Around the Island

Sylvester Manor celebrates Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, Sylvester Manor Educational Farm and Sag Harbor’s Eastville Community Historical Society present “Narratives in the Making: Unearthing the Stories Within Us” as its sixth Annual Black History Month Celebration on Sunday, Feb. 23, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater. 

The symposium will explore how various pieces make up a historical story and the ways those stories are uncovered through social sciences, humanities, archaeology, oral history and documentation. Methods and practices for sharing and presenting those stories with the public will also be explored.

“The focus of the program is understanding the complexity of the lives of enslaved Africans during the colonial period in America, especially in the northern states,” said co-presenter Cordell Reaves, a seasoned museum professional and historic preservation program analyst from NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.“So much of our popular understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans comes from southern sources. New York was a major slaveholding state and to fully understand how the Empire State grew and gained its prominence we have to understand the lives of the enslaved community who built it.”

It’s a fitting topic for the Manor, which was once a Native American hunting and fishing ground that since 1652, has been home to 11 generations of its original European settler family. Over time, it’s transformed from a slaveholding provisioning plantation to an Enlightenment-era farm, to a pioneering food industrialist’s estate and today to an organic educational farm.

By 1680, there were close to 30 enslaved people living at the Manor, which, according to the historian Ira Berlin, was the largest population of slaves in New England. Yet the presentation will discuss various mixed heritage communities that are part of Long Island’s diverse history. 

COURTESY SYLVESTER MANOR Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, ca. 1884, Manor housekeeper for over 40 years and the last known person to be buried in the Burying Ground.

“The discussion is focused on the importance of including multiple voices in the narratives of Long Island’s history. Long Island is the ancestral home of many significant historical communities including Native Americans, African Americans and mixed heritage groups,” said co-presenter Chris Matthews, a historical archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Montclair State University who is currently working on a project researching a mixed-heritage community in Setauket, N.Y. “These communities of color are poorly represented at most historical sites and places, which has created a legacy of neglect that overlooks and minimizes their contributions.”

Mr. Matthews will also discuss how to recover these histories by turning to untapped sources such as oral history and archaeology. He explained that those sources “allow the stories of the Island’s communities of color to come to life directly through the words and deeds of these people.” 

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO An etching of a sailing ship on an attic beam at Sylvester Manor, made sometime in the 1830s by William Pharaoh, an indentured boy who lived there.

Over the years, the Manor has continued its journey of unearthing its history through archaeology. From 1998 to 2005, Dr. Stephen Mrozowski from the University of Massachusetts Boston along with a team of students worked at the Manor locating many archaeological deposits linked to the original 17th-century manor house. During the summer of 2019, Dr. Mrozowski returned with a team from UMB to conduct a dig in a section of the formal gardens area. They uncovered artifacts that will be on exhibit at the Manor this summer and according to its website, are valuable to its ongoing story of what life was like before modern times at the Manor.

“The most important take away (from the presentation) is a greater knowledge that communities of color have deep roots on Long Island and that we are all responsible for doing what we can to help to preserve their heritage. It is vitally important to recognize that many of these communities still exist though they are struggling to survive,” said Mr. Matthews. “We need to commit to supporting the preservation of people as well as their historic sites.”

According to Mr. Reaves, history is important because it’s a vehicle that allows individuals to examine their own sense of identity and community. From last names, to words used to convey social status, to the structure one was raised in, they all carry a “stamp of history.” He says looking back at our stories is an opportunity to learn about how people’s stories are all both intertwined and interdependent.

“I hope people come away with a desire to learn more. This is a chapter of history which has been largely overlooked, yet it is one of the most important pieces of understanding how this state became so successful so quickly and how America became so successful so quickly,” Mr. Reaves said. “I hope people are inspired to learn more about the lives of the enslaved community and understand their humanity beyond their labor.”

The symposium will feature a discussion and presentation from 2 to 3:30 p.m. and a reception from 3:30 to 4 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door and are available for purchase by visiting or by calling the Manor at 631-749-0626.