By Claire Walla
Georgette Grier-Key, an East End painter, arts administrator and cultural historian who’s now putting her skills to work as the first ever director of the Eastville Community Historical Society.
What originally brought you to Sag Harbor?
I am an artist first. So, naturally I gravitated to the East End because this is where our art center is on Long Island.
How have you been involved in the art community here?
I have a bachelors degree in visual arts, but my mother always said: You’re going to starve! [laughs] So, I went to get my masters in art education. When I finished school, I said to myself, what am I going to do with this? We’re always taught to go to school and get a job, but I was taught: do what you’re passionate about. I’m passionate about art, and I’m passionate about history. Now, I’m really fulfilling my dream of doing what I want to be doing. I’m in a doctorate program and my interest is cultural institutions, particularly museums and historical organizations and how prepared leaders are to lead these institutions.
This is perfect, then!
It really is. And I’m still entwined in the art world. I’ve been a volunteer at the Parrish Art Museum, I work with the Huntington Arts Council, I do grant outreach and I’m also at Guild Hall.
Now you’re also the first director of the Eastville Community Historical Society. When was the organization established?
The cultural center started in 1981 and was chartered in 1986. As I understand it, there was talk about making a historic district and one of our residents, our historian Kathy Tucker, took notice. She asked to have the village’s historic lines pushed back to include the community of Eastville because St. David’s A.M.E. Zion Church was here. It’s still at its original location, and is one of the oldest churches in Sag Harbor. [It dates back to 1840.] The community has organized from that point on.
What are some other aspects of this area’s history that are important to point out?
One of the things we also talk about is the presence of African American and Native American whalers, which is a big thing. Recently we had a student come from Brown University to talk to us about some of the history and we were able to show her some of the tomb stones we have deeded to us from St. David’s A.M.E. Zion. A lot of the Native American whalers are buried here.
So, now that you’re in office, what are some of the initiatives you will be spearheading for the historical society?
The biggest initiative is we’re starting a social media campaign. I’m a generation X-er so I grew up with computers in school. But here, this is a big feat: to be online, to create a website, to have a Facebook page and a Twitter account … even to have a web store on our website.
Is it difficult to get a historical society up-to-par with modern technology?
I think I had the board behind me, but what really sealed the deal was that we had a Facebook message from a direct descendant from Lippman and Rose Johnson [who owned the house that now serves as the society’s headquarter]. He sent us a message via Facebook. That sealed the deal for them, because it let them see how important it is to be out there.
Does the historical society have any bigger plans for programs in the future?
At the time, it doesn’t seem feasible for us to have one of our bigger events: the fish fry. For bigger events like that, the board used to be able to do everything in-house. [But now that the event has expanded], it’s like cooking potato salad for 400 people! Being insular is not necessarily a bad thing, but, being insular, you become self-sufficient. We’re looking to diversify our funding streams, and usually for events like [the fish fry] you can get a sponsor to underwrite the whole thing. We want to be able to do things that the organization had been able to do in the past. Previously we had programs in schools. But, because of No Child Left Behind, teachers began to focus more on course work. We want to — even if it’s here on our site — start talking to children about the heritage here.
Working at a place like this, which strives to preserve the past, how do you also ensure that today’s events and issues are getting documented? ?
I think the best way right now is to just tell the stories. It’s part of our tradition — story-telling keeps it alive. If you don’t have external control over [wider forms of communication] — whether it’s print media, or television — often your story doesn’t get heard. So, it’s very important even today to keep the tradition of story-telling going.
So, what stories are you telling today about Eastville?
I think the story that needs to be told about Eastville is its resiliency. That’s the story that we want to talk about. Before May 4 [when I was hired as director], this organization was 100 percent volunteerism for the last 30 years, which is amazing considering the accomplishments that they’ve been able to get: we’re a new York State chartered organization and we’re the first African American or minority society that was established in Suffolk County. I think our history is not being told in schools, it’s not being told in text books. And [as we question] what’s being written in the text books, who’s writing the text books, and how obsolete the African-Americans in this country are… We can’t rely on someone else to tell the story. We have to tell the story. That’s why all historical societies are important: to tell the stories that are germane to their organization.