A Who's Who of Black America in Sag Harbor

February 5, 1998

The resort communities of Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, and Ninevah are less known than Sag Harbor's historic Eastville neighborhood, but play an interesting role in the village's history, too.

Eastville dates back to the village's earliest whaling days; it is one of the oldest Native and African American settlements on all of Long Island. Shinnecocks, Montauks, and Africans, who at one time manned the majority of whaleboat crews out of Sag Harbor, settled in this little neighborhood fanning out from Hempstead Street and down to the harbor. Runaway slaves and fugitives from wrecked slave ships also found their way to Eastville.

Eastville was a working-class community during Sag Harbor's whaling heyday and remained so after the turn of the century, when industries like the watch case factory and a cotton mill had replaced whaling. But in the early 1900s the village's economy turned sour, and Eastville residents began leaving for Brooklyn and Manhattan, looking for work.

Word of their waterside enclave on the East End spread and the community began to draw a stream of black vacationers, many from Brooklyn. They were welcomed in Eastville, but did not receive as warm a reception in Sag Harbor's hotels. The Ivy Cottage, a few doors down from the intersection of Hempstead and Hampton Streets, was a popular inn and restaurant for black tourists at that time.

As professionals and intelligentsia discovered the place, more boarding houses opened up, and local families began to rent out their houses for the summer. A few black second-home owners, like the Brooklyn socialite James Harris, rented out cottages they owned in the neighborhood, as well.

This bridge between Brooklyn and Sag Harbor still exists today in Eastville, and in the resort communities it engendered. "For the first time people could come to Sag Harbor without an invitation from the 'closed circuit,' " Ruby Holbrook wrote in "Story of Sag Harbor: Hick to Resort City." Mrs. Holbrook was in the first wave of black New Yorkers to come to Sag Harbor.

Another was Maude K. Terry, a New York City school teacher who spent summers in Eastville with her grandchildren. Walking through the woods east of the neighborhood and down to the water, she fell in love with the spot and eventually devised a plan to develop a more extensive black summer colony there.

At that time, in the late 1940s, de facto racial segregation still existed in the North, and white landowners were often reluctant to sell or rent to black buyers.

Elsie B. Gale and her son Daniel owned the 20-acre tract of wooded land Mrs. Terry had her eye on, but had been unable to sell it. When Mrs. Terry approached them with a plan to subdivide it and help sell the lots to her friends and colleagues in Brooklyn, the Gales agreed.

In November 1947, a survey mapping half the land was drawn up. Some of the ancient trails running through it became the first streets of Azurest. Beachfront lots went for $1,000 in 1948 and inland lots sold for $750. Azurest's founder bought the first lot, on the beach at the corner of Terry Drive and Walker Avenue.

In December 1948, the second half of the Gales' property was surveyed. Mrs. Terry and James Smith, a New York City housing official, formed a sales syndicate with the lawyer Dorothy Spaulding to sell this second round of lots. For every lot they sold on behalf of the Gales, they sold one for themselves.

The price of the second lots went down to just $450 apiece. Many families, looking a few generations ahead, bought more than one. The houses they built were simple. Some Azurest residents built their homes themselves on weekends and vacations, over the course of a year or two.

All this was before the construction of the Long Island Expressway, when the trip from New York City or Brooklyn took a good four or five hours.

Sag Harbor Hills was developed after that, then Ninevah Beach. Chatfield's Hill, on the other side of Route 114, was developed soon after, and nearby Hillcrest Terrace was developed in the 1970s.

"Land and home owners [in Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, and Ninevah] read like a Who's Who in Negro Society," Mrs. Holbrook wrote in the 1960s.

From the early days, these developments were home to an impressive roster of black businessmen, judges, doctors, lawyers, artists, and diplomats. Today, some of the low-key houses, especially those at the water's edge, are being renovated or replaced with more opulent residences.

The new vacationers, like many of the longtime owners, still read like a Who's Who of Black America. Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins visits there. Clyde Drexler, a player for the National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets, bought a house there last summer, but has already sold it. The area is part-time home to record executives, internationally known sports and entertainment figures, magazine publishers and editors, and restaurateurs, along with the older professionals.

A 1996 article in the magazine American Legacy noted that these neighborhoods are among the "oldest still-thriving African American resorts" in the country. People continue to come from up and down the East Coast and as far away as the midwest to spend holidays in these Sag Harbor resort colonies. Nevertheless, the mostly modest summer homes do not have particular historical significance - not yet, anyway. Neither do they seem the sort of compounds that might be expected of the well-heeled and well-known.

But for generations of African Americans who built not only houses, but a unique and prosperous community here, they tell a story all of the residents are proud of.