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Black History Month – New York’s Hamptons and African-Americans

February 23rd, 2011 · 11 Brilliant Opinions · Hamptons

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.

Hamptons Map - Frommers.com (click to enlarge)

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?



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11 Comments so far ↓

  • Juli Southwell

    In post-racial America my answers to the social questions you pose are neutral. While there are conspiracies and the existence of institutional racism is alive there is also this beautiful thing called choice. Today we have more choices than ever before. These choices can break racial and class barriers. Today I look at young people-teenagers and young adults- and am inspired by their color blindness. Whether black summer enclaves in Sag Harbor and Martha’s Vineyard stir class division amongst blacks is subjective depending on whether those without the ability to partake in such activities are resentful and angry and whether those whose lifestyle affords them the privilege looks at those less fortunate with disdain. I like to look at the world from an optimistic point of view and believe as long as everyone has the best intentions for each other everything is the way it should be. Continue to enjoy your time in the Hamptons!

  • Ann

    Juli – thanks for your comment. As a girl who grew up in the inner city and summered on my “fire escape,” it has been a wonderful opportunity to enjoy these enclaves. I find these lifestyle/class lines to be quite fluid (perhaps post Obama – race will become much more so). However, I feel blessed to partake – whether by good fortune, chance or opportunity and proud of those who strived to make it happen. Cheers!

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  • Notorious SPinks

    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?

    Great article.
    In post-racial America why shouldn’t these communities exist is the question I ask. I see no problem with this. I love that this is an example for AA youth about the history of our people. All to often our kids don’t know their history. I didn’t even know this. I am adding Sag Harbor to my 40 before 40 list.
    Also, I think that this community displays the importance of land ownership in our communities. I was thinking about Hurricane Katrina a few weeks ago and was still amazed that so many of the victims didn’t even own their home so they didn’t have home owners to worry about anyway.

    I’d love to see more communities like this across America. I don’t think that it starts a class issue among us. I hope not anyway. It just adds something else to my list of things I can have because someone paved the way for me.

    Last, it saddens me that we live in a world where we question if one of “our” communities should exist. Whites never pose questions such as this and honestly we shouldn’t have to either.

  • Ann

    The Obamas spent some time in Martha’s Vineyard a few summers ago and took some heat for it. Some folks feel its a type of “segregation.” However, few will talk about why these resorts started in the first place – the history of racial injustice in the U.S. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  • Babz

    “Post racial” America does not yet exist! Therefore, it is just as necessary today to embrace these communities, albeit for a different reason. In the 1940’s we were forced into segregation, in 2011 we choose to be surrounded by our own history, culture and community. I can only hope that these beach communities that have become the haven for upperclass African Americans are welcoming of their not so well off brethren who respect the rich history and also want to enjoy the serenity of beach life.

  • Ann

    Hi Babz – thanks for joining the discussion. No we are definitely not post racial in America but I have found both my home, travel and professional life more “racially fluid” over the last 5 years. (Although yesterday, someone did asked me if I was “confused” when I went to get my car from the doctor’s parking lot at the hospital. I laughed it off and he seemed genuinely apologetic.) Although technically I am upperclass, I tend to identify socially with working class folks. I’m really sensitive to class issues. I have found the African Americans who summer in Sag to be friendly, inclusive, family oriented and generally super nice – across class lines.

  • Latony

    Thanks so much for this post. I am renting a house near Sag Harbor this summer with my family and one concern I had was if it was diverse. My husband is Indian and I am African American. I was so happy to stumble upon your blog by doing a search. If you have any additional posts for first timers, especially the most diverse day camps for kids and great restaurants it would be very much appreciated. Hope to see you on the beaches!

  • Ann

    Hi Latony – Sag is a great vacation spot for families of color. Regarding family friendly restaurants – did you see this post http://wp.me/p16WY7-14Y on Hamptons restaurants? Also, subscribe to my blog to keep us with new posts on great things to do in the Hamptons.

  • theresa

    Love the history of the New York Hamptons and
    African-Americans. Will visit some day. Refreshing too know that prime property is
    is mostly staying in the family for generations.
    God Bless

  • Ann

    Also great to see the history of cooperative economics at play in the African-American community – with many families buying parcels of land together and subsequently building on them.
    Thanks for your comment!

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