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The Mast-Head: Slavery in East Hampton

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 13:21

I had the opportunity recently to appear on the actor and Amagansett resident Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s the Thing” podcast. Ostensibly, I had been invited to reflect on the nearly 20 years I have been the editor of The Star and how the South Fork has changed over the years.

What I was more eager to discuss was The Star’s Plain Sight Project about slavery in East Hampton. Alec obliged, and toward the end of the podcast, I can be heard describing the work and what our thoughts are for the future.

Before we had given it a name, the Plain Sight Project began with an intern recording names of what might have been enslaved people from a copy of the old East Hampton church records. By the end of the summer of 2017, Bryley Williams, one of my nieces, had compiled a list of more than 300 people of African heritage who had lived in East Hampton from its earliest days to well into the 19th century. Among them, we slowly confirmed more than 250 enslaved and a few free blacks. One freeman, identified in town trustee papers only as John, took up residence on Main Street here in 1676.

The earliest enslaved person we have so far found, Boose, appears in records related to the Goody Garlick witchcraft allegations in the winter of 1657. When I speak publicly about the Plain Sight Project, I often start with her, and say how remarkable it is that we can tell a specific story about the night she was sent across the street to help a dying Elizabeth Howell.

Looking beyond East Hampton with the help of Donnamarie Barnes at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, Georgette Grier-Key of the Eastville Historical Society in Sag Harbor, and Julie Greene, the Southampton Town historian and curator of the Bridgehampton Museum, the plan is to search other records to begin to get a fuller sense of slavery on the East End. We also expect to change the narrative about America by helping spread recognition that enslaved people of African descent were part of the story from the beginning.

If our national origin begins in the towns that became the colonies, which fought the British monarchy to become the United States, then all of the people who worked side by side to build those towns, African, European, and Native American, also helped build the United States. All we have to do is ask, “Who lived here? What did they do? Where did they come from?” It is really that simple.

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