September 15, 2015

Pyrrhus Concer’s Legacy Sails Again

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

Pyrrhus Concer is thought to be the first African-American to set foot in Japan.

When the village of Southampton, N.Y. celebrated its 250th anniversary back in 1890, Pyrrhus Concer was a local celebrity. The whaling navigator, born into slavery in 1814, rode in the anniversary pageant as a storied seafarer who’d operated a ferry in Southampton’s Lake Agawam and is thought to be the first African-American to have set foot in Japan.

When he died seven years later, his obituary ran in the New York Times. But in the centuries afterward, Concer’s impressive legacy somehow rolled out with the tide.

“He got lost in time. Time moved on and he was forgotten,” Southampton Historical Museum's executive director Tom Edmonds said.

When a delegation of Japanese dignitaries who’d erected a monument to Concer in Japan reached out to Southampton officials in the 1980s to inquire about what memorials to the former slave they might visit in the village, the community threw together a marker to place outside Concer’s 1830s frame house.

“It was like a quick Band-Aid so as not to embarrass anybody. And then he got forgotten again,” Edmonds said.

This photo from Southampton’s 250th Anniversary Pageant in 1890 shows Pyrrhus Concer to the far left, holding a harpoon gun.

Today, however, Concer’s legacy looms large once again in the storied resort area as residents move forward with plans to create a Pyrrhus Concer history center with salvaged pieces of Concer’s house that was demolished earlier this year in a heated preservation battle.

The trouble started in 2013, according to Brenda Simmons, executive director of the Southampton African American History Museum, when a couple purchased the property on which the structure sat, aiming to knock it down in favor of building their “dream house.” Despite the 1980s marker nearby, the house hadn’t been deemed historically significant, and when Simmons and others pushed to save the structure, a fierce fight ensued with the couple arguing that their property rights were being infringed upon.

The couple eventually won. Then, much to their dismay, Simmons and her fellow preservationists learned post-demolition that the couple no longer planned to build on the land and had put it back on the market.

Concer’s frame house was built in the 1830s and demolished in 2014.

Though they technically lost that battle, however, it now appears that Simmons’ group and the village itself may have ultimately won the war. Using community preservation funds, the town of Southampton (in which the village is incorporated) stepped in to purchase the lot in July 2015. And it’s there that Simmons, Edmonds, and others envision the future education facility dedicated to Concer will rise.

“Everything’s in place. We’ve got the property. We’ve got the frame. It’s just a matter of getting the right people together to create a proposal to make it happen,” Edmonton said. “We have all the materials. It’s a wonderful outcome to what seemed a terrible tragedy.”

Simmons, a life-long Southampton resident who has presented educational exhibits honoring Concer and the village’s other African-American history for years, says she hopes the center, like the other historic museum she helms, will act as a needed resource about the area’s African-American heritage and culture.

Joseph McGill, Brenda Simmons, and Georgette Grier-Key celebrate the dedication of the official historic marker on August 16, 2015.

“[For years] I’d bring my kids to New York [City] because they had to experience their culture and finally it hit me, ‘This is ridiculous, why do I have to keep taking my children to New York to be exposed to their culture?’” Simmons said. “They need to be here.”

While plans for the rebuilt homestead solidify, Simmons and other community members have had more Concer-related victories to celebrate. A Pyrrhus Concer-themed ferry ride once again sails around Lake Agawam, and at an August event, the state installed an official historic marker, Slave Dwelling Project founder Joe McGill spoke in support of the project, and the street the lot is on was given the honorary name of Pyrrhus Concer Way.

“That’s really what’s so exciting. I think the momentum is so high now,” Simmons said. “[The African-American community] live[s] here, we have a significance here … and we have for a long time, and I think it’s important for our children.”

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