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Hamptons Life

Mar 17, 2014 2:25 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Southampton Village Celebrates Life, Birthday Of Former Slave

Mar 17, 2014 3:17 PM

On June 12, 1890, residents from throughout the East End lined the streets of Southampton Village for a major commemoration. It was the village’s 250th anniversary and an occasion fit for a parade.

One after another, floats were wheeled down the route, captivating the audience as they passed. Toward the middle of the parade, Pyrrhus Concer led a float decked out like a boat, carrying several famous whaling captains—a place of honor for the prominent village resident during the village’s celebration.

In retrospect, it is hard to believe that this revered man was born a slave. And that, years later, he would go down in history.

This weekend, the Southampton Historical Museum will pay homage to Mr. Concer’s legacy by celebrating his 200th birthday—paying tribute to an important figure in Southampton’s history, one who seemed to have been forgotten for a time, and, in a way, attempting to make up for lost time.

“He went across race lines,” Museum Director Tom Edmonds said of Mr. Concer, who was an African-American, during a recent interview at the Rogers Mansion in Southampton. “There was racism everywhere in the United States at the time, but he was still an integral part of the community. He was a big hero, and everyone here knew him.”

Mr. Concer was born to the family of Captain Nathan Cooper on March 17, 1814—a time when slavery was still legal in New York. At age 5, he was sold to the Charles Pelletreau family for $25.

After working for several years as a farmhand, Mr. Concer began whaling, sailing out of Sag Harbor with some of the most prolific captains of that era. At age 18, he voyaged with Captain Edward Sayre on the ship Boston in 1832. In the 1840s, he set sail again, this time on the Columbia with Captain William Hedges.

Mr. Pelletreau set Mr. Concer free in 1835 on his 21st birthday; it was eight years after slavery had been abolished in New York, but abolished under the condition that slaves remain with their owners until age 26, unless released.

In November 1843, Mr. Concer signed up as a whaler on the ship Manhattan under Mercator Cooper, the son of his first owner. It would be the biggest adventure of his life. He just didn’t know it yet.

While on board, the ship happened upon 11 shipwrecked Japanese sailors on the Bonin Islands—stranded in the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles southeast of the mainland. Even though Japan had a strict anti-foreigner policy at the time, the ship was determined to return the men home and set off for the Orient. On the way, the sailors rescued 11 more Japanese men whose boat was sinking.

Because the Manhattan was not allowed to dock in Tokyo—known as Edo, at the time—the ship anchored offshore, guarded around the clock by soldiers on board and in boats surrounding the vessel.

Over the course of four days, the Manhattan hosted a number of visitors, who were all enamored by Mr. Concer—one of the first black men to ever visit Japan and to be seen by the locals. The spring 1912 issue of “The Southampton Magazine” recounted events as told by Mr. Concer and Gad Williams, an African-American shipmate and fellow Southamptonite.

“They used to tell with much amusement how the Japanese would gather around them and stare at them with wide open eyes,” the magazine reads, “and look them over from side to side and feel of their skin to see if the color would rub off.”

Mr. Concer returned to Southampton in 1847, married Rachel Williams and, following a brief stint in California—where he attempted to cash in on the “Gold Rush”—the couple had two children, James Harvey and Charles, according to a newsletter by the Association of Suffolk County Historical Societies.

There is no account of what happened to Mr. Concer in the West. Back in Southampton, he hung up his whaling hat and made his living by running a ferry service across Lake Agawam to the village beaches at 10 cents a ride.

Almost half a century later, Mr. Concer died on August 23, 1897, at age 83, inside his home on Pond Lane. He had seen more of the world than most people at that time—let alone a former slave—could have ever imagined.

An inscription on a stone marking his grave on the southwest corner of the Old North End Cemetery reads: “Though born a slave/He possessed those/virtues, without which,/Kings are but/Slaves.”

Southampton Village officials are working together to commemorate Mr. Concer, starting with his birthday, March 17, which was celebrated as “Pyrrhus Concer Day” in New York, thanks to a declaration by New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele.

“The history of our black citizens throughout the years has been underappreciated,” Mr. Thiele said during a telephone interview last week. “This is an opportunity to highlight someone who is an integral part of the history of Southampton. I am more than glad to help honor Mr. Concer, and I am looking forward to participating.”

On Saturday, March 22, the Southampton Historical Museum will host its own 200th birthday party for Mr. Concer at the Rogers Mansion. The event, which will start at 2 p.m., will feature a proclamation by Mr. Thiele, a presentation by village resident and preservationist Sally Spanburgh about Mr. Concer’s life, and a panel discussion with Brenda Simmons, chairwoman of the African American Museum of the East End; Georgette Grier-Key, the president of the Association of Suffolk County Historical Societies; Lucius Ware, the president of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and Southampton Board of Education member Nicholas Palumbo.

Later this year, birthday celebrations for Mr. Concer will continue with an initiative organized by Mr. Palumbo. The ferry route that Mr. Concer pioneered will be revitalized—taking summer patrons from Main Street, down Lake Agawam to the Bathing Corps. The ferry, a reproduction slated to be on display at the Rogers Mansion birthday party, will be a working tribute to Mr. Concer, who piloted it for decades.

And it will bring the community one step closer to ensuring that Mr. Concer is never forgotten again.

“He was born a slave and, yet, there he was, at the top of the parade,” Mr. Edmonds said, recalling the 250th anniversary of Southampton. “It is amazing. No black person, and very few Shinnecocks, ever got commemorated like that. Or even acknowledged.”

The Southampton Historical Museum will host “Pyrrhus Concer’s 200th Birthday Celebration” on Saturday, March 22, starting at 11 a.m. at the Rogers Mansion in Southampton. Admission is free. For more information, call 283-2494.

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How about celebrating my current life of being a slave to the Government
By They call me (2826), southampton on Mar 17, 14 3:33 PM
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Mar 17, 14 4:35 PM
As an African American who grew up in Southampton, I am extremely glad to see this long overdue acknowledgement. We never heard about Pyrus Concer when I was growing up. In fact I hadn’t heard about him at all until the whole mess about his house came up. I had heard stories about the Shinnecok tribe members who lost their lives trying to save shipwrecked sailors, but never anything about Mr. Concer. I read that he was sold to the family of Charles Pelletreau, I grew up on Pelletreau St. ...more
By pstevens (406), Wilmington on Mar 17, 14 4:13 PM
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