Eligible for National Historic Status, SANS Is Subject of Guild Hall Lecture

Andrew Kahrl presented a talk about historically African American beach communities on Saturday. Alisha Steindecker photo

Eunice “Jackie” Vaughan longs for the days when the children in her Sag Harbor Hills neighborhood would call her “Nanny” or “Auntie Jackie.” The great, great grandmother and retired grade school teacher first came to Sag Harbor as a teenager in 1942, and her family bought a home in the coastal enclave of Sag Harbor Hills some three decades after that.

But the historically African American beachside communities of Sag Harbor Hills, Ninevah and Azurest — collectively known as SANS — have changed since that time.

SANS community members gathered at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Saturday afternoon to hear Andrew Kahrl — associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia, and author of “The Land Was Ours” and “Free The Beaches” — discuss the importance of sustaining black beach resorts in African American life.

They also learned that all three SANS neighborhoods are eligible for national historic designation, following the completion in March of a survey of the roughly 300 properties in the area. The next step, according to Julian Adams, the director of community preservation services at the State Historic Preservation Office, is to turn that eligibility into a formal nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. He expects that to materialize early next year.

“These were places where African Americans could enjoy their fleeting moments of leisure and dignity on their own terms, places where they could get a rest from white racism,” Mr. Kahrl said of beachside communities across America, including Highland Beach and Carr’s Beach in Maryland, Hilton Head in South Carolina, Oak Bluff’s in Martha’s Vineyard, Amelia Island in Florida and Gulfside in Mississippi. He estimated that at various points there were over 100 such communities in existence, though that number is constantly being revised. “These were not accommodations to the world of Jim Crow, they were in defiance of it.”

Mr. Kahrl explained at length that several African American beachside communities, much like SANS, were founded in the 1940s by those looking to escape the racism that often prevented them from enjoying public beaches, at a time when Jim Crow was strictly enforced in the South and subtler forms of segregation persisted in the North. It was still a decade before the Civil Rights Movement took full effect and African Americans wanted — and needed — to create safe places for themselves where they could go cool down during the summer months.

But it didn’t take long, Mr. Kahrl said, for white Americans to realize that there was black demand for outdoor leisure spaces. After World War II, when coastal real estate became some of the most sought after, they tried to capitalize on the demand.

“It’s important to remember that Jim Crow was first and foremost a system of economic exploitation, one that was made possible by political domination and social ostracism,” Mr. Kahrl said. “If there was ever a way to make money off of black people, you could be sure a white man was there to try it.”

The crowd at Guild Hall absorbed that statement, mumbling and stirring in their seats.
At the time that the SANS communities were settled in the 1940s and 50s, Sag Harbor was a financially distressed village. Black American professionals, including lawyers, doctors, engineers and professors, bought parcels of land there for a few thousand dollars, though they did not have the advantage of taking out mortgages from the bank like white Americans did.

But the increasing demand in recent years for coastal real estate in the Hamptons has attracted outsiders who many in the SANS communities say don’t value the history of the place because they either don’t know it or don’t understand it as part of American history. That’s partly why SANS is vying for official historic recognition.

“The majority of homes here are still in the original families’ hands for two, three generations, and it’s something that we felt that if we didn’t document it, it would disappear,” said Renee Simons, who coined the term SANS and has been a leading figure in the community’s push for recognition. “We hear stories of blacks but it’s mostly very negative on TV. You never hear about the group of people who really founded an area and built second homes. And if you don’t hear now, you will not hear.”

Indeed, new homes that are upwards of 4,000 or 5,000 square feet have emerged in the area, overshadowing modest beach houses that average 1,400 square feet.

Ms. Simons explained that SANS has undertaken a task of documentation of notable people who both lived in and visited the area, which could help reinforce that the communities deserve historic recognition. Among these individuals were Lena Horne, a singer and movie star; Langston Hughes, a famous writer, poet and playwright; Dr. William Pickens Sr., an organizer of the NAACP in 1909; and, General Colin Powell, a former U.S. Secretary of State.

William Pickens III, who is almost 82 years old and says he has spent nine tenths of his life in Sag Harbor, fondly recalls riding bikes with the “honorable General Powell.” It was a time when he knew all of “the cousins and the aunts and the grandparents” in the area, he said. “That is a tapestry of humanity…and that’s what we have here. We have community.”

While Mr. Kahrl explained the many similarities of the SANS communities to other African American beach resorts nationwide, he also said the residents of SANS are quite notable. They are engaged in politics and willing to make their voices heard. They are not sitting back and watching change happen, but they are actively working to make sure it’s the kind of change they want.

“Many of these actions take place without the public noticing, or at least without the type of pushback that is needed to prevent developers from simply scooping up as much properties as they can,” Mr. Kahrl said in an interview.

That’s not the case with SANS.

“One of the things that we can pride ourselves on as a community [is] we have been very present at many levels, whether it’s board meetings, whether it’s [Sag Harbor Village Historic Preservation & Architectural Review] meetings, whether we continue to hold up the torch with making sure that our history is known,” said Dr. Georgette Grier-Key — the executive director of Eastville Community Historical Society — who has also been actively involved in SANS’s pursuit of historical recognition. Eastville is another historically African American community in Sag Harbor.

Mr. Kahrl emphasized in an interview, like many residents explained themselves, that the SANS communities are not objecting to change.

“Change happens, it’s a question of what type of change happens and who benefits from it and who loses,” he said. “They don’t object to new neighbors; what type of neighbors are coming in here? Do they want to be neighbors?”

Walking in his Sag Harbor Hills neighborhood before the lecture, Mr. Pickens stopped to fix a fallen-down post on a neighbor’s property meant to protect the grass. He explained that it’s difficult to get to know his new neighbors on a personal level, a connection he is used to having, and one that is important to him.

“All these homes put up trees so you can’t even see them — privacy is something that the newcomers seem to want to have,” he said. “I say, where’s the sense of belonging, where’s the sense of enjoying each other?”

“We didn’t have fences, you know.”

Likewise, Aloysius Cuyjet, another SANS community member, said he’s used to seeing post-it notes stuck on his home that ask if he’s willing to sell. “This is the one place where the masks would come off when we were growing up,” he said to a round of applause. “I think the value of that at least for me personally transcends any dollar transaction that might occur.”

While historic designation of the SANS neighborhoods will not legally prevent unwanted change, Mr. Kahrl explained that it’s a first step to empowering a group of people with a sense of purpose that can be transferred between generations.

“It has an effect that isn’t written into law but it can certainly work to help ensure that that history is not going to be simply eroded,” he said. In Highland Beach, Maryland, for example — which was founded by Frederick Douglass’s son — historic recognition “stamped an identity on that stretch of the shoreline as being an historically black beach community — and one that has a rich history that is in need of protection.”

“They recognized that history can be a powerful force in the present,” he added.

A sense of urgency to keep community alive and to ensure that the SANS story is recognized as an American story — and not just an African American story — was an ever-present feeling throughout the lecture at Guild Hall on Saturday. Though community members acknowledge the power of outside forces such as rising real estate taxes that can at times pressure families to sell their homes, it appeared that they would not do so without a fight.

“When I greet people in the morning, I say, ‘I’m not moving — how are you doing today?’” Ms. Simons joked, to a chorus of laughs.