Lifelong Southampton resident Brenda Simmons recalls the 1950s as a time when African-American women in the village lined up at the local salon, waiting for her aunt Evelyn Baxter to work her magic with a vintage curling iron.
There, Baxter — hair pulled tight in a bun and constantly cracking chewing gum — taught her niece how to properly address her elders, sit like a lady and to never tolerate disrespect from anyone.
“This used to be a gathering place,” said Simmons, director of the Southampton African American Museum. “That is what is missing right now, and that is what we are trying to bring back.”
Simmons’ endeavor has operated as a virtual museum for 11 years, hosting events and exhibits — such as an annual film festival and an upcoming production of the play “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” at East Hampton’s Guild Hall on Aug. 16 — at various East End locations. Soon, it will have its own home, with Saturday’s groundbreaking ceremony kicking off the effort to renovate the former barber shop and beauty parlor on N. Sea Road into a rotating art and photo gallery, research center and community facility. The groundbreaking begins at noon.
Plans call for knocking down the wall that divided two businesses — Randy’s Barber Shop and Evelyn’s Beauty Shop — gutting the interior and refurbishing the facade with cedar shingles and red trim. It’s expected to be completed by fall 2019, Simmons said.
Project architect Siamak Samii estimated the rehab work will total about $1.25 million. Southampton Town has allocated $870,500 in community preservation funds — which are generated through a 2 percent tax on real estate transfers — for the project. A $125,000 state grant was secured with the help of Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor). Private donations and other funding will be accepted.
The building is owned by the town and Southampton Village, while the surrounding property is owned by the village. Former Mayor Mark Epley said he advocated for acquiring the building, but credited Simmons as the driving force behind the initiative.
Simmons, 63, and her lifelong friend, Nancy Stevens-Smith, 64, now of Flanders, a retired elementary schoolteacher, are descendants of the Great Migration, the years between 1916 and 1970 when millions of African-Americans left the rural South. Their parents, aunts and uncles traveled from small towns like Currituck, North Carolina, or Waverly, Virginia, to make a better life in Southampton, though both women were born here.
“They came as migrant workers to work in the potato fields,” Simmons said. They also worked as landscapers and domestic help at Hamptons estates — roles still commonly served by migrants.
Though many associate Southampton with celebrities and hedge fund owners, Simmons said she wants the world to know about African-Americans like Randy Conquest, who mentored a generation of barbers at the building.
“It’s time that people know we exist here and that [the African-American community] made a significant contribution to the village,” Simmons said.
Southampton African American Museum
Site: Former home of Randy’s Barber Shop and Evelyn’s Beauty Shop
Size: 775 square feet
Designation: Southampton Village Landmark
Funding: $870,500 Southampton Community Preservation Fund money, $125,000 state grant
Groundbreaking: July 7, 2018
Completion: Fall 2019