ON LONG ISLAND, A BEACHFRONT HAVEN FOR BLACK FAMILIES. In the 1930s, a group of trailblazing African-Americans bought plots for themselves in Sag Harbor, establishing a close-knit community that’s spanned multiple generations.
WHILE VACATIONING ONE summer in the late 1930s, Maude Terry decided to go fishing. On her way to Gardiners Bay in eastern Long Island, she came across a secluded, underdeveloped, marshy, wooded area that faced a beach. Immediately, she felt a sense of tranquillity in the sylvan space, surrounded by tall old oak and walnut trees. Green shrubbery and weeds grew amid the sand at her feet, and her skin turned sticky in the salt air. It was heaven.
At the time, Terry was a Brooklyn schoolteacher who spent most summers with her husband, Frederick Richards, and her daughter, Iris, who were both doctors at Harlem Hospital; her sister Amaza Lee Meredith, the chair of the art department of Virginia State University in Ettrick, Va. (who was also one of the first Black female architects in the United States), would occasionally join them. The sisters had grown up in Lynchburg, Va., and lived most of their lives up and down the East Coast: Come summer, Terry would usually rent a cottage in Eastville, an area on the outskirts of Sag Harbor, the beachfront village that — although it straddles the rich, mostly white enclaves of Southampton and East Hampton — has always remained a bit more subdued, at least compared to Long Island’s other storied warm-weather escapes, which begin at the eastern edge of Queens and stretch more than 100 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. …
Terry and Meredith — who first began coming to Eastville in the 1930s alongside dozens of other Black families who spent their summers in rented cottages and bungalows — also hoped to buy their own homes there. And so that day, after fishing, Terry decided she and her sister should attempt to purchase the 20-acre plot she had discovered. They soon learned it was owned by Elsie and Daniel Gale, a white mother and son, of nearby Huntington, who had wanted to sell it but had been unsuccessful, partly because it was built on reclaimed marshland and thus unsuitable for growing vegetables. Terry, however, saw more in the land than other prospective buyers: She envisioned a place where Black families could rest, grow, raise families and simply exist without the burden of systemic oppression.
In 1939, Terry, 52 at the time, and Meredith, 44, brokered a deal: They promised to find buyers for the 70 parcels that the Gales had platted, most of which were 50 by 100 to 125 feet, recruiting Black families and friends, many of them from Brooklyn, to move in. In doing so, they created not only the oldest historically Black subdivision in Sag Harbor but one of the most enduring Black beachfront communities in America, alongside Highland Beach in Maryland, which was founded in 1893 by Charles Remond Douglass, a son of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where prominent people — including the Obamas — have vacationed since the turn of the 20th century. In honor of the vision the sisters had, they named their new community Azurest: a “heavenly peace, blue rest, blue haven,” as Meredith wrote in her sister’s eulogy.