‘The Beginning of the Beginning’ at Southampton African American Museum

Brenda Simmons is the executive director of the Southampton African American Museum, whose future home was the site of a barber shop and beauty salon that were gathering spots for the East End’s African-American community for 50 years. Mark Segal

The nondescript, wood-shingled one-story building sits on a tiny corner lot on North Sea Road in Southampton between McDonald’s and the Clamman Seafood Market. It looks abandoned, and indeed has been unoccupied since 2006, when Randy Conquest sold it to the Town of Southampton.

The structure gives no obvious clue to its storied past, but a sign points to its future as the home of the Southampton African American Museum. For the past 13 years, that museum has led a virtual existence, presenting film festivals, plays, student art exhibitions, live music, and a variety of other programs related to African-American history and culture at various East End venues. 

A milestone was reached on July 7 with a groundbreaking ceremony. Asbestos abatement followed soon after, and the renovation is scheduled to begin this week. The museum hopes to open its doors in September 2019. “This is the beginning of the beginning,” said Brenda Simmons, the museum’s executive director.

The renovation has been designed by Siamak Samii, a Southampton architect. “We’re still working on how we’re going to lay out the interior,” Ms. Simmons said. There will be a reception desk, a video monitor with the mission statement and upcoming events, and exhibitions. A large basement might be used for film programs.

“We also want people to be able to come in and start their own family trees. That’s one of the things we’ve talked about for a long time, and Cara Wingfield, the Parrish Art Museum’s education director, said she can help with that.”

The museum will also be a source of information on the Great Migration, the movement of more than six million African-Americans from the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from 1916 to 1970. “We will have information about where people here came from and the jobs they did. A lot of families here, including mine, came from the South to the North for better jobs.”

What Ms. Simmons called “a long journey” began in 2005 when Gloria Cannon and her daughter, Bonnie Cannon, first conceived of converting the building, a former barbershop and beauty salon, into a museum. They asked Ms. Simmons to get involved.

The town bought the building from Mr. Conquest with community preservation funds. The village owns the property and in 2008 assumed responsibility for maintaining it until it could be developed into a museum. Oddly enough, that same year the village’s superintendent of public works requested permission to raze the structure due to liability concerns.

At that time, Ms. Simmons was the assistant to Mark Epley, the village’s mayor, a job she held for 11 years. “I went into the mayor and said, ‘This is not going to happen. I’ll be the crazy woman in front of the bulldozer.’ ” She decided to seek historical landmark designation for the building. 

“Most of the law had to do with the appearance and materials, that sort of thing, but there was a small clause that said if it was significant to the community, then that was a legitimate claim.” The village’s board of historic preservation and architecture review designated the property a landmark in 2010.

The barbershop was built in the 1950s by Emanuel Seymore, who was a carpenter as well as a barber. Mr. Conquest came to Southampton in the 1960s and, after cutting hair for 10 years in a rented space near the railroad station, bought Mr. Seymore’s shop in 1979. The building was divided down the middle, with the barbershop on one side, the beauty salon on the other. Women were not allowed on the men’s side, according to Ms. Simmons.

“My aunt was a beautician there, and when I was 10 or 11 years old I used to answer the phones and make coffee runs. She used to do our hair. They had hot combs, curling irons, and we’re going to highlight those aspects the shop’s history as well. Barbershops were places where you learned a lot and where there was a lot of gossip going on.” A barber’s chair and striped pole are on Ms. Simmons’s wish list.

Directly adjacent to the barbershop was Fives, a restaurant, bar, and juke joint owned by Arthur Robinson. “That’s where the African-American community would come to unwind and gather after hard days working in the potato fields or doing domestic work. They had music and a dance floor, and as part of my research I tracked down and interviewed a woman who used to sing there.” Fives has since been torn down. 

The museum launched its public programs in 2006. One of the most important was an annual exhibition of student artworks on view in the hallway of Southampton Village Hall and student reports presented in the boardroom. “It started off small, but as the years went on the program got bigger and bigger to the point where the day of the field trip the boardroom would be packed. The last couple of years the kids would do the whole program themselves.”

The student projects lasted for 10 years. “It was exciting to me because a lot of our history has been eliminated or destroyed or switched around. We were in awe of some of the stuff these kids came up with. It was a learning process for the parents as well as the kids.” 

Also under the museum’s umbrella was the East End Black Film Festival, which ran every fall at the Parrish Art Museum from 2006 through 2012 before moving to the Southampton Cultural Center and Stony Brook Southampton.  

Last month, the museum, along with the Eastville Community Historical Society, presented “Black Angels Over Tuskegee,” a play about the Tuskegee Airmen, at Guild Hall. “My daughter, Tiana, went to see the play Off Broadway because one of her friends, Kenneth Browning, who also grew up here, was in it, and she urged me to see it. We got funding from the county, I reached out to the producer, Layon Gray, and the rest is history.” The performance sold out.

Ms. Simmons is focused on programming and the sustainability of the museum. Southampton Town has supplied $870,500 toward the renovation from the community preservation fund. The state has provided $125,000. “Going forward, I want to be at a place where we can hold our own and not have to rely on the town or village,” she said, adding that to get this far she has received crucial support from Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., Mary Wilson, the C.P.F. program manager, and Mr. Siamak, the architect.

“So much of our history hasn’t been told,” she said, citing “Hidden Figures” as an example of African-American accomplishment that was little known until the film was released. “It’s important to emphasize our history and to recognize our contribution not only to the world but also right here in the Village of Southampton.”

Siamak Samii, a Southampton-based architect, has designed the renovation of the Southampton African American Museum. The exterior, top, adheres to the footprint, materials, and scale of the original building. The interior, below, originally divided between a barbershop and beauty salon, will be reconfigured into a flexible space for exhibitions, presentations, and educational projects. Siamak Samii