‘I decided not to let those scary, unfortunate realities define me, but to use them as tools for triumph.’
“I was born and raised in the Village of Southampton. My parents came here in the late ’40s from North Carolina and Virginia as part of the great migration of Black people from the South who came here to work on the potato farms.
“My mother worked in the Bulova watch factory in Sag Harbor and my father worked on farms, owned a landscaping business and then owned a restaurant where the Lovin’ Spoonful got their start.
“I remember being about 7 years old in 1962, watching cartoons and eating my cereal and looking up and no longer seeing the cartoon but instead seeing attack dogs held by policemen and other policemen with hoses making people who looked like me fly through the air with the force of that water.
“I was so confused because a police officer had just come to our second-grade class to talk about how they were there to serve and protect us. I remember the fear that gripped me. I also remember my mother telling us we could not go down Jobs Lane. I couldn’t understand that.
“When I was in high school, I drove with a group of teenagers down that lane; we were determined to. I saw the mannequins in the store windows and couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. But when we got to a light, a white guy asked us what we ‘N-word’ were doing there.
“That’s when I realized that my mother hadn’t wanted me to experience that. But I decided not to let those scary, unfortunate realities define me, but to use them as tools for triumph. I think that was the beginning of my advocacy for injustice throughout my career.
“Years later when I was assistant to the village mayor of Southampton, I started my 16-year advocacy to convert the old local barbershop into a museum.
“When I was growing up, the barbershop was on one side and the beauty parlor on the other in the same building. In 2010, a letter came across the mayor’s desk to tear the building down because it was ‘an eyesore’ at the entrance of the village.
“I told the mayor I’ll be the crazy woman in front of the bulldozer, and this is not going to happen. It was the start of my journey to be the founder and executive director of the Southampton African American Museum.”
What I learned as a child is, when you see injustice, you have the power to change and make a difference.
“My auntie was the beautician in that beauty parlor, and when I was about 11, I would answer the phones and write down appointments for her. One of my best memories was being asked by her to do coffee runs down the road and using the change to buy sweets.
“The beauty and barber shops were not just a place you get your hair done. They were a gathering place for our community, like a community living room for us.
“They were a safe haven, a place that we felt at home, a place we felt like family. My auntie taught a lot of us young women how to be a lady. She talked about the importance of us carrying ourselves a certain way and gave us etiquette lessons.
“The barbershop next door was where the owner emphasized the importance of education and voting, and he trained young men to be barbers, two of whom are still in the area today. So it was important for our community. I didn’t want to see it torn down. Eventually, the building was purchased by the town Community Preservation Fund on village property.
“Originally, we called it the African American Museum of the East End with the 501(c)(3) [organization] we established. I started curating exhibitions and film festivals, spoken word and live jazz to get the word out.
“We had a grand opening on Juneteenth in 2021. The thing that kept me going was knowing that it was important to leave a legacy here for our community.
“We contributed a lot in this community, and even now my community is all being gentrified. With the latest census, the Black demographics are very low to none at this point. So, if nothing else, we will not be erased.
“At the museum, people learn about the history that they’re not taught in school. So many people are shocked that there is even a Black museum or there were even Black people in Southampton’s history.
“For me, this work is not about the applause; it’s about the cause. Because when I look back, this has been in my DNA to be an advocate for a long time. What I learned as a child is, when you see injustice, you have the power to change and make a difference.”
Interviewed by Liza Burby