These days, when Renee Simons puts out a call for help, it’s usually answered — particularly when it comes to the efforts of the Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah subdivisions in Sag Harbor, which collectively are known as “SANS,” to achieve recognition by both the national and state registers of historic places.
When SANS found itself urgently in need of resources to review and describe the 306 houses in the three historically African-American communities as part of the landmarking process, Ms. Simons recently found herself reaching out to the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). Within two weeks, 25 volunteers from NOMA signed up to trek out to Sag Harbor from New York City and other distant locations during Columbus Day weekend.
In the span of two days, as SANS residents hosted them at their homes and treated them to dinner at Il Cappucino, the NOMA volunteers along with about 10 SANS residents completed the analysis.
“From the academic perspective and the timing perspective, having them respond was so rewarding. It was fabulous,” said Ms. Simons, who is leading the landmarking effort.
Samantha Josaphat, vice president of the New York chapter of NOMA, said the organization got involved, in part, to help ensure representation of communities associated with minority architects and designers in today’s multicultural society. The founding of the oldest SANS community, Azurest, has been largely credited to two sisters, Maude Terry and Amaza Lee Meredith. Both were educated in Ivy League schools and Ms. Meredith is known in academic circles as one of the first black female architects in the United States.
“Having the opportunity to assist the Sag Harbor community, to meet the requirements to achieve landmark status, is one of many approaches to our efforts in continuing to sustain and grow as a community,” Ms. Josaphat said in a statement.
During a presentation Friday at the John Jermain Memorial Library that was co-sponsored by the Eastville Community Historical Society, Ms. Simons reported on the efforts of the NOMA volunteers, as well as the news that SANS is eligible for recognition on both the National Register of Historic Places and the State Register of Historic Places. A few steps remain before they can officially receive that landmark status, and then there’s the matter of recognition by Sag Harbor Village, too. But the news was received with loud applause from a standing-room-only crowd at the library.
Steven Williams, a resident since 1953 who is president of the Azurest Property Owners Association, said Ms. Simons is owed “a real, deep, overdue thank you.”
“I had thought about documenting the history. I thought that we were losing it,” Mr. Williams said. “I never anticipated just how challenging this would be.”
Dr. Allison McGovern, a senior archaeologist with Hauppauge engineering firm VHB who has worked closely with the SANS leaders in developing an historic survey, offered a history of the three neighborhoods plus nearby subdivisions Chatfield’s Hill and Hillcrest Terrace that were once also among Sag Harbor’s historically African-American communities. Today, SANS spans about 162 acres. In her history, Dr. McGovern relied on photographs, newspaper clippings, county tax maps and subdivision maps, oral histories, deeds, field work and artifacts and “other ephemera” in private collections of local residents.
Dr. McGovern recounted the history of African Americans living in Sag Harbor dating back before the development of the SANS communities in the late 1940s through the 1960s. They arrived well before that time, in search of employment in the 19th century, settling along Hampton Street, Liberty Street, Eastville Avenue and other areas and working as whalers, fishermen, farm laborers, seamstresses and more.
In the early 20th century, a house known as Ivy Cottage — known for its Sunday dinners — was popular with black seasonal renters, who developed a desire for a vacation community of their own in an era when Jim Crow and institutional racism dominated the social and political climate. Dr. McGovern said those factors helped SANS “develop as a response to racism and segregation … the origins of these places are rooted in civil rights activism.”
Whereas subdivisions in other American towns underwent specific marketing campaigns, attracting veterans and families looking to trade city life for suburbia, Dr. McGovern said SANS did not rely on those types of campaigns. Rather, new neighbors were found through social organizations and personal and professional connections. Residents were often middle class or upper class, and frequently helped each other with financing, since black people could not get mortgages in those days.
“It led to a sense of safety and community … as well as a sense of elitism that continued through the end of the 20th century,” she said.
Indeed, guests at Friday’s presentation recalled the close-knit feeling they felt growing up in SANS.
“It was common that I was an adventurous little child. People would pick up the line and say to the operator we see Stevie and he’s running across the lawn,” Mr. Williams said. “I do have to say we felt safe not only in SANS but on the streets of Sag Harbor. … We didn’t lock doors. That’s the level of safety we felt.”
Some at Friday’s history lesson acknowledged things are starting to change, particularly with regard to developers who have bought up multiple houses and knocked them down or renovated them into much larger homes. Oftentimes, they are later rented to transient guests — who, some residents say, don’t understand the community.
One speaker on Friday cited the racially charged incident with TV correspondent Sunny Hostin on the waterfront in Sag Harbor Hills in July, when someone on the beach yelled the “N-word” at her and her guests. She said she herself had been the victim of harassment in which a white man called the police on her and suggested she had a gun, after she had chastised him for bringing a dog onto the beach, where dogs were not permitted.
“It’s really very emotional for us,” she said. “I am angry all the time about things that are happening in my community I have no control over.”
Mr. Williams suggested that “history is written by the winners.”
“I’m not sure if we’re going to stay winners here,” he continued, “so to do this is a great opportunity to put our stake in the ground.”
The discussion inspired a call to action from some in the audience.
Bill Pickens, a resident of SANS for 71 years, said, “We have to keep this going, folks. This is a special place, and let’s keep it this way.”
Jackie Vaughan, who first visited Sag Harbor in 1942 before moving here full-time in 1987, and who for many years produced a community calendar complete with birthdays and anniversaries, encouraged people to “be a part of it.”
“Get interested,” she said. “Don’t stay home. Come out and support us. Support SANS and make this community stay alive.”