How Sag Harbor Became a Haven for Black Creatives
May 17, 2023 - Robyne Robinson for Artful Living Magazine
If you’re invited to spend the weekend in Sag Harbor, you’ve just won summer’s golden ticket. This Hamptons hamlet is what getaway dreams are made of. A two-square-mile village on the outstretched fringe of New York City, it was once an international whaling port, a remote place where writers like John Steinbeck could rent solitary bungalows on the cheap to pound out legendary novels on portable typewriters.
Today, vacationers flock to what has become the seasonal mecca for the rich, the famous and those who want to rub elbows with them. Whitewashed shingle-style homes with sweeping porches share the white sandy beaches with contemporary mansions sporting $26-million price tags (like the 12,000-square-foot compound that Bey and Jay-Z acquired in 2017). Movie stars are regularly spotted shopping at the high-end boutiques; even a president or two has been spied licking a double-scoop cone at the local ice cream parlor.
But for centuries, Sag Harbor remained an elusive dream for African Americans, who worked for wealthy white families but couldn’t actually live there because of their skin color. Instead, Black and Native American families resided in nearby Eastville in tiny clapboard houses. Some had been living in the small enclave since following the path of the Underground Railroad to the East Coast, working on whaling ships at the port with other runaways and free Black men. But by the 1940s, times were changing. Having experienced greater freedoms overseas, Black soldiers home from World War II wanted to create better lives for themselves and their families. Many earned college degrees on President Roosevelt’s G.I. Bill, which led to prominent, well-paying jobs.
Those dreams were contagious. Maude Terry, a Brooklyn schoolteacher, spent the summer vacationing in Eastville and discovered a stretch of marshy woodland that led to native trails and a beautiful beachfront. Looking out on the undeveloped land, she envisioned a summer place where Black families could escape city life for bungalows and sandy beaches. She shared this dream with her sister, Amaza Lee Meredith, an artist and teacher who went on to become one of the country’s first Black female architects. Their ideas for a private beach community laid the groundwork for Azurest, a subdivision of 70 lots, including several houses designed by Meredith.
The sisters’ plans impressed Elsie Gale and her husband, Daniel — a well-known insurance and real-estate agent — who were eager to sell what was then considered undesirable land. “Eastville was more utilitarian than aesthetically beautiful,” says Sag Harbor historian Steven Williams, whose father was an early Azurest owner. “There was airplane manufacturing, even torpedo testing in different Sag Harbor bays.”
Despite complaints from locals and threats from the Ku Klux Klan, they struck a deal, and in 1947, Terry bought 64 acres of beachfront property. Every weekend, she and the Gales would market Azurest to Black professionals who loved the idea of a summer escape and had $1,000 for a waterfront lot. Many of the buyers built tiny unheated Craftsman bungalows straight from the Sears catalog. But it wasn’t the size of the houses that mattered.
“Maude made people part of her dream,” Williams explains. “It was extremely important for these communities to prosper. In the 1920s and 1930s, people knew about Tulsa and Black Wall Street — strong economic models that were thriving without white input. We came in with doctors, lawyers and creatives.” To wit: One early resident was Edward Dudley, noted lawyer, civil-rights activist and U.S. ambassador to Liberia. As more homes were built, other luminaries arrived, like World War I hero and prominent Harlem doctor Henry Binga Dismond.
Azurest soon grew to nearly 100 houses and spawned other Black neighborhoods like Ninevah and Sag Harbor Hills (now collectively known as Historic Black Beachfront Communities, or HBBC). Upper- and middle-class folks from all professions, backgrounds and locales were soon spending their summers there, all strivers unified behind a dream. “They were people of a similar spirit,” says Williams. “It was not so much about what you did for a living, but what your principles were.”
Many Azurest families spent summers together observing an open-door policy — sunning on the beach, playing cards and sharing meals. Some cultivated new business relationships and introduced the toast of Harlem, New Jersey, Chicago and Washington, D.C. to the allure of the area. By the sixties, in addition to being a political and corporate incubator, Azurest was well on its way to becoming the epicenter of African American art.
