Once upon a home renovation several decades ago, Greg Therriault noticed pieces of metal, the size of baseball cards, covering the gaps between the floorboards in his attic in the Sag Harbor community of Eastville.

He had uncovered 21 photos, on small iron tintype plates, that had been nailed to the floor. When he turned them over that day in 1979, he saw faces staring back through decades of rust and decay.

"They really spoke to me across time, the way anyone's family photographs do," said Therriault, a potter who moved into the house in 1978.

The pictures from Ivy Cottage, as Therriault's property is known, along with more than 30 others from albums found separately in another historic Eastville home, also reveal the type of community the faces in the photos inhabited. Eastville is a historically working-class neighborhood settled in the 19th century by African-Americans, American Indians and European immigrants with ties to the whaling and domestic trades in Sag Harbor.

Georgette Grier-Key, director of the Eastville Community Historical Society, said the images make up the largest collection of historic African-American photographs on Long Island, and she and others are working to turn them into an exhibit -- set to open at the historical society this summer -- and a book.

"It's a representation that Eastville is a place, not just a name," Grier-Key said of the collection. "These photos, to me, create a sense of place."

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The faces in the photos

The photographs, 54 in all, show residents of different ethnicities dressed in formal attire, most of them posed in the studio of William G. Howard, a photographer who lived and worked in the area from 1882 to 1915.

Therriault said he gave the pictures in the early 1980s to the newly formed Eastville Community Historical Society, which kept them in storage. Grier-Key said advances in digital photography helped make the restoration possible after more than three decades.

Historical society members have worked since last year to preserve the images and trace the lives of the people in them. On April 10, Brian Luckey, a Southampton-based photographer, spent hours in the society's headquarters on Hampton Street making high-quality digital copies of the photos.

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Eastville, named for its location east of downtown Sag Harbor, boomed in the 1800s. Some of the settlers' descendants still live in the community, where several 19th century cottages remain standing.

Grier-Key said photographs of people of different races from the neighborhood's heyday were found together, reflecting that the area was unusually integrated for its time.

Two other sets of photos in the collection were found in a historic Eastville home known as the Butler House, which was demolished this past winter before the owner put the site on the market. Historians said the loss highlights a desperate need to preserve Eastville's history.

"When you look around here, this area is changing," said Grier-Key, who holds a doctorate in education and lives in Bellport. The photos, she said, "will not allow this history to be erased."

Donnamarie Barnes, a former People magazine photo editor who has summered in Sag Harbor since childhood and moved there full time in 2014, has volunteered to help restore the photos and research their subjects. She said she remembers the moment last summer when she first laid eyes on them.

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"My heart started jumping," Barnes said. "It felt like the images were just bouncing up at me saying, 'Here we are, do something with me.' "

 

The search for names

Barnes used census records and other clues to begin identifying the faded figures. She learned about a community where the disenfranchised -- Irish immigrants, displaced American Indians, freed slaves and others -- lived, worked and worshipped together.

Esther Green, who appears in one photo with a serious expression and a flowing, striped dress, raised seven children on her own after her husband and a son died within a month of each other in 1864 fighting in the Civil War.

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Augustus Johnson, born in 1872, was a one-armed janitor at Eastville's church, St. David AME Zion. His mustachioed figure is framed in a photo that conceals much of his torso.

"All you see is this extremely handsome, dignified man, and just looking at him, you wouldn't know he had this disability," Barnes said. "That's a wonderful tribute the photographer gave him."

Aaron Cuffee, a Montaukett Indian, was a sailor who ran a ferry from Sag Harbor to New London, Connecticut. He was part of a group of Montauketts who settled in Eastville after they were displaced from their ancestral home in Montauk.

"What I find really extraordinary is the depth of personality that comes through these portraits," Barnes said. "These are people that are having their portraits taken on purpose. They show themselves with pride, with confidence, with self-assurance, intelligence, and that's a fabulous thing."

And Howard, the photographer, she said, "was sensitive enough -- or perhaps he really did know them in that kind of way because he lived in the community -- to capture that."Around 1940, the blocks surrounding Eastville began to sprout with summer homes, primarily for African-American doctors, lawyers and teachers from New York City. There were few other summer communities where African-Americans were welcome, said Kathy Tucker, a retired city teacher who moved to the area part-time in 1975 and full-time about 1980.

Tucker, who helped found the Eastville Community Historical Society in 1981, said it was time to put the photographs to use.

"They've been around a long time," she said. "I'm very happy to share them with other people."

Notes on Eastville
The U.S. Census Bureau no longer separately records the population of Eastville. But when it did so, the number of residents more than doubled in an 85-year span:

Estimated residents
1830: 75
1880: 149
1915: 175

Distance to Manhattan
102 miles

Helping hands
St. David AME Zion Church was built in 1839 by African-Americans and Native Americans. It remains in its original location on Eastville Avenue and is widely believed to have been a stop along the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves in the 1800s.

Friends in high places
The Rev. P. Thompson, an abolitionist and the founding pastor of St. David AME Zion Church, was a friend of Frederick Douglass, the noted orator, abolitionist and statesman.

Learn more
Eastville Community
Historical Society
139 Hampton St.
Sag Harbor, NY 11963
631-725-4711
eastvillecommunityhistoricalsociety.webs.com
Source: Eastville Community