickens, a resident of the Sag Harbor Hills neighborhood, whose remarks were met with heavy applause, ‘and my only advice to you is don’t let developers pillage our village’ ” (1).

“Moratorium? Yes.” on Scribd

And the lead story on the front page of The Express’ May 21, 2015 issue was about the negative impact that abandoned homes had on the black neighborhoods:

“IT’S NO SURPRISE that many Sag Harbor residents are up in arms over the wholesale changes that have been occurring in their neighborhoods over the past couple of years. Members of the preservation organization, Save Sag Harbor, have become a common sight at village meetings, where they frequently offer a thumbs down to the development du jour unveiled in the village’s historic district. But there is another group of Sag Harbor residents, weekenders mostly, who say the village has ignored a slowly creeping blight spreading across their neighborhoods. Residents of three traditionally African American neighborhoods off Route 114 on the east side of the village — Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, and Ninevah — say the village has for years failed to act on their complaints about abandoned houses and other code violations or moved at glacial speed in response to them” (1).

“Abandoned” on Scribd

In a letter to the editor, the presidents of the Sag Harbor Hills Improvement Association, the Azurest Property Owners Association and the Ninevah Beach Property Owners Association praised the Express for its reporting on the abandoned houses:

“We applaud the reporting of Stephen Kotz and we urge The Sag Harbor Express to examine all of the May 17, 2015 recommendations of Save Sag Harbor concerning development. In this regard, over-sized houses on small lots in Sag Harbor is an issue worthy of in-depth investigation, in addition to scrutiny of the land use committee (i.e.. Architectural Review Board) that approves them. Transparency is needed to demystify the process and conduct a comprehensive evaluation of land use policies. Sag Harbor is a beautiful village. The Historic District and harbor are without peer in the Hamptons. Our economy relies on the construction and tourism industries. It is imperative that government protects all of Sag Harbor, and carefully manages the industries that support the village. Therefore, land use is key to our future. Please continue your fine reporting” (6).

“Attention to Land Use” on Scribd

In other letters to the editor, residents brought to light other issues that they thought affected the black neighborhoods more than other neighborhoods. Take, for example, this letter from Aug. 14, 2014 by resident Ken Dorph:

“The 2006 East Hampton Airport Master Plan (Chapter IV) noted that a southern helicopter route, over Georgica Pond then over the ocean, would be ‘substantially better’ with the ‘minimum sound track’ and with negligible impact on flight time. However this most logical route was squelched since it would overfly, as the Plan put it, “high value real estate. Instead, the helicopters fly over the more numerous but lower value real estate of Noyac and Sag Harbor, and especially Azurest and Ninevah, our traditionally African-American neighborhoods, i.e. one Steven Spielberg equals 100 of us hoi polloi” (11).

“Helicopter Noise” on Scribd

The Express itself has taken stances on these issues in its editorials, including this one from Sept. 18, 2014 regarding historical preservation:

“Last month, it was members of Save Sag Harbor sounding the alarm about the growing number of teardowns in the village. Last week, it was a lone preservationist and a member of the Eastville Community Historical Society, who raised concerns before the Sag Harbor Village Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review about the possibility that important historical artifacts will be lost if an archaeological survey is not completed before a derelict house at 11 Eastville Avenue is demolished and replaced with a new one. While it is hard to argue that the property’s owner should be asked at the 11th hour to foot the bill for a survey and wait for the delay that will surely follow, it begs the question why a historic preservation consultant does not routinely review such applications in the first place. A consultant would be able to quickly determine whether the house on a given property was built 150 years ago or 250 years ago and whether or not it can reasonably be expected to be the site of historic artifacts well before the application process gains steam. Years ago, the village hired historic preservation consultant Alison Cornish for just that purpose. It would be well served to find someone else to fill that role today. That would allow the board to fulfill its mandate of both reviewing architectural plans and, as the first part of its name states, overseeing historic preservation” (6).

“Trampling on History” on Scribd

Outside of The Express, the Southampton Patch and Long Island Press both occasionally feature stories about the goings-on in Sag Harbor.

News coverage of Sag Harbor has also been featured prominently in national media. The front page of the Aug. 26, 2016 edition of The New York Times featured a story about black residents of Sag Harbor and their discomfort with the encroachment of wealthy developers in their neighborhoods. On Jan. 25, 2015, the Oprah Winfrey Network television channel aired a documentary about the African American history of Sag Harbor.

In a Jan. 15, 2015 op-ed in The Express, local media columnist Christine Bellini reflected on the importance of news coverage of the issues that matter to Sag Harbor’s black neighborhoods:

“Here, we turn the page to tomorrow’s conversation. Soon our table talk will undoubtedly focus on the transformation taking place in the historically important African American beach communities depicted in the documentary titled, Sag Harbor, set to air on the Own Network Sunday, Jan. 25th at 10 p.m. Press accounts in Hamptons.com, Dans Paper’s, The Sag Harbor Express, and on the Own Network website frame the narrative: ‘This tight knit enclave was established as a refuge from racism in the early 20th century. With the recent housing boom, this once all African-American neighborhood is now fighting to hold onto its identity. Real estate prices throughout the three bayfront areas of Azurest, Ninevah and Sag Harbor Hills have recently skyrocketed. This seemingly positive economic reality is forcing the younger generations, now inheriting these cottages from their parents and grandparents, to face a vexing dilemma: To sell or not to sell?’ ” (7)

“The Unbroken Chain of Public Discourse” on Scribd

Civic organizations

As illustrated in news items listed in The Corrector, early civic engagement for the black residents of Sag Harbor centered on the church, specifically the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in the Eastville area. The women of the congregation would often hold fundraisers for the church.

In 1981, residents of Sag Harbor founded the Eastville Community Historical Society. “Their unifying theme, Linking Three Cultures, emphasized the importance of all who lived so close together: African Americans, Europeans, Montaukett and Shinnecock Indians,” wrote Alexandra Eames in her book “Oh, That’s Another Story.” The group’s first projects were to preserve the St. David AME Zion Church and cemetery and to establish an Eastville Historic District.

The historically black neighborhoods of Sag Harbor also have active property owner groups, including the Sag Harbor Hills Improvement Association, the Azurest Property Owners Association and the Ninevah Beach Property Owners Association.