By Amanda Wyatt; Photography by Michael Heller
The Eastville Community Historical Society would like to see the Sag Harbor community become a larger part of conversations about the village’s history. To that end, this past weekend it brought together community members in an effort to help re-define the role of the historical society and expand the kind of programming that highlights the history of a community once believed to be a part of the Underground Railroad and abolitionist movements.
On November 17, the historical society held its first ever “charrette” at its headquarters, the Eastville Heritage House on Hampton Street. Roughly 30 community members gathered to discuss the current operations of the society, brainstorm ideas for expansion and take a walking tour of the neighborhood.
As explained by the historical society’s director, Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, holding a charrette was a crucial step in formulating a long-term plan for the historical society. Creating a long-term vision, she said, is crucial as the organization seeks grants for repairing historical sites and funding educational and artistic programs, among other endeavors meant to highlight Eastville.
“Our number one priority is institutional sustainability over time — for the very near future and for the far future, for generations that are coming after us,” said Dr. Grier-Key. “The importance of this institution is so much bigger than any person or cohort of administrators.”
The Eastville neighborhood, which sits off Hampton Street/Route 114 in Sag Harbor, was a veritable melting pot in the 19th and 20th centuries. A uniquely integrated community, Eastville was home to African Americans, Native Americans and European immigrants.
One of the neighborhood’s greatest draws is the historic St. David AME Zion Church and cemetery, which some believe to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Yet, many feel that Eastville’s stories are not often told when discussing local history.
“It’s unfortunate, but that’s true about most African American histories, and particularly, this community happens to be a multi-ethnic group,” said Dr. Grier-Key.
“It’s to the advantage of all people of Sag Harbor, and all Americans, to have a great depiction of the real history,” she said. “The real history is that we have been here dating back to the 1800s.”
The Eastville Community Historical Society was founded in 1980, and in 1996, the organization began operating out of the Heritage House, a restored 1925 Sears-Roebuck Mail Order home.
But in an era of fiscal austerity, the society is facing financial challenges similar to other non-profit organizations. While it has received small grants in the past, the organization relies mostly on private donations. Currently, they are in the process of applying for grants that will enable them to move forward with some of the ideas discussed at the charrette.
“We learned a lot about what we can do with the building and how to best serve the community, because that’s what we were really interested in,” said past president and current treasurer Joanne Carter.
One of the ideas discussed at the charrette included the possibility of using the basement of the Heritage House as a meeting room, since the upstairs cannot accommodate many visitors. Others suggested marking historic houses in the neighborhood so that visitors could go on self-guided walking tours.
Renovating and modernizing parts of the Heritage House, as well as the landscape, were also discussed.
Particular attention was paid to Eastville’s historic cemetery, which is the final resting place of a number of celebrated African American and Native American local figures, as well as some of Sag Harbor’s original whalers. However, the graveyard has fallen into a state of disrepair in recent years. At the charrette, participants suggested building a fence, repairing and replacing tombstones and other ways of renovating the cemetery.
“If we had a number one priority that we’re focusing on, it’s the cemetery. And it’s a big priority, on many levels,” said Dr. Grier-Key.
“We want to try to make the cemetery as pristine as possible, because we actually own the cemetery,” Carter agreed.
In addition to renovating and expanding facilities, the society also discussed ways of educating the wider community, particularly its schools.
“The [Sag Harbor] school district has grown significantly and we could be a resource for them, and provide more of the diverse cultural activities on a daily basis,” suggested Dr. Grier-Key.
But as Carter noted, “We’ve been in business for 30 years and we’ve been doing programs for 30 years. Doing programs isn’t a new thing — we’re just going to do more, more often, and larger.”
Both Dr. Grier-Key and Carter noted that this is just the beginning phase of the Eastville Community Historical Society’s expansion plans. An ongoing project, it will be years in the making.
“The overall support of the institution and the actual holdings of the institution are there,” said Dr. Grier-Key. “But I think what we’re doing now is taking it to the next level, where we are requiring more — from everybody — from ourselves, from the greater community and from public monies.”
“The historical society and museum is starting to carry forward the culture of the community,” Carter added. “And if they don’t tell the story, who is going to tell it?”