Southampton African American Museum To Open Its Doors Juneteenth Weekend

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Brenda Simmons, founder of the Southampton African American Museum. TOM EDMONDS

When Brenda Simmons walks through the right hand door of the historic building that sits at 245 North Sea Road in Southampton, she is transported to a different time.

She can see the chairs where she would wait to get her hair done, the Ebony and Jet magazines on a nearby table — stunning Black covermodels staring back at her. She can smell the burning grease from the women’s hair. She can hear the chatter and laughter and she can feel herself, as a 13-year-old girl, absorbing the magic of it all.

Five decades later, that magic is still there today — but it has changed form.

On Juneteenth — which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States — Ms. Simmons will realize a dream 16 years in the making by officially opening the doors of the Southampton African American Museum, which was once home to Randy’s Barber Shop and an adjoining beauty parlor. And she is at the helm as its founder.

“I can’t stop crying,” she said during a telephone interview last week. “I’m overjoyed. I’m elated, I’m excited, I feel like — I’m getting ready to cry again.”

She took a deep breath, steadying herself. “I just feel like all of what I went through was all worth it,” she continued, “because I will now be able to leave a legacy for our community and for our kids and for the future.”

Randy Conquest on a bench dedicated to him and Emanuel Seymore, on the grounds of the Southampton African American Museum. COURTESY BRENDA SIMMONS

The celebration kicks off on Friday, June 18, with an invite-only VIP reception, featuring music by flutist Dwayne Kerr, keynote speaker Quincy Mills, a ribbon cutting and unveiling of a mural by artist David Bunn Martine that explores the three major themes of the museum: the Great Migration, former slave Pyrrhus Concer, and the history of the 1940s structure, built by barber Emanuel Seymore who, apparently, was also a carpenter.

“He was part of the Great Migration and he had a plan and a dream,” Ms. Simmons said. “He came here, escaping from the struggles and the challenges and the racism from the South, and he came to the North with a plan. To come here and buy land and build a building? In the ’40s? I don’t know if people really wrap their heads around that.”

The move was revolutionary and, while the building stands as it was originally built, Southampton architect Siamak Samii led extensive renovations that focused on the building’s interior, including knocking down the wall that once divided its two storefronts.

Through the left door was his barber shop, making Mr. Seymore the first Black businessman in the village. And through the right door was the beauty parlor, which was run by Evelyn Baxter — Ms. Simmons’ aunt — and her partner, Katherine Spellman.

“To go in there and see the open space like that, it’s about unity,” Ms. Simmons said. “It’s about getting a whole history of what happened in that building.”

In 2010, Southampton Village designated the structure as its first African American historic landmark, though the idea for the museum itself was born much earlier in collaboration with Gloria Cannon and her daughter, Bonnie.

“It wasn’t ever just gonna be a ‘Black museum,’” Ms. Simmons said. “It was gonna be a museum for the community — and now it is.”

While the museum will also display art and archaeological artifacts found on the property, its primary goal is to share the legacy and history of African Americans in Southampton Village, the founder explained — a place that many do not associate with Black culture.

“I’ve traveled so many places where I tell people I’m from Southampton,” she said, “and for a long time, it was not known or thought that any African Americans even live in the Hamptons, because of ‘the Hamptons.’”

Displays pay tribute to the museum’s life as Randy’s Barber Shop. DANA SHAW

Saturday, June 19, will mark one step closer toward eradicating that misconception. Starting at 11 a.m., the museum will open for pre-registered tours, followed by a performance by HALO, a Black female barbershop quartet, at 1 p.m. and an opening ceremony at 2:30 p.m.

Moderated by Ms. Simmons, a panel discussion on the history of Black barbershops and beauty parlors will feature professors Jennifer Anderson, Mark Chambers and keynote speaker Mr. Mills, and Georgette Grier-Key, executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society. House band Certain Moves Trio will keep the party going, along with catering by Heart and Soul.

The museum’s program of rotating exhibits will start downstairs with African American art from the personal collection of Peter Marino. Upstairs, a history of the building will unfold, paying homage to Mr. Seymore and Randy Conquest, the last owner of the barber shop — complete with a replication of a barber’s vintage set-up.

It will also include information about the restaurant and juke joint that once stood next door, built and owned by Arthur Robinson. It was a meetinghouse where family and friends could feel at home, Ms. Simmons said, not unlike the museum itself.

“This building, it’s tangible,” she said. “You touch it, you feel it, you’re living it. It’s just amazing to now see the manifestation of this history that’s still here.”

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