Among the regular HBBC visitors of the era was writer Langston Hughes, who would sit beneath a tree and pen poetry. Musicians like Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington and Lena Horne also made this their summer stomping grounds. But it was Al Loving — the first Black artist to have a solo show at the Whitney thanks to his apolitical abstract expressionist paintings that ran contrary to the sixties climate — who helped usher the many Black creatives of this growing community into New York City’s predominately white art world.
Summers spent at restaurateur B. Smith’s home in Sag Harbor let Loving connect with his East Hampton contemporaries, like a young Howardena Pindell, whose mixed-media work can now be found in collections worldwide. He also helped promote multi-talented illustrator Reynold Ruffins, whose work appealed to companies like CBS and Coca-Cola and later became part of group shows at the Louvre and beyond. And Loving befriended the legendary Frank Wimberley, whose college days as a musician alongside lifelong friend Miles Davis still influence the pottery and sculptures he’s creating at age 96. Indeed, New York’s Black beachfront was the place to be.
“Everyone had a Frank Wimberley,” says Nanette Carter, whose visionary collages in Mylar and canvas are also in numerous museum collections. Her parents opted to build a home in HBBC because of the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Montclair, New Jersey, where her father was the first Black mayor and her mother was an educator. Although Carter was always interested in art, her passion grew upon moving to Sag Harbor Hills, where her parents entertained many of the community’s artists. She also became friends with Wimberley’s son, who lived down the street.
“I’d walk into their house and see his paintings,” Carter says of Wimberley. “I’d see him selling his work; it let me know that Black folks could do this.” Carter later met Loving at Guild Hall, an East Hampton theater where they were the only Black patrons in the room at the time. They gravitated toward each other, with Carter introducing Loving to Black beach life and its prominent locals. Loving’s networking soon led to private exhibitions and fundraisers at the homes of residents like business pioneer Richard Clarke, who served on the board of the New York Council on the Arts and as a trustee emeritus for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At its zenith, more than a dozen prominent artists lived in HBBC, coming together on weekends, relaxing on the beach, sharing ideas and shaping America’s Black cultural history. “We’re still hippies,” says Judith Henriques-Adams, who grew up in the arts atmosphere of Azurest, where her artist/architect father, Albert, bought a home in 1947, when the roads were still unpaved.
“If we were having dinner with friends, it would likely be with an artist,” says Henriques-Adams. The lasting influence of art and design was so great that three of Al Henriques’ five children became artists, including Judith, who now lives in HBBC with her husband, Bob. They converted a modest bungalow into a comfortable midcentury modern, complete with a studio for her. “We would refer to ourselves as the ‘Un-Hamptons,’” she explains. “The Hamptons are about money; Sag Harbor is about arts and creativity. We came here to think, to write, to paint. We have a different mindset; it’s what sets us apart.”
But by the seventies, arts gave way once again to business and politics. Heavy hitters like former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault started summering there. So did one-time Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown, who invited Vice President Al Gore to visit one summer. That, says Williams, was when the Black beachfront communities became visible to the world at large.
“The next day, the streets were lined with cars,” he recalls. “I was walking behind a rich white couple, and the wife was saying, ‘Look! There’s water here.’” Moneyed folks slowly started seeing HBBC as an investment opportunity in the nineties. But the real encroachment took hold in 2020, when wealthy New Yorkers fled the city to escape the pandemic.
Although Carter thinks the heyday has faded and given way to recent gentrification and historic preservation fights, Azurest and the other HBBC towns still hold significant power as Black America’s golden ticket. There are generations of families who call the area home to this day. And it continues to attract and produce notable creatives, such as social abstraction artist Gregory Coates, acclaimed photographer John Pinderhughes and Pulitzer-winning author Colson Whitehead. But it’s getting harder to fend off newcomers who have no knowledge of the area’s important past.
“We don’t want Sag Harbor to be a fad that came and went,” says Henriques-Adams. “We want to keep the essence of what we have now. We want our kids to be able to afford and maintain what we’ve built. We want to see a Black community that can continue to flourish.”
Carter and her sister sold their family’s beloved beach home in 2015. She often visits friends there and notes that a lot has changed — new people, new times. One thing that has remained? The ideals and principles underlying the community. There are still vivid memories of when visionaries like Maude Terry and Amaza Lee Meredith laid the foundation for this uniquely American dream. And that pioneer dream lives on, Carter says. “We were a nation within a nation,” she concludes.
Back to News