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July 16, 2002
A Black Enclave in the Hamptons Offering Comfort and Sanctity
AG HARBOR, N.Y., July 11 Someday, 9-week-old Synthia Terry Richards will build sand castles on the edge of Gardiners Bay here and dig clams with her toes, just steps from the yellow shingle house that her great-great-grandmother built 55 years ago.
Synthia's parents, successful young professionals, could vacation anywhere, but each summer they return to the African-American enclave of Azurest here, populated by doctors and lawyers, teachers and social workers, chief executives and politicians. They hope Synthia will find the same comfort and communal upbringing on this crescent of private beach.
It is similar to the world written about most recently by Stephen L. Carter in his debut novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park" (Knopf, 2002), and before that by Lawrence Otis Graham in a nonfiction work, "Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class" (HarperCollins 1999).
Mr. Graham, describing Azurest, the oldest of five African-American developments flanking Route 114 on the edge of this historic whaling village, and Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, put it this way: "When vacationing among our own, in places that have been embraced by us for so long, there is a comfort and a sanctity that makes it possible to forget that there is a white power structure touching our lives at all."
Azurest, home to 119 families, was founded in an era of segregation, when blacks were unwelcome elsewhere. Yet it remains the vacation spot of choice for many prestigious residents, including Earl G. Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine; Helen Marshall, Queens borough president; Cecil Broderick, a retired physician and the deputy mayor of Sag Harbor; and Alma Brown, widow of Ron Brown, a commerce secretary in the Clinton administration.
Residents say Azurest is at least as precious in an integrated world as it was in a segregated one.
Dr. Broderick, who raised his children in Scarsdale on an otherwise all-white block, said he did not realize until they were adults that his three sons and one daughter had been taunted in school and lonely when they reached dating age. They kept those experiences from him because he had told them, "You're up here to get an education, so blend in."
"By and large their friends were from here," Dr. Broderick said