top of page

Our own history in the making

Our own history in the making


In 1987, a group of concerned citizens, including  William Pickens, Betty Friedan, E. L. Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut, Eleanor Holmes Norton and others, participated in a 3-day event designed to bring together “black and white thinkers and activists, women and men asking new questions about our eroding American values of equality, freedom and community that has aroused intense and new commitment.”

The event was held over Columbus Day weekend, October 10, 1987, at Pierson High School, and was recorded by LTV. The recordings are available here for archival viewing, and we invite you to take a look:

The event attracted local and national media coverage, and spearheaded entirely by volunteers. Three other Sag Harbor Initiatives were later held in consecutive years; the third took place at Southampton College.


Article in the Sag Harbor Express

Mr. Pickens, referred to as the "general manager" of the effort,  was quoted in the above article as saying “We’ve got to maintain and sustain the America we’d all like to see. It’s hard work, not easily done. We’d better not let the negatives push us backwards.”  Perhaps it's time for another Sag Harbor Initiative?

Kenneth Clark

Peggy Cooper Cafritz


Did you know that in 1993, famed folk singer Pete Seeger came to the Old Whalers' Church to do a benefit for the Eastville Community Historical Society at the behest of Eastville resident Terry Sullivan? The event raised more money in a single event than any other for the ECHS, and we salute the sadly now-deceased Mr. Seeger and his dynamic wife Toshi, and we thank Terry Sullivan, longtime friend and singer with Seeger, for his incredible generosity in making the event happen.

You may know many of Pete Seeger's songs, which include "If I Had a Hammer", "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", "Turn, Turn, Turn", and Seeger popularized the now-famous spiritual "We Shall Overcome", acknowledged as an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. 


Celebrating Black History Month, 2018


The New York Times has kindly published a terrific roster of films that you can get cozy with this February (and beyond) while experiencing the "larger history of black Americans in Cinema". 

Go to the NYTimes website for descriptions of these fine films and broaden your world! (Pictured: Lena Horne)

Did you know that the first person to have reached the North Pole was not Commander Peary, as had been taught to this writer as a child, but was in fact Matthew Henson, a man of extraordinary skill, courage, heart, and Peary's originally unheralded partner in Arctic adventure? 

You can read an absolutely fascinating account of his life and accomplishments in National Geographic, published in 2014.

Dr. Crumpler, née Davis, (1831 – 1895), was the first African-American woman physician in the United States. Born in 1831, Dr. Crumpler first worked as a nurse in Massachusetts between 1852 and 1860. She was accepted to New England Female Medical College and earned an M.D. in 1864. She practiced medicine in Boston and Richmond, Virginia, primarily working with poor women and children, who had limited access to medical care. 

Dr. Crumpler was subject to "intense racism" and sexism while practicing medicine. In 1883, Dr. Crumpler published a renowned book, Book of Medical Discourses In Two Parts, which many believe is the first medical text written by an African-American author. It focused on the medical care of women and children.

It is assumed that Onesimus was born in Africa in the late seventeenth century. One of a thousand people of African descent living in the Massachusetts colony, Onesimus was a gift to the Puritan church minister Cotton Mather from his congregation in 1706.

A medical pioneer, Onesimus told Mather about the centuries-old tradition of inoculation practiced in Africa. By extracting material from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person, you could deliberately introduce smallpox to a healthy individual, making them immune. Considered extremely dangerous at the time, Cotton Mather convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the procedure when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721 and over 240 people were inoculated. Mather noted that he had learned of this process from “my Negro-Man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow”. Opposed politically, religiously and medically in the United States and abroad, public reaction to the experiment put Mather and Boylston’s lives in danger, despite records indicating that only 2% of patients requesting inoculation died compared to the 15% of people not inoculated who contracted smallpox.

Onesimus’ traditional African practice was used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and introduced the concept of inoculation to the United States. 

Onesimus eventually purchased his freedom but little is known about him apart from this astonishing contribution to medicine.

Martin Robison Delany (1812-1885) was an African-American abolitionist, journalist, physician and writer. He was born free in Charles Town, WV (then part of Virginia, a slave state). Delany was an outspoken Black nationalist, arguably the first; and is considered by some to be the grandfather of Black nationalism. He was also one of the first three Blacks admitted to Harvard Medical School. Trained as an assistant and a physician, he treated patients during the cholera epidemics of 1833 and 1854 in Pittsburgh, when many doctors and residents fled the city.

Active in recruiting Blacks for the United States Colored Troops, he was commissioned as a major, the first African-American field officer in the United States Army during the American Civil War.

