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The Mast-Head: Systemic Blindness

Wed, 02/23/2022 - 17:17

It is difficult to know where to begin in describing the twin suspensions of the directors of important East End history nonprofits last week. Tom Edmonds of the Southampton History Museum and Victoria Berger of the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead by their respective boards of directors after each organization separately featured Ku Klux Klan-related material and programming.

It would have been appalling during any time of the year for the Suffolk society to send out a decontextualized “photo of the week” showing Klan members on parade along with an advertisement placed by Riverhead Klan No. 31 in a Klan magazine for an Aug. 21, 1926, gathering. However, the item was prepared and circulated during Black History Month.

Also during February, the Southampton History Museum held a virtual lecture on a 1905 novel that romanticized and argued in favor of the Klan and inspired the virulent racist film “Birth of a Nation.” Alek Lewis of Riverhead Local reported that the advance publicity for the talk by Joan Baum depicted a Klan member in front of a burning cross and was displayed on the home page of the museum’s website and on its Instagram account.

The Eastern Long Island Branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and others, including Georgette Grier-Key, the director of the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor, East Hampton Town’s only museum that addresses the Black experience, organized a press conference on Friday in response to what they very accurately called “racist propaganda.”

Georgette, a friend of mine, is an adviser to the Plain Sight Project, of which I am co-director with Donnamarie Barnes of Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island. Together, we have studied the ubiquity of slavery and the roles of people of color in the growth of the East End for nearly four years; not once have any of the many historical societies here invited us to speak. This is even though we have been the guests of several arts institutions, including the Arts Center at Duck Creek, Guild Hall, and the Parrish Art Museum, the East Hampton Town and Village Boards, and Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, and we are collaborating on a public memorialization with Calvary Baptist Church and the Jewish Center of the Hamptons.

On a promising note, Steve Long, the new director of the East Hampton Historical Society, has asked us to help with documentation of the lives of enslaved people who lived and suffered in forced labor at Mulford Farm. The East Hampton Library has been all in with our work and has a new exhibit, “Slavery in East Hampton,” on view in its lobby right now. But these are the exceptions. Other than East Hampton Middle and Ross, the schools, too, have not responded to our outreach.

That there were two incidents of this nature reflects how far we as a society have to go. In addition to their respective directors’ suspensions, the museum and historical society leadership pledged to increase the diversity of their institutions, as if to say that had they had Black staff things would be different. This is no excuse. As Donnamarie put it when we discussed these incidents, “They should have known.” That they did not indicates how much more work there is to do to end the systemic blindness that perpetuates these painful divisions within our country. If I sound furious it is because I am.


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