Treasure Tells Tales of an Extraordinary Community
By Carrie Ann Salvi
“They opened these boxes and put these things in my hand, and my heart started to pound out of my chest,” said Donnamarie Barnes on Friday of the antique photograph tintypes and cabinet cards presented to her by members of Sag Harbor’s Eastville Community Historical Society and its director, Georgette Grier-Key.
As she unwrapped the pieces, she said, “They were leaping out at me, saying, ‘Here we are…tell our stories, we’ve been waiting for you.’” Ms. Barnes, a photographer, photography historian, and photography editor, will present the collection of 28 images to the public beginning with an opening reception on Saturday, July 11.
The tintypes are one-of-a-kind portraits of a community who lived together, a combination of African American, Native American and white people, she said. What was also amazing to Ms. Barnes, and perplexing, was where the tintypes were found: in the floorboards of the attic in an “ivy cottage” just up the road.
They were nailed to the floor face down when they were found and pried off by Greg Therrieault, the manager of the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, the cottage’s former owner.
These are not family albums, Ms. Barnes emphasized. “It must have been an extraordinary kind of community,” she said as she thumbed through pages of photographs of diverse neighbors.
“We should all get along so well,” she said. According to the society’s website, from the early 1800s until the 1900s the Eastville section of historic Sag Harbor was made of free blacks, European immigrants, and Native Americans.
Ms. Barnes embraced the unexpected role of “archaeologist of record” after having the tin treasure literally handed to her shortly after leaving her 13-year photo editing position at People Magazine last June. With a home in Sag Harbor her entire life, she decided to live here full time with her husband, who works at the Ross School. She said she has always been very connected to the community, and her mother, Gladys V. Barnes, has served on the board of the Eastville Community Historical Society.
A lot of the names seen in the exhibit can also be viewed on grave markers at a nearby burial ground on Eastville Avenue.
The impressive attire worn in the photos was likely made by the women in the community, Ms. Barnes said, as many of them were seamstresses.
The residents sat for their photographs on Washington Street between 1882 and 1915, with William G. Howard doing the honors. Mr. Howard settled in Sag Harbor in 1880, after being raised in Southold, where his father had a photography studio. He also served as the chief of the Sag Harbor Fire Department. Ms. Barnes has great respect for the photographer’s work, which included a few colorful touches.
Feeling grateful to be able to hold the memories of residents such as Sarah Luisa Parker in her hands, Ms. Barnes was excited to seek out and document their life stories.
Mrs. Parker, whose face is on the event flier, (and in Ms. Barnes hands, above) was born in East Hampton in 1837. She married John W. Parker, a minister from Virginia and raised four children in the Eastville community.
She became a widow and only one child, Mary E. Parker, born in 1871, survived to adulthood. Ms. Parker lived with her daughter, who worked as a nurse and teacher in a house they owned on Eastville Avenue, before she died between 1900 and 1910.
There will be an opening reception for the exhibit, “Collective Identity: Portraits of Early Eastville Residents 1882-1915,” on Saturday, July 11 at 139 Hampton Street, from 4 to 7 p.m. The images will remain on view through October 17.
Ms. Barnes hopes it will be well attended, and that visitors might offer insight into the identities of some of the nameless faces.