MARY ELIZA MAHONEY (1845 – 1926) was the first African American to study and work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States, graduating in 1879. Mahoney was one of the first African Americans to graduate from a nursing school, and she prospered in a predominantly white society. She also challenged discrimination against African Americans in nursing.

In 1908, Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Adah B. Thoms. This organization attempted to uplift the standards and everyday lives of African-American registered nurses. The NACGN had a significant influence on eliminating racial discrimination in the registered nursing profession.[1] In 1951, the NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association.

Mahoney has received many honors and awards for her pioneering work. She was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976 and to the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.

DAISY GATSON BATES (1914-1990) was a civil rights activist best known for her work on behalf of the Little Rock Nine and a key player in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957. Bates escorted the students to the school amid intense opposition and heavy threats, and continued to advocate for the students once they were enrolled.

Bates and her husband founded the Arkansas State Press, a weekly African-American newspaper that advocated for civil rights. She received an honorary law degree and later worked for President Lyndon Baines Johnson on anti-poverty programs. Little Rock paid perhaps the ultimate tribute, not only to Bates but to the new era she helped initiate, by opening the Daisy Bates Elementary School and by making the third Monday in February George Washington's Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day, an official state holiday.

HENRY OSSAWA TANNER (1859 – 1937) was an American artist and the first African-American to gain international acclaim. Tanner moved to Paris, France, in 1891 to study, and continued to live there after being accepted in French artistic circles. His painting entitled Daniel in the Lions' Den was accepted into the 1896 Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. 

Tanner enrolled in 1879 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The only black student, he became a favorite of the painter Thomas Eakins. In the late 1890s he was sponsored for a trip to Palestine by Rodman Wanamaker, who was impressed by his paintings of biblical themes.

Although painting became a therapeutic source of release for Tanner, the lack of acceptance in society due to racism was painful.

In an attempt to gain artistic acceptance, Tanner left America for France in late 1891. Except for occasional brief returns home, he spent the rest of his life there.

BESSIE COLEMAN, the first licensed African American Female pilot:


Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892, Bessie Coleman grew up in a world of harsh poverty, discrimination and segregation. She moved to Chicago at 23 to seek her fortune, but found little opportunity there as well. Wild tales of flying exploits from returning WWI soldiers first inspired her to explore aviation, but she faced a double stigma in that dream being both African American and a woman.

She set her sights on France in order to reach her dreams and began studying French. In 1920, Coleman crossed the ocean with all of her savings and the financial support of Robert Abbott, one of the first African American millionaires. Over the next seven months, she learned to fly and in June of 1921, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded her an international pilot's license. Wildly celebrated upon her return to the United States, reporters turned out in droves to greet her.

Coleman performed at numerous airshows over the next five years, performing heart thrilling stunts, encouraging other African Americans to pursue flying, and refusing to perform where Blacks were not admitted.


When she tragically died in a plane accident in 1926, famous writer and equal rights advocate Ida B. Wells presided over her funeral.


This terrorist event occurred on June 1,1921. Rumors had spread of an encounter between a young black man, Dick Rowland, and a white woman, Sarah Page, 2 days prior. Rowland had tripped and fallen onto Page, who yelled “rape”. Rowland was arrested, and an article in the town’s paper called for his lynching. An armed standoff followed at the courthouse between a white mob, there to kill Rowland, and and outnumbered group of black residents, who were forced to retreat. 

Riots erupted, with the black areas of Greenwood, known widely as the “Black Wall Street" set on fire, even from planes flying overhead. The terrorism, which included rioting, lynching, and arrests, lasted for an entire day. Although the deaths were underplayed at the time, the American Red Cross and later the Tulsa Race Riot Commission of 2001 claimed that close to 300 people had been killed. The Commission stated that the city had conspired with the white mob against the Tulsa black community and recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants. The state passed legislation to establish some scholarships for descendants of survivors, encouraged economic development of Greenwood, and suggested that a memorial park in Tulsa be dedicated to the riot victims. The park was dedicated in 2010.

No American should be ignorant of the history of this terrible event.

HENRY HIGHLAND GARNET was an African-American best known as an abolitionist whose "Call to Rebellion" speech in 1843 encouraged slaves to rebel against their owners.

Garnet was an African-American abolitionist born circa December 23, 1815, in Kent County, Maryland. Born as a slave, Garnet and his family escaped to New York when he was about 9 years old. In the 1840s, he became an abolitionist. His "Call to Rebellion" speech in 1843 encouraged slaves to free themselves by rising up against owners. Seen as a radical, he became a controversial figure within the abolitionist movement. In 1865, Garnet became the first black speaker to preach a sermon in the House of Representatives. In 1881, he was appointed United States Minister and Counsel General (a position equivalent to ambassador today) in Liberia, and died there a few months later, on February 13, 1882.


