On Long Island, a Beachfront Haven for Black Families

[SEAGULLS SQUAWKING] You could not learn to swim in Harlem if you didn’t go to the Harlem Y. There was no effort to really encourage youngsters in Harlem and Brooklyn to learn how to swim. So a lot of my friends never learned how to swim. And that’s sad, because 3/4 of the world is water. So if you don’t know how to survive around water, you’re a little more in jeopardy. But segregation, that was another cost of segregation and discrimination. You couldn’t even learn to swim in New York. I mean, New York is surrounded by water. [MUSIC PLAYING] When most Japanese [INAUDIBLE] it is not in the middle of a vast, smoke-clogged, industrial metropolis, but in the tree-lined outskirts of a small American town, the seaport community named Sag Harbor in the state of New York. The history of Sag Harbor, U.S.A., has been tied to the sea. A century ago, its name was known on almost all of the seven seas, for Sag Harbor was home port to some of the most famous of America’s whaling fleet, ships that scoured the world for the most precious and largest of the ocean’s creatures. [MUSIC PLAYING] Many of the African-American males that were here established their wealth through the occupation of whaling. Black folk learned how to sail. Now, we came here on sailboats 300 years ago, but we weren’t running those boats. Here, you run your own sailboat. You’re in command. African-American women were matriarchs in this community because of their husbands’ occupation. They owned land here legally before women were allowed to own land. They were head of households because of the wealth that they accumulated together. Sag Harbor was always a place, especially Eastville, where free Blacks lived among Natives and among working-class white people. And so the idea that all these people living together doing their thing in this community – and this is in the 1800s – was obviously not common. This house has a history of having three families of Black ancestry living in it. Before SANS developed, the summer houses were mine and the three or four here and a few that are on Liberty Street. They were all summer houses. And it’s basically from that group that SANS really got started. [MUSIC PLAYING] This wasn’t desirable land back then because it was marsh. It wasn’t developed. And so it was attainable. [MUSIC PLAYING] Sag Harbor was a rare opportunity. So, we live in the Azurest neighborhood. Azurest is the “A” in SANS. SANS stands for Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, Ninevah, Subdivisions. The early houses were small. There wasn’t a lot of cash in the old days, and so people built what they could afford. And at the time, African-Americans had difficulty getting mortgages. So they really were just building what they had in cash on hand. [MUSIC PLAYING] The Black banks developed because Blacks couldn’t get money from the predominantly white banks. African-Americans were not being offered beautiful, virgin land on the water anywhere in America. This is in the ‘40s, you know, and so we were up against a lot of resistance. And so we had to certainly use our own people to get financing. [MUSIC PLAYING] Now, this tree is an old hickory tree. And it’s famous on these grounds because this is a tree that Langston Hughes wrote poetry under in 1952. He was visiting the Pickens, and he came here, and he knew the Trotts, because all the families knew each other in the area. And he came here, and he loved the tree, and he loved the bench, and he just sat here and wrote poetry. Well, when we were children, really you knew everybody. Back then, there were only about 14 or 15 houses in all of Sag Harbor Hills, so everybody was an aunt or an uncle. It was like a big, extended family. Our grandparents knew each other, our kids are now friends, and our grandchildren are friends. So we’ve had five generations of friendships. I think places like Sag Harbor are very important to the African-American community, because it is really a safe haven. The word community has the word unity in it. And we’re united in the love and reverence for this place. In my family, I’m the fifth generation, through my granddaughter, to occupy this land. Five generations. I’d like it to be 10. [MUSIC PLAYING] The developers are really targeting our community. It’s ideal real estate. They want to flip it to a different kind of community, and we want it to be ours still. And it’s not that we object to other people moving in, it’s just that we want to maintain the sense of community. If they want to come and be a part of the community, it’s fine. But if you want to come and chase all of us out, it’s a whole different thing. And that’s the problem. And you have a developer and some people pushing an agenda that isn’t the proper agenda to approach, and it’s more of a scare tactic. [MUSIC PLAYING] [CHILDREN GIGGLING] There are things that can be done, but it is supposed to be done collectively by the community. So for me, as a historian, a preservationist, a history teacher and professor, I will continue to tell the story and write it down until everyone learns about the tenacity of the women and the men who continue to make sure that their children have access to what every one mother, grandmother, auntie, cousin wanted. So, I think for kids, and particularly our kids, like to see that this is what they come from and this is their history, this is not new, and just kind of understanding how their great-grandparents, I guess, got here. It’s just something that they need to know. And hopefully, they value it, because what we really want to have happen is this gets passed on and on and on. And I think the worst thing you would see here is things not being passed on to the next generation. [MUSIC PLAYING]