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In the Name of Ninevah

By John Tepper Marlin

We knew, Alice and I, a bit about Ninevah Beach — that it was founded as a community for well-to-do African-American vacationers, especially families escaping New York City for the summer.

It is special, more upscale by reputation than similar black enclaves such as Val Verde Park, Calif., in the Los Angeles area, Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, Idlewild, Mich., Highland Beach, Md., and Atlantic Beach, S.C.

It was therefore with curiosity and pleasure that we accepted an invitation from a couple of successful African-American friends to visit their home perched above the shore at Ninevah Beach. They purchased it in the 1960s.

Ninevah Beach (about 80 homes) is the smallest of the three places founded as all-black communities in Sag Harbor, the other two being Azurest (the original community, 100 homes, founded in the 1940s) and Sag Harbor Hills (300 homes, founded in 1950 along with Ninevah Beach).

The spelling of the name is unorthodox. Nineveh, as it is usually spelled, in the Book of Jonah was a city in Mesopotamia, i.e., modern-day Iraq, that God picked out for destruction because the people were sinners. God instructed Jonah the Prophet to give the people of Nineveh a red-alert warning that destruction was imminent.

Jonah worried about his reputation as a prophet. Should God change his mind, Jonah would take a big hit as a forecaster. So Jonah decided to skip the assignment and get away on a boat headed in the opposite direction from Nineveh.

That’s when God, according to the Book of Jonah, got really pissed (my words).

He created a fearsome storm. The sailors decided Jonah was bad luck, and they chucked him over the side. Then God, determined to get the mission completed, persuaded a “big fish” (a k a whale) to swallow Jonah up, swim to Nineveh, and vomit him up on the local beach.

The outcome was successful, from God’s perspective. The Ninevites got the message and, mirabile dictu, they repented, and God was merciful and changed his mind about destroying the city. Apparently just one penitent Ninevite was enough to save all the others.

Jonah’s rep, you could say, actually did take a big hit in Nineveh. The threatened destruction did not happen. But if the story is fully told, Jonah’s worries about God’s mercy were spot-on. The story redounds to his soothsaying credibility. But he is the only source of this self-immortalizing tale. It may be the world’s first Big Fish Story.

But back to the original question. How does the story of Nineveh relate to the place called Ninevah? I haven’t yet found a definitive answer, but here are some ideas:

The beach is a likely place for a whale to have deposited a human being.

Maybe a whale was found beached there.

Maybe the original founders wanted to identify with a city that was penitent, a place from which God turned away his wrath.

Was the idea to remind people that as long as they had one penitent person in their midst, God would bless the entire community?

Whatever the penitence of the black and Indian whalers who founded the old St. David A.M.E. Zion Church in nearby Eastville, the church has for 173 years been locked up or leased to other congregations.

The founder of Ninevah was apparently Cottrell Elias Cooper, nicknamed Cotchie (the spelling is definitive, since it was given to me by Carole Cooper, his daughter). Cotchie evidently needed cash after World War II. He went to a member of the Comus Club, a group of successful black men, to get people to put up money to buy the properties in Sag Harbor.

The developments were sold off at retail prices, parcel by parcel, to well-off African-Americans — in Brooklyn, Queens, or other areas within commuting distance of Manhattan — who had been buying since the Depression.

The news in recent years is that the original notion of an all-black community has been changing. In a word, maybe one-third of residents there are no longer black. That wasn’t the idea.

The major explanatory factor is the real estate marketplace. Older black people have been returning to the South, where their pensions last longer. Their children may not be able to afford to keep up the taxes or the maintenance on the properties. Or they just prefer to have the cash from the sale of the property and use it to vacation somewhere cheaper.

Another theory — not incompatible with the economic explanation — is that younger people feel no need for an all-black community because in a country that has elected a black president, in a state that has had a black governor, it is not necessary any longer to huddle together for self-preservation.

Nonblacks buy in a place like Ninevah because they have black friends there or because properties there are better and cheaper than can be found elsewhere. One estimate is that as many as one-fourth of the homes in Ninevah Beach have been up for sale at the same time.

As in the case of many New York City co-operatives, relatives of families who already live in the community can buy for a lower price than an outsider. The premium for outsiders may not be very high, but it is there — many sellers prefer a buyer with a connection to the place.

Famous black people who have lived in the all-black Sag Harbor communities include Johnny Cochran, the late attorney; Earl Graves, head of a media conglomerate and founder of Black Enterprise magazine; the singer Lena Horne; the poet Langston Hughes; former Secretary of State Colin Powell; B. Smith, who owned restaurants of that name in Washington, D.C., and on Long Wharf for many years; Susan L. Taylor, once editor of Essence magazine, and Colson Whitehead, who wrote in his book “Sag Harbor” about the changing culture and music in the 1980s.

John Tepper Marlin, Ph.D., is an economist and the president of Boissevain Books. He lives in Springs.

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