Ethel Carter, Longtime Sag Harbor Resident, Celebrates 102nd Birthday

Ethel "Maymette" Carter with her great granddaughter, Emma Morgan, left, and granddaughter Jennifer Morgan, right, recently celebrated her 102nd birthday. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Ethel “Maymette” Carter, 102, a longtime visitor and now permanent resident of Sag Harbor’s Chatfield’s Hill neighborhood, said growing old is not all it’s cracked up to be.

“When you live this long, all your running buddies are gone,” she said during a recent interview at her Carver Street home with her granddaughter Jennifer Morgan at her side. Ms. Carter, who turned 102 on July 6, had a simple answer when asked how she was feeling. “I’m feeling 104,” she joked, before turning to her granddaughter in mock confusion to ask, “What year is this anyway?”

Ms. Carter was born in Augusta, Georgia, and, growing up, she lived in several different cities in the Southeast, including Durham, North Carolina. Her family had founded North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company — one of the first African American-owned life insurance companies in the country, her granddaughter interjected — but Ms. Carter said her father, who ran a branch office, was simply not happy in the insurance business and moved the family to Brooklyn and a new career working with the Merchant Marine.

One of Ms. Carter’s brothers, Edwin Spaulding, was an avid fisherman, and after World War II, he purchased a plot on Carver Street, which at the time was a sand road with a sweeping view of the bay. He and his wife, Dorothy, bought a Sears two-car garage kit and erected that on the site as a summer cottage. Ms. Carter was a frequent visitor, and in the early 1960s, Mr. Spaulding, who had built a new house on the water in Azurest, sold the Carver Street property to Ms. Carter and her sister, Vivian Bryant.

Ms. Morgan said she remembered a no-frills summer camp when she visited her grandmother in the early 1970s. Pointing to where the front door is today, she said, “You had to pull up the garage door to get in.”

Ms. Carter, who as a young woman worked for New York City’s Department of Welfare, won a scholarship to Adelphi University, where she received a master’s degree in social work. After a career in that profession, she taught social work classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College until her retirement in the mid-1970s.

Over the years, she spent most summer weekends and the month of August at her little cottage in Sag Harbor, enjoying porgy fishing, regular games of bridge, and other activities. She moved east full-time after the death of her husband, Hubert Carter, in 1991.

“If you want to know the truth, I never thought I would end up here,” she said. “But now I know this is the right place for me to be.” She said she has an aide who helps out and neighbors and the children of her old friends stop by to check in on her, not to mention her granddaughter who lives next door. “All I have to do is breathe in and out.”

She credited her longevity to good family genes and said she had been fortunate that nothing bad had ever happened to her except for the death of her daughter and Ms. Morgan’s mother, Claudia Burkhart Morgan, 15 years ago.

In the early years, Ms. Carter said she remembered a tight-knit African American community in Sag Harbor. People would often gather at her home on Saturday evenings for impromptu summer parties. But the sand road proved treacherous to automobiles and provided a steady source of income to the owners of the Harbor Heights service station, who were often needed to tow cars out of the sand.

“People who consider themselves middle class are easily seduced,” Ms. Carter said of that sand road the village ignored until the early ’80s. “We were led to believe living in a private development gave you status, but it didn’t give you anything but problems.”

Besides being ignored by the village government, Ms. Carter said African American residents of Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, Ninevah and Chatfield’s Hill felt a cold shoulder from their white neighbors in the village. “In Sag Harbor, there was a lot of prejudice,” she said. “We really were not welcome here.”

But, she continued, “the Black community was sufficient unto itself — we really had no interest in mingling.” She described the acceptance of African American neighbors by the broader community as a gradual thaw.

These days, Ms. Carter is content to stay home and watch game shows on television and read her favorite magazines. Sometimes, her granddaughter will pick up takeout food and they will drive over to Long Beach to eat dinner and watch the bay.

“I don’t feel neglected,” she said. “I can’t really get out much, so I’m forced to take it easy.”