Plain Sight Project Brings Stories Of East End Enslaved People To Light

The Black Lives Matter protest at Hook Mill in East Hampton in June of 2020. BEN PARKER

In early June, a crowd of nearly 400 gathered at the Hook Mill in East Hampton Village as part of a Black Lives Matter protest. The event drew several local leaders and other community members speaking out against police brutality and racism. They were united in their mission that day, and the iconic village landmark was a natural choice as a place to come together for maximum visibility.

But what many of those gathered there that day probably did not know is that the historic windmill was built, in part, by a formerly enslaved man named Shem. He worked alongside Nathaniel Dominy V, who hailed from a well-respected East Hampton family of craftsmen and is credited with building the historic structure in 1806. That year, Shem took a trip to Gardiner’s Island, where he helped cut the timbers for the mill, which were transported across the bay to Springs, and then dragged, by oxen cart, to East Hampton. Two Montaukett Indians worked with Shem to cut the timbers.

It’s one of many stories about enslaved people who lived on the East End of Long Island that have rarely, if ever, been told. But the elements have been there all along, in publicly available historical records and documents; or, as the people responsible for sharing these stories would say, in plain sight.

Since 2018, Donnamarie Barnes, the curator at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island, and David Rattray, the editor-in-chief of the East Hampton Star, have been at the helm of the Plain Sight Project, working closely with several other community leaders and educators, including Brenda Simmons, the executive director of the Southampton African American Museum, Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, the director of the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor, the Reverend Walter Thompson of Calvary Baptist Church in East Hampton, and others to restore the stories of enslaved persons to their essential place in American history.

David Rattray
Donnamarie Barnes is a co-founder of the Plain Sight Project.

The project, which is a joint venture between the East Hampton Star and the East Hampton Library, has created a database of what they call “confirmed identities” of close to 1,000 enslaved and free Black people who lived in the towns across the East End, on the North and South forks, between the mid 1600s and early 1800s.

For the past year, Ms. Barnes and Mr. Rattray have been sharing their findings with the public, and they will continue in that effort on Friday night, February 19, when they will be the guest speakers for the Parrish Art Museum’s “Friday Nights Live!” series. In a livestreamed talk from the museum, Mr. Rattray and Ms. Barnes will discuss the research, which the Parrish says will also inform the work of artist Tomashi Jackson for her upcoming Platform project, The Land Claim, set to open at the museum in July. The talk will be moderated by Corinne Erni, the museum’s senior curator of ArtsReach and Special Projects.

“The Plain Sight Project is an important part of this area’s history, and possibly not atypical for American history in general,” Ms. Erni said. “A lot has been left out, and now some of that is being unearthed. I am particularly excited about this program because Tomashi Jackson, the Parrish’s 2021 Platform artist, will work with David and Donnamarie to honor these people, give them a historic relevance, and bring them to life through photographic representation in her new paintings that she will create specifically for the Parrish exhibition this summer.”

Both Mr. Rattray and Ms. Barnes, who has an extensive background as a photojournalist, consider themselves storytellers, and it’s that aspect of their expertise that they will lean into when presenting their research and findings on Friday night.

Mr. Rattray said the focus on Friday night’s talk will shift into the individual storytelling zone largely because both he and Ms. Barnes have focused in previous public forums on the larger implications of their work, and have shared details about their research methods, including the ways they’ve collaborated with others, like Ms. Simmons and Dr. Grier-Key, doing similar work in other eastern Long Island towns.

“We’re getting more of a sense of how slavery worked as a regional system, and how it was part of the regional economy,” he said. “We’ve talked about our process a lot, studying primary source documents, wills, household inventories, commercial account books, and letters.

“This kind of work at this level allows us to talk about enslaved people and people of color with a degree of specificity that you can only get by doing local level studies like this, to figure out what enslaved peoples lives were like.”

Often, the research yields only a name and perhaps one or two small details about an enslaved person. But it’s a starting point, an essential entryway that opens the door to what Ms. Barnes says is the power and importance of imagining what the lives of enslaved people were like.

“We have to imagine,” she said. “It’s February now, and we’re complaining about the snow in 2021, but what was it like in 1660? When the wood had to be chopped, and the fire had to be kept going? If you lived in an attic or cellar or a back room space, maybe there wasn’t a chimney there? What did they wear and how did they stay warm? How did they not completely despair and lose themselves? And in that way, you imagine who they were.”

Mr. Rattray echoed those sentiments, and spoke about how even one small detail can open up a world of discovery.

“Just to be able to say one thing about one enslaved person on one day in the 17th or 18th century; that Peter helped hoe a row of corn for Reverend Nathaniel Huntting in 1702, that’s a kind of earth-shaking moment for many people we talk to,” he said. “It’s like, wait a second, you just told me something about someone who lived 300 years ago and who was enslaved not a mile from where I live. So we really want to focus on those individual stories, and to try to put pictures in peoples’ minds of what people really did then. And also talk about the inherent brutality of it.”

Sharing the untold stories of enslaved and free Black and Indigenous men and women is, of course, an essential part of the Plain Sight Project’s mission, but connecting those stories to the present, and contending with the centuries-long omission of those stories is crucial as well. Both enslaved and free Black people were present in the East End towns during their foundings in the 17th century, and are an essential part of that history, but their legacy has been ignored, until now.

“The number of people of color who were enslaved and became free people of color, in large part moved away or were not still part of the community,” Ms. Barnes pointed out. “Their descendants were not landowners or business owners, so they were not a continuous presence in the community. I don’t even think we can say it was a conscious choice, but [their stories] faded away. Stories were not passed down, were not repeated, and didn’t become part of the oral history. But it did happen, and it’s the history we’re working to uncover and embrace. It’s important to say that, from the very beginning, after the European settlers arrived, these communities were represented by three distinct cultures that intermingled from the first day: Natives, European settlers, and enslaved Africans who were brought here against their will. That’s irrefutable.”

Linking that information from the past to the present is vital as well, according to Mr. Rattray.

“We very much keep an eye on the present, because it’s my contention that you can draw a direct line from the omission of enslaved people in America’s origin story to the violence and discrimination against people of color today,” he said. “I think you can only really do this work at a very local level, otherwise it’s too easy for contemporary audiences to think of slavery like an abstract system rather than part and parcel of the American experience.”

Mr. Rattray and Ms. Barnes are committed to continuing the work they’ve done, with the support of volunteer researchers throughout the area, including several high school students, whose engagement has been essential. It’s time consuming work, and the hours put in by other volunteers have been key, especially as both Mr. Rattray and Ms. Barnes have full-time jobs. The project earned 501(c)(3) nonprofit status earlier this month, and also recently received a $1,500 grant from Village Preservation Society of East Hampton to help continue the work.

They both hope the work they’ve been doing expands and spreads in other towns.

“The model of the Plain Sight Project that began in East Hampton is something that can be replicated in every town,” Mr. Rattray said. “The information is there, the records are there. Every town has its historical society and archives and libraries and historic records.”

But Mr. Rattray and Ms. Barnes make it clear that they are not serving as activists in this role, or as policy makers.

“We’re making it available, but it’s up to schools to figure out how to incorporate it into their curriculums, although we’re certainly there to consult,” Ms. Barnes said. “But it’s up to villages, town boards and communities to decide how it gets acknowledged.”

Mr. Rattray said there has been positive feedback from schools so far in terms of their enthusiasm for bringing the research from the project into their classrooms. Ms. Barnes said her hope for the future of the project and the impact the work has locally is clear.

“My hope is that we acknowledge this history fully, and face it without shame or blame,” she said. “That we celebrate these individuals and honor them; that we give the African Americans that live here the knowledge about it, so they can celebrate them as heroes and ancestors. But it’s not just about this being Black history; it’s American history.”

Ms. Barnes referenced a previous talk given through Guild Hall. After answering audience questions, Ms. Barnes said they ended with a question of their own for those present.

“We’ve told you these stories, now what do you want to do about it?” she said. “Now that you know, you can’t unknow it. You cannot unlearn these truths and facts. So what do we do next? How do we honor these men and women who, by and large, built the place that we honor the legacy of today?”