Gladys B. Barnes kept disappearing into Beryl Banks’ living room and returning with more pictures. She put an old, black and white photo of a young, distinguished looking man on Banks’ kitchen table. It was a photo of Charles B. Rangel, or Charlie as Barnes called him, the Democrat from New York and chairman of the United States House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee.
“I’m not sure when it was taken,” she said. “He must be 18 or 19 years old.”
She then produced a picture of a young, Governor David Paterson, standing on stage at a political rally with his father Basil. Barnes guessed the picture was from the early 1970’s.
On Tuesday afternoon, Barnes and Banks, co-founders of the Harlem in the Hamptons Group in Eastville, together with Harry Banks and “researcher supreme” Jackie Vaughan, sat combing through piles of old photos and reminiscing about growing up in Harlem.
“Shoeboxes and shoeboxes and shoeboxes,” said Vaughan, when asked where all of the old photos came from.
All of the pictures will be displayed this Saturday as part of Harlem in the Hamptons at the Eastville Historical Society Heritage House, at 2 p.m. The afternoon will be an homage to the neighborhood where the four grew up, a neighborhood, which, like so many neighborhoods in the city and like Sag Harbor, is changing.
They said it’s been hard trying to remember when the pictures were taken, and sometimes, where. Each time they identified one, they wrote the details on the back. There was a picture of a dance at the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street, taken sometime around 1938 and a picture of all the officers of the 369th Armory, the heralded first African American regiment from World War One, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
Conversation veered from Beryl Banks’ reminiscing about James Baldwin to Harry Banks’ memories of Thelonius Monk to Barnes’ recollection of one of Malcolm X’s speeches. Barnes’ mother, who her father met overseas as a Navy Seaman, was from England and according to Barnes’ was the first white woman to live in Harlem.
“I remember when Malcom X was preaching one day,” said Barnes. “I was afraid he would insult my mother and I was going to stand there and dare him to say something.”
That moment never happened and Barnes guessed Malcolm might have known what was going through the feisty teenager’s head that afternoon. She said he never even made eye contact with her.
“Harlem in the Hamptons” has been a long time coming. Years ago, the three women learned not only did they all grow up in Harlem, they grew up blocks away from each other. Or at least Barnes and Vaughan did. Banks grew up a little farther uptown. There’s an ongoing argument amongst the women about whether where Banks grew up was even Harlem at all. Barnes and Vaughan ribbed Banks, telling her she grew up with the “rich people.”
“I never went up there,” said Vaughan. “To me Harlem was 145th street. I never crossed that street.”
Banks said she went to the Apollo Theater a lot as a kid, but Barnes and Vaughan said they never went there, not even once.
“I was poor,” said Barnes.
Geography and class aside, what they all have in common is a love for their old neighborhood.
“We’re four former Harlemites who spent our adolescence there, who grew up there,” said Banks. “We have fond memories of Harlem. We love it and we want to share all the experiences of what we engaged in.”
They all recall Harlem as a safe place, a place where they were loved and nurtured by its people and its institutions. They know things have changed since they left and they hope to keep their memories alive through the photos and, more importantly, their stories. They’ve had to do a little research for this Saturday’s celebration, but Banks said they would’ve been fine even if they just winged it.
“Even if we did not do research, we could stand at a podium and share our stories for hours,” she said. “Because we lived it.”
For Harry Banks, Harlem meant sports.
“If you didn’t deal in sports, you didn’t know about Harlem,” he said.
Vaughan remembered the music of her childhood.
“The musical concerts on Sunday afternoon at our church, United Seventh Day Adventist.” She said. “There were piano, violin and organ performances done mostly by the younger members.”
To this day, she said she has never lived in a house or even been in one, that didn’t have a piano.
Beryl Banks also recalled the role of the church in the community.
“On Sunday, everybody went to church and there were so many different ones,” she said. “And everyone respected one another’s churches and religions. My girlfriends and I would go home after church and change our clothes and walk down Seventh Avenue to see and be seen. That was a big deal.”
All four made their way to Sag Harbor by way of friends and family. Barnes and Vaughan came out for the first time in the 40’s. Before they knew it they were living here, in the African American neighborhoods of Azurest and Ninevah. The history of those neighborhoods has always been traced back to the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. But truth be told, according to them, the true origins of many of the African Americans who began to populate Sag Harbor in the mid 20th century, lay between 110th Street and 155th Street in Manhattan.
“The people who came from Brooklyn, a lot of them came from Harlem first,” said Banks.
Like Harlem, they say things are changing in Sag Harbor as well. When they arrived here, the sense of community was much stronger, just like it had been back home. Barnes said she once knew every black family in Sag Harbor, but not anymore. Also, she said even her own grandchildren and great grandchildren have no idea of what Harlem used to be like or what it means. They all hope their exhibit will be as educational as it will be entertaining.
“Harlem in the Hamptons” takes at place at 2 p.m. this Saturday at the Eastville Historical Society Heritage House. There will be a short program where people will recall their own memories of the historic neighborhood, as wells as food and music.
Photos: Top – Beryl Banks, Jackie Vaughan, Harry Banks and Gladys B. Barnes pour through old photos from their past in Harlem.
Left – A young Governor David Paterson on stage wiht his father Basil, who was runnign for lieutenant governor. Circa 1970
Right – A dance at the 135th Street YMCA. Circa 1938
Bottom – A parade passes by the Harlem Hospital. Circa 1939