Connections: Fitting Tribute

The panel at Sunday’s fifth annual Black History Month program at Bay Street Theater on the history of slavery on the East End was illuminating. Its title, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” made the thrust of the story about enslaved people here from the 1650s into the late 18th and early 19th centuries evident. Who were they? Where were they buried? And, yes, what were their names? 

Only two gravestones, for Ned and Peggy, are known in East Hampton for people who were enslaved. A single boulder on Shelter Island commemorates the burial of some 200 enslaved people. It reads: “Burying Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor since 1651.”

Georgette Grier-Key, executive director and chief curator of the Eastville Historical Society, Donnamarie Barnes, curator and archivist at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, Aileen Novick, administrator of Hempstead Houses in New London, Conn., and The Star’s own David Rattray were the panelists. (He comments on the event this week in his column, “The Mast-Head.”)

Ms. Grier-Key, who acted as M.C., is well known. A writer, curator, and full-time professor at Nassau Community College, she is an outspoken advocate for what she calls the reconstruction of African-American and Native American history. Ms. Barnes, a longtime photo editor for magazines such as People and Essence, is a Sylvester Manor scholar, leading tours of the house and grounds and educating visitors and schoolchildren about its lengthy and complex history. Ms. Novick,

who has degrees from Northeastern University and Bates College, worked at the Indiana Historical Society and began teaching about the history of slavery at Historic Locust Grove in Louisville, Ky.

At one point in the program, the word, and concept of, reparations caused a phil­osophical flurry. Ms. Grier-Key seemed to say reparations for the sins of the past would be impossible because the need for them was so vast. A woman in the audience, the Rev. Leandra Lambert of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton, argued with her, saying that reparations were crucial because indeed they would have to be vast.

The audience on Sunday was thoroughly engaged, raising questions for the panelists and criticizing history itself. They expressed dismay when the event was called to a close and obviously could have gone on for a long time.

What the panelists had to say is not to be found in school textbooks, which continue to disrespect the lives of enslaved and indigenous residents by omission. What was evident, however, was that Bay Street Theater was filled with people of good will, who no longer are satisfied to allow the full history of this place to be “Hidden in Plain Sight.”