By Carrie Ann Salvi
Tales from the attic will be told Saturday, August 15, when Joseph McGill, an educator of African-American history, offers a presentation of the Slave Dwelling Project at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island. Mr. McGill is a man on a mission who wants to help preserve the remaining living quarters of the slaves who built and maintained the properties in every state in which slavery existed.
New York will be the 15th state he has visited as founder of the nonprofit Slave Dwelling Project. He will sleep in the slave quarters in the manor attic the night before his talk.
Mr. McGill will sleep at the Thomas Halsey Homestead in Southampton on the evening of Saturday, August 15, and give a talk the next day at the unveiling of a historic marker at the Pyrrhus Concer Homestead. The house was dismantled last year after the owner of the property announced plans to build a new one on the site. Mr. Concer, who was born into slavery in 1803, was best known for his history-making role on the whale ship Manhattan, which rescued the crews of two shipwrecked Japanese vessels. He died at his house at 51 Pond Lane at the age of 84.
“The Town of Southampton saved the day with Community Preservation Funds,” said Georgette Grier Key, the executive director and curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor. She said she was thrilled with Southampton Village’s plan to reconstruct the house and turn the site into a museum honoring Mr. Concer. The Southampton Town Board decided unanimously on July 11 to purchase the property for $4.3 million.
“While the focus of the Community Preservation Fund largely has been on the acquisition of open spaces, farmland, and parkland, an equally important aspect of the fund is preserving our historic resources such a the Pyrrhus Concer Homestead,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said on Wednesday. “Historic preservation is just as important a part of our community character as are scenic vistas or natural features such as wetlands,” he said. “Too often, our own local history fails to get the attention that it deserves, particularly the contributions of the African-American community to the East End. Projects like the Concer Homestead insure that history is preserved and shared with future generations,” he said.
“The whole room sighed, it was unbelievable…history that I am so happy to be a part of,” said Ms. Grier-Key of the town board’s vote. “I felt such a gratitude for the results.” Ms. Grier-Key expressed her appreciation to many groups and individuals including the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities and the Concer Preservation Group.
The Eastville Community Historical Society will take active roles in both the Shelter Island and Southampton portions of Mr. McGill’s visit.
“We wanted to make Joe accessible to our cultural partners, too, because what happened with the Concer house speaks directly to what he initially founded the Slave Dwelling Project to do,” said Maura Doyle, the historic preservation coordinator at Sylvester Manor, on Tuesday. Ms. Doyle contacted Mr. McGill after learning of his visits to southern plantations to remedy situations where culture and history were physically removed in favor of aesthetics, architecture, or profits. Once his program at Sylvester Manor was confirmed in January, she invited SPLIA and the Concer Preservation Group to become sponsors of Mr. McGill’s first visit to New York.
At Sylvester Manor, while artifacts such as the pencil used by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a popular American poet, were delicately wrapped, recorded, and stored, there is little left behind by those who slept above in the attic, aside from etched drawings on the attic walls and some spiritual caches found beneath the floorboards.
Records of African slaves and other possessions that point to their monetary worth were among documents found in a vault behind an iron door, and they have since been given to the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University. Slaves helped to supply materials for the Sylvester family sugar plantations in Barbados after they were bought on the African Gold Coast with New England rum.
Saturday visitors to Sylvester Manor may also embark on a self-guided tour of the 243 acres of manor grounds, which formerly encompassed all 8,000 acres of Shelter Island. Many historical treasures have been found there, from documents including the 1666 charter for the land and correspondence from Thomas Jefferson.
The graves of hundreds of slaves remain on the manor grounds, with one area marked by a large stone etched with the words “Burying Ground of the Colored People of the Manor, 1651.” The gravesite locations were recently confirmed by a visiting team from NYU that performed ground-penetrating radar surveys.
“An archaeologically intact site that had slavery a half hour from where you live is a rarity for many in the North,” Ms. Doyle said. She has had many group visits from African-American student organizations, as well as civil and community groups with a desire for recognition and reconciliation. “It is a privilege and an honored obligation to make this accessible for those who want to come.”
Mr. McGill will be joined in the attic on Friday, August 14, by Barrymore Tony Bogues, the director of Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, and Katrina Browne, the writer and director of the documentary film, “Traces of the Trade, a Story from the Deep North.”
At 1 p.m. Mr. McGill, Dr. Bogues, Ms. Brown and other guests will be part of a discussion that examines the added strains and peculiar dynamic when the slave dwelling happens inside “the big house.” With a passion for history and re-enactments, Mr. McGill will also talk generally about his work in preservation as well as broader social justice issues.
Admission to the Saturday, August 15, tour and talk is $10 and pre-registration is requested via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
House tours will be offered from 12:15 to 2:45 p.m. The Sunday, August 16, dedication of 51 Pond Lane in Southampton will take place at 11:30 a.m. with no admission fee.