Dan Gasby and Barbara Smith in a still shot from “Sag Harbor,” which will premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network at 10 p.m. on Sunday, January 25. Photo courtesy OWN.
By Mara Certic
Sag Harbor will appear on televisions nationwide this Sunday, but instead of acting as a backdrop for a gaggle of Kardashians, this time, the village will play a leading role in the story of a refuge and safe haven for African Americans in the 20th century.
On Sunday, January 25, the hour-long special “Sag Harbor,” will be shown on the Oprah Winfrey Network as part of its month-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the three Civil Rights marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
The film examines the three bayfront neighborhoods of Sag Harbor Hills, Ninevah and Azurest, which have traditionally been home to wealthy African Americans.
African Americans have been living in nearby Eastville since the height of the whaling industry in Sag Harbor in the mid-19th century when the neighborhood was predominately made up of Native Americans, freed slaves and European immigrants.
During the years of segregation, middle class African Americans searching for somewhere to spend their weekends and summers looked to Eastville, and by the 1950s had established the new, almost entirely black resort communities of Azurest, Ninevah and Sag Harbor Hills.
A film crew from Ish Entertainment spent two months in Sag Harbor last summer, interviewing residents on what the three communities mean, their importance, and how the fabric of the area has inevitably changed.
Dan Gasby’s first visit to Sag Harbor in the late 1970s was a revelation to him.
“Being an inner-city kid, I’d never been in a place where you saw these very well dressed, very intelligent-looking people with nice beach houses, who were doing things on the beach you just couldn’t do on Coney Island or on Reese Beach,” he said in an interview on Monday.
“It was something that was special, and you sensed a camaraderie of the people. And that’s something that was borne out of a mutual, shared experience of people who had achieved, who came up through the ranks and went to college and were hardworking and believed in having a piece of the American dream. And that’s what Sag Harbor meant to a lot of African Americans,” he said.
In 1994, Mr. Gasby and his wife, the model, restaurateur and television personality Barbara Smith bought a house in Sag Harbor Hills, and a few years later decided to move to the East End all year-round.
The couple owned the popular restaurant B. Smith’s, on the Long Wharf for 16 years until they closed up shop in 2013.
“All in all, there is more diversity in Sag Harbor than in any other East End town. And that’s because you have communities like Eastville and the three communities on the water,” Mr. Gasby said.
“But to say I hadn’t experienced racism here would be like saying I’ve never had shoes that didn’t fit,” Mr. Gasby said. “It comes with the paint job.”
The first nine years that he and his wife had their restaurant, they were constantly on the verge of going out of business, Mr. Gasby said, in large part due to inherent racism.
“My wife would be on WQSR radio, which was a classical music station. And her voice was so clear and pristine, like a bottle of champagne opening and people didn’t know she was black. And then they’d come to the restaurant and they’d get upset,” Mr. Gasby said, recalling receiving letters that said “How dare you fool me, you don’t talk black,” he added.
And yet Mr. Gasby remains hopeful for a more accepting America.
“Thirty years ago, gay people couldn’t get married. And now we’re on the precipice of everybody who loves somebody to be able to have a union of marriage with them,” he said. “That was time acceptance. And the media has to help. If you don’t talk about it, you can’t make it better. People don’t want to deal with reality unless they’re constantly confronted by it.”
And that is what Ish Productions and OWN tried to do with this film, according to Mr. Gasby.
“What this show is all about is that there are a lot of people, both black and white, who don’t believe black people share the same values. And when you break those barriers down you have the opportunity to create a better dialogue and a more harmonious environment for all people,” he said.
“People talk about five or six generations of being out here, people talk about living on Georgica Pond, people talk about being from Montauk or being a Bonacker. There’s a lot of pride in how long you’ve been some place, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being proud about having an African American community. There’s a big difference between racial pride and racist indignation,” Mr. Gasby added.
In recent years, the demographics of the neighborhoods have changed, which Mr. Gasby equates to people realizing these three communities were in fact part of the Hamptons.
“I’ve lived around every type of person known to man, and I like to live around people who are low maintenance, be they black, white, yellow, red or whatever. As an African American, am I proud to see African Americans in a place where they know they belong? Without a doubt,” Mr. Gasby said.
“But as an American, and a black man,” Mr. Gasby continued, “the goal is to welcome people who want to improve and preserve their properties, who are neighborly, who in times of trouble come to your aid.”
“My father used to tell me something that I never forgot. He said ‘All black people ain’t poor, and all poor people ain’t black.’ And that’s what this show is really trying to say. You don’t have to be a billionaire to live the American Dream,” he said.
“Sag Harbor’s not perfect,” Mr. Gasby admitted, “but it’s pretty good.”
“Sag Harbor” will air at 10 p.m. on Sunday, January 25, on OWN. For more information, visit oprah.com/own-own/Welcome-to-Sag-Harbor.