One in four cowboys was Black, despite the stories told in popular books and movies.
 In fact, it's believed that the real “Lone Ranger” was inspired by an African American man named Bass Reeves. Reeves had been born a slave but escaped West during the Civil War where he lived in what was then known as Indian Territory. He eventually became a Deputy U.S. Marshal, was a master of disguise, an expert marksman, had a Native American companion, and rode a silver horse. His story was not unique, however.

In the 19th century, the Wild West drew enslaved Blacks with the hope of freedom and wages. When the Civil War ended, freedmen came West with the hope of a better life where the demand for skilled labor was high. These African Americans lived dangerous lives facing weather, rattlesnakes, and outlaws while they slept under the stars driving cattle herds to market.

While there was little formal segregation in frontier towns and a great deal of personal freedom, Black cowboys were often expected to do more of the work and the roughest jobs compared to their white counterparts. Loyalty did develop between the cowboys on a drive, but the Black cowboys were typically responsible for breaking the horses and being the first ones to cross flooded streams during cattle drives. In fact, it is believed that the term “cowboy” originated as a derogatory term used to describe Black “cowhands.” 


The iconic cartoon character Betty Boop was inspired by a Black jazz singer in Harlem. Introduced by cartoonist Max Fleischer in 1930, the caricature of the jazz age flapper was the first and most famous sex symbol in animation. Betty Boop is best known for her revealing dress, curvaceous figure, and signature vocals “Boop Oop A Doop!” While there has been controversy over the years, the inspiration has been traced back to Esther Jones who was known as “Baby Esther” and performed regularly in the Cotton Club during the 1920s.

Baby Esther’s trademark vocal style of using “boops” and other childlike scat sounds attracted the attention of actress Helen Kane during a performance in the late 1920s. After seeing Baby Esther, Helen Kane adopted her style and began using “boops” in her songs as well. Finding fame early on, Helen Kane often included this “baby style” into her music. When Betty Boop was introduced, Kane promptly sued Fleischer and Paramount Publix Corporation stating they were using her image and style. However video evidence came to light of Baby Esther performing in a nightclub and the courts ruled against Helen Kane stating she did not have exclusive rights to the “booping” style or image, and that the style, in fact, pre-dated her.

Baby Esther’s “baby style” did little to bring her mainstream fame and she died in relative obscurity, but a piece of her lives on in the iconic character Betty Boop. 


Black Panther Party Community Programs, 1966 - 1982

Those of us lucky enough to have heard Jamal Joseph, head of Impact Theater, talk about his life and stint as a Black Panther (recorded in his book “Baby Panther”) will know that the Black Panther Party was not a terrorist group. CLICK HERE for a full listing of community programs spearheaded by the Panthers from the Black Panthers Party Research Project of Stanford University.

One of few political groups that fought for the protection of Black Americans against police and racial violence. It also provided the community with social, financial, educational and health programs. 

ROBERT SMALLS (1839 – 915) was an African-American born into slavery in Beaufort, S.C., but during and after the American Civil War, he became a ship’s pilot, sea captain, and politician.

He freed himself, his crew and their families from slavery on May 13, 1862, when he led an uprising aboard a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailed it north to freedom. His feat  successfully helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army.


As a politician, Smalls authored state legislation that gave South Carolina the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States.

WILLIAM WELLS BROWN was a former slave who went on to become, by most accounts, the first African-American novelist to publish a novel and the first African-American playwright to publish a play. 

Brown was born into slavery around 1814. At 19, he was sold to a Missouri steamboat company owner and staged an escape when the ship carrying him docked in Ohio. In the dead of winter, Brown traveled on foot and came across a Quaker who gave him his full name and put him on the path of education.

Escaping north and settling in Boston, Brown became a notable abolitionist writer and speaker, but as a fugitive, felt his freedom could be better realized in Europe as slavery was outlawed in England and France. With his two young daughters, Brown traveled across Europe drawing crowds among those who opposed the act of slavery. With the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 enacted, Brown opted to stay in Europe until his rich friends were able to purchase his freedom.

While in Europe, Brown penned and published the book Clotel or The President’s Daughter, a fictional account of two bi-racial daughters of President Thomas Jefferson, in 1853. Five years later, the play “The Escape” or “A Leap For Freedom” was published, although it wasn’t produced into a full work until 1971 at Emerson College.

After returning to the United States in 1854, Brown continued to write and lecture, picking up an interest in homeopathic medicine along the way. He became a medical doctor and opened a practice. Brown passed in 1884 at the age of 70, according to most records.

bottom of page