In the summer of 2002, I was invited by friends to attend their daughter’s birthday party in the Hamptons. This was my introduction to Sag Harbor. Sag Harbor is an historic whaling village and has five African-American developments (Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, Ninevah, Hillcrest Terrace, and Chatfield Hills). These communities stretch along Route 114, which connects Sag Harbor to East Hampton.
Sag Harbor also contains the historic Eastville community. Eastville attracted blacks and Native Americans, interested in the whaling industry around the 1840s. Blacks and Native Americans worshipped with whites in the Methodist Church in Sag Harbor, but remained segregated in the rear or balcony. In the 1840s blacks and Native Americans founded the St. David AME Zion Church- which still exists today.
The Shinnecocks, Montauks and Africans (some fugitives or runaway slaves) made up the majority of the crew on whale boats from Sag Harbor. After the turn of the century, whaling was replaced by factory work as the main industry employing blacks. In the early 1900s, factory work declined in Eastville and many residents left for New York City to search for work and better opportunities. In turn, African-American waterside enclaves began to draw a stream of visitors. These pioneers were welcome in Eastville but often had difficulty getting rooms at Sag Harbor inns and hotels. To accommodate this wave of black vacationers, local families began to rent their homes out for the summer. As racial segregation was the law of the land in the 1940s, whites either would not or could not rent to blacks. This led African-Americans to collectively purchase and sub-divide beach-front and inland lots in Sag Harbor.
These African-American enclaves have become the summer retreats for generations of black educators, doctors, lawyers, judges, entrepreneurs and artists. The beaches are private and flush with African-American families. Everyone seems to know everyone, or their family by name. We spent our weekend at Ninevah’s private beach, barbecuing at night and relaxing – without having to explain, justify or apologize for our presence. The vibe is low key and friendly and most of the socializing goes on in private homes. On Memorial Day , July 4th and Labor Day weekends there are many parties, festivals and family friendly activities to enjoy in Sag Harbor.
We decided to hunt for a Hamptons home after 9/11. My reasoning – not rational at all – was if I was going to be in the cross-hairs of Al Qaida, I was going to enjoy myself. Short of a nuclear incident, I wasn’t leaving New York City. I just had to figure out a way to decompress, de-stress and reconnect. After reading this article on the black community in Sag Harbor, I was hooked. We started house hunting, primarily using word of mouth. This was difficult, I wasn’t BBB (Blue Blood Black) and Big P was BC (Blue Collar) and many homes that are available in black Sag Harbor pass through families from one generation to the next. In the odd chance an African-American family was selling I would have to be on the inside of the network to get a chance at bidding. Sometimes we got a good lead but our relatively low budget put us at a disadvantage. We found that properties with beach access easily fetched upwards of a million dollars.
In the end, we went online and bought a newly constructed cottage in Bridgehampton. We ended up in a modest, working class African-American community (which was going through its own issues regarding gentrification) – adjacent to acres of vineyards! Bridgehampton is over 17% African-American and also has a thriving Latino community. Our neighbors – black, brown and white – have been great. We enjoy living in a diverse community, being close to Sag Harbor, ocean beaches and the great shopping in East Hampton – without breaking the bank.
Although many of these African-American enclaves were spawned by racial segregation in the U.S. – many residents are happy to see them remain predominantly black. Tell me what you think. Do you think in “post-racial” America these communities should exist? Can they really survive and thrive? Do black summer enclaves in Sag Harbor and Martha’s Vineyard stir class division amongst blacks?