This Juneteenth, the Southampton African American Museum (S.A.A.M.) officially opened its doors to the public. Located on 245 North Sea Road, it is the first African American site to be landmarked and historically designated in the village of Southampton.
The mission statement of the museum says in part that it strives “to promote an understanding of African-American culture by creating programs that will preserve the past, encourage learning, and enhance the life of the community.”
Brenda Simmons, a former assistant to Mayor Mark Epley of Southampton, and host of the LTV show VOW Voices of Wisdom, worked to make the museum a reality for 16 years, and now serves as its executive director.
“It was an amazing, amazing, amazing moment for me after 16 years of work,” Simmons said about the opening, which included a ribbon cutting ceremony attended by local and state-level government officials.
“It was very endearing to see the outpouring of support that came nationwide for this.”
The location of the museum holds significance. It was home to a barber shop frequented by many African American community members. A Black man named Emmanuel Seymour, who migrated from Currituck, North Carolina to Southampton during the Great Migration (1916-1970), purchased the land from another Black man named Percy Kinsberry for $10. Seymour built the building that the barber shop would dwell in with his own two hands in the late 1940s and early 50s.
“I like to say he came here with a plan, a dream and anointed hands,” said Simmons. “He became a Black entrepreneur and barber at a time when opportunities were obviously extremely limited for Black people.”
The shop was a popular meet-up spot for African American workers, where they could unwind and escape the pressures, and racism, of the day. Simmons became friendly with Seymour’s granddaughters two years ago, who donated many original items to the museum, such as the property deed, a transistor radio that was played in the barber shop, a camera and Seymour’s barbering license. The first shoeshine box is also hosted in the museum.
The barber shop later switched hands from Seymour to Randy Conquest. The LED sign for Randy’s barber shop can be seen at the museum.
A beauty salon was also added to the property. Evelyn Baxter was its first beautician. Baxter, originally from Waverly, Virginia, is also a product of the Great Migration. Her sister, Florence, drove north and established roots in Harlem. Baxter followed and settled in Southampton. Baxter also happened to be Simmons’ aunt. Simmons helped at the salon by answering the phone, booking appointments and going on coffee runs.
“The diner was close and she would give me money, not just for the coffee but for me to get candy as well,” Simmons remembered.
Simmons has many fond memories of being in the salon as a girl and of the people she encountered. When Simmons walked into the the completed museum for the first time to prepare for the grand opening, she was taken aback.
“When I walked in that front door, and I became emotional when I say this, but I feel 13 again,” Simmons shared. “I hear my auntie popping her gum and I can hear the clicking of the curling iron and I can smell the hair and atmosphere here. It was very emotional.”
She recalls the stirring political and cultural conversations that the patrons had. Simmons would also devour the pages of black magazines like Jet and Ebony, which helped open her eyes to the wider world.
“I really believe looking at the Black people in those magazines, seeing their clothes and education made the impression to me that we could reach our goals,” Simmons said. “In high school, we weren’t told this. Our guidance counselors advised us to get a job and not go to college.”
There are three themes in the programming of the museum, which are depicted in a sizable mural at the front of the museum. The mural was made by the artist David Martine.
The first theme is the histories of the barber shop, beauty salon and a juke joint that was also on the site. It eventually burned down.
The second is the Great Migration, which helped grow the African American community in Southampton and the North in general.
The third theme is the story of Pyrrhus Concer. Concer was born a slave in 1814 and separated from his mother at the age of five. He was aboard a whaling ship called the Manhattan, which returned marooned Japanese sailors to their home islands. In 1845, it became the first American ship to enter Tokyo.
“They tried to rub [Concer’s] skin off because they had never seen a Black man before,” Simmons said. “They later erected statues and monuments to Mercator Cooper, the ship’s captain, and all of the sailors, including Pyrrhus Concer.”
After his journey, Concer returned to Southampton and became an entrepreneur. He ran a taxi ferry on Agawam Lake. He also belonged to the Presbyterian Church in town and started a widow’s fund and education program there. The education program is active to this day. Simmons is working on getting historical designation for Concer’s home on Pond Lake, which was renamed Concer Way in 2015.
Art from the private collection of the architect Peter Marino can be seen at the bottom level of the museum. It includes pieces by African American artists Sanford Biggers, Melvin Edwards, Theaster Gates, Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker.
Simmons relayed that many community members are learning about the history of slavery in the North for the first time during their museum visits. They are also stunned by the escapades of Concer, as well as how Jim Crow segregation touched Southampton during the time of the barber shop. For Simmons, this learning is a success.
“I want people to know that Black people have had a contribution to this community.”