Southampton Village remembers former slave who lived an adventurous life

Author Sally Spanburgh stands in front of the Author Sally Spanburgh stands in front of the former Pyrrhus Concer house, on Pond Lane in Southampton, Monday, March 10, 2014. Spanburgh will give a lecture this month on the history of Pyrrhus Concer, a famous black resident of Southampton, to celebrate what would be his 200th birthday on Saturday, March 22, 2014. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

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Pyrrhus Concer lived a life that history should have remembered.

Born a slave in Southampton Village in 1814, he was set free when slavery ended in New York State in 1827. Reaching beyond the boundaries of his previous life, he joined the crew of the Manhattan, which in 1845 sailed into a Japanese port -- the first American whaler to do so. The presence of a black man in Japan was such a novelty that he is depicted in Japanese paintings of the event.

When he returned to Southampton he ventured to California to look for gold. Upon his death in 1897 his obituary called him one of the "most respected residents of the village."

Then he was forgotten.

On Saturday, the village will take steps to remember him 200 years after his birth. Sally Spanburgh, a village preservation advocate, will present a talk on Concer's remarkable life. More importantly, she will discuss the fight now underway to save the site of Concer's house from demolition. The village is now in court after denying the home's current owners a permit to tear it down.

The house at 51 Pond Lane, in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country, is Concer's only legacy in the village, she said.

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"It's of enormous value, because of what it represents," she said.

While the house is in the village's historic district, it was never designated as a historic site in a 1979 village survey or a 1989 update. Preliminary permission to demolish it was given after the owners applied for a demolition permit in January 2013.

The Southampton Village Board later turned down the application, but earlier this month the village was sued by the owners in State Supreme Court for $10 million. The owners, David Hermer and Silvia Campo, purchased the property in 2013 for $2.75 million, but the land -- a hill overlooking Lake Agawam -- is far more valuable than the building. Their attorney, David Gilmartin, called the board's decision not to issue the demolition permit "outrageous."

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Before he was a property owner, Concer worked on area farms. After he was freed he began his adventurous life. Joining the crew of a whaler wasn't unusual at the time, particularly for a black man. Half the people in Southampton Village worked on whaling ships or were in jobs connected to the business, according to Tom Edmonds, executive director of the Southampton Village Historical Museum's Rogers Mansion, where Spanburgh's talk will take place at 2 p.m.

"There were 19 whaling captains living here," he said.

The Japanese were fascinated by Concer when the Manhattan sailed into a Japanese port in 1845, bringing home some shipwrecked Japanese sailors. He was the only black man aboard the ship; some records indicate a Shinnecock Indian was also aboard.

After Concer returned to Southampton, he left for California in the gold rush in 1849, but came back broke. He then started a ferry service on Lake Agawam that brought people to the ocean beach. He had a place of honor in the village's 250th anniversary parade in 1890. He died seven years later.

The details of his life were forgotten. The first time Concer was remembered after his death was apparently in the 1970s, when Japanese tourists called village officials to say they wanted to see Concer's house. Few people in the village even knew where Concer lived. The village later placed a historical marker on Lake Agawam, along with an anchor from Concer's boat.

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Village officials say Concer was remembered again when the application was filed to tear down the house at 51 Pond Lane, which historians believe grew around and on top of Concer's original home.

"If I were them and didn't know the history of the building, I might have done the same thing," Spanburgh said of the owners.

As the village remembers Concer, plans are underway to bring back the ferry service he ran on Agawam Lake. The newly-formed Agawam Ferry Company has posted a video about Concer's life on its website.

He has been forgotten no more.

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