Given the prominence of immigration in the current national debate, it’s not unusual that the Sag Harbor Historical Society would present an exhibit on it. What is unusual is that the exhibit, “Then and Now: A Story of Immigration in Sag Harbor,” which opens on Sunday, August 23, has been curated by 17-year-old Aubrey Peterson, who will be a senior at East Hampton High School this fall.
Aubrey, who said he has been interested in history since he was 5 years old — Colonial Williamsburg was an early favorite — has been a regular at the historical society since sixth grade, when his mom, Susan Thompson Peterson, who grew up in Sag Harbor, brought him in for a visit on one of their many excursions to the village.
Jean Held, a board member, noticed Aubrey had become a regular at the Annie Cooper Boyd House, the society’s headquarters on Main Street, and inquired if he would like to become a docent on Sundays. His response, “Oh, please.” Aubrey was eventually stationed in the William Cooper boathouse restoration behind the main museum, where he helped out for years.
But Aubrey said he wanted to contribute in a bigger way. Initially, he said, he wanted to do a history of St. Andrew Roman Catholic Church. But when doing his research, he read about anti-Catholic movements that were common across much of the country, with Irish Catholics frequently their target.
“Immigration has obviously been an important topic across the history of the United States,” he said. “It has always been the settled American population versus the new arrivals. From the Irish — ‘No Irish Need Apply’— to the Italians, the Jews, the list the goes on. The Latino population is the newest target.”
Aubrey said he wants to make a basic point. “I think by doing this project, I can show some of these people that all of us came from somewhere,” he said, “save for the Native Americans, who have been here 11,000 years.”
The exhibit, which is contained in a single room of the tiny museum, begins with the region’s first inhabitants, the Native Americans, and makes its way through the successive waves of newcomers, from early English settlers to today’s arrivals, pausing to recount a bit of their story and point out their contributions to the East End’s culture.
Central to each story board is a short biography of a representative of each group, Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, Sag Harbor’s great benefactor, rubbing shoulders, as it were, with the Montaukett Sachem Stephen Talkhouse Pharaoh, and the former slave-turned Whaler Pyrrhus Concer.
Michael Burke, who helped found St. Andrew Roman Catholic Church, represents the Irish, while Gertrude Katz, who came from a family of merchants, represents the Jewish arrivals, and Marty Trunzo, the Italians.
While the Irish were largely drawn by employment as manual laborers or domestic help, Jews were largely brought to the village by the promise of work as engravers at Joseph Fahys’s watchcase factory. Many early Italians came to work in the village’s brickyard off Brick Kiln Road.
One might assume that the latest arrivals would focus solely on the influx of Latinos, who have come to the East End over the past 30-plus years, but Aubrey throws a curve ball. He broadens and broadens his lens to take in a wider view that includes not only Latinos, but Asians, Indians, and even city residents, who are themselves the subject of resentment by year-rounders.
“People from the city come here in numbers that are bigger than Latinos,” he said. “They help our economy and are important to our community, but they are often a sore subject.”
Nancy French Achenbach, the society’s president, said she didn’t know “what spark set it off,” but said she was happy to have Aubrey contribute to the society’s offerings. “I think it’s a wonderful idea because Sag Harbor, which was a blue collar town, had a lot of different immigrants with the factories and so forth.”
She added, too, that historical societies are often frequented by an older crowd and “it is exciting to have some new blood.”
The Annie Cooper Boyd House is open from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is through a free-will offering. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the society is requiring that visitors wear face masks. Only two people will be allowed inside to see the exhibit at a time.