By Michelle Trauring
It is no secret that African Americans are often excluded from many modern historical narratives. And, as such, it should come as no surprise that they played a crucial role in Sag Harbor’s maritime industry.
Yet, still, it does. But for Georgette Grier-Key, it didn’t.
She has known about the Eastville Whalers since she was a child, explained the executive director and curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society. And she is now bringing a little-known history to the masses.
“History for marginalized people is not often written,” she said. “One thing that helps here is to discover most of the history of the whaling ship logs. If we didn’t have the ship logs, it would be very hard to attain the vastness of African American involvement in whaling.”
It was a combination of Native American, African American and European immigrants who made the Long Island maritime industry what it was, Ms. Grier-Key said, who will discuss how they worked together and shaped a community on Thursday at the Rogers Mansion, as part of the Southampton Historical Museum’s yearlong whaling programming.
“This is the year of the whale. It’s really exciting,” museum curator Emma Ballou said. “Our lecture series has so many different whaling topics and the experts in the field will be leading it.”
Ms. Grier-Key, a Sag Harbor native, learned about African American involvement in the industry when she was a young girl, she said. “As I was taught, African Americans have participated in every aspect of American life, including from Colonial times to the present—and especially here on Long Island,” she said. “Enslaved Africans can be traced back to 1654 in Suffolk County.”
Fast forward 200 years, and the East End was basking in glow of the “golden age” of whaling—as were newly liberated African Americans, who comprised 25 percent of whaling crews. After the Civil War and well into the 19th century, more than half of the crews were African American.
“I can’t give an exact date of when the beginning was. What I can tell you is that Native Americans have been hunting whales long before Europeans settled here. African Americans participating in whaling from the 1800s,” Ms. Grier-Key said. “There were various positions that African-Americans [held] on whaling ships, from cook, greenie, blacksmith, harpooners and carpenters. Many of the whalers were listed on the census as ‘Navigator of the Seas.’”
The most famous whaler was Pyrrhus Concer, born to his enslaved mother, Violet — owned by Captain Nathan Cooper in Southampton — and subsequently sold to Elian Pelletreau II for $25.
He was 5 years old.
After becoming a free man in 1826 and working as a farm hand, Mr. Concer shipped out on a whaling vessel in his late 20s, like many local young men.
It wasn’t long before he moved up the ranks, according to Tom Edmonds, executive director of the Southampton Historical Museum.
“Concer was a navigator, which was a high position for a black man,” he said. “He was the first black man to go to Japan. He was out on a lot of boats and he knew all of the whaling captains. He was a peer of all these white men.”
By the 1850s, the industry began to fade, and by 1890, it had completely bottomed out. Sailors of all races took off for the West Coast, trying their hand at the Gold Rush and a new adventure — taking with them a history that scholars are just starting to bring to light, according to Ms. Grier-Key.
“I think this history is really important because we live on an island that has an excellent maritime history, including having the first U.S. Customs House in Sag Harbor,” she said. “We are surrounded by bodies of water and the water is such a big part of our local history, which should include African Americans’ contribution.”
Georgette Grier-Key will discuss the role of African Americans in the maritime history of Long Island during “Eastville’s Whalers” on Thursday, April 13, at 3 p.m. at the Rogers Mansion in Southampton. Admission is free. For more information, call (631) 283-2494, or visit southamptonhistoricalmuseum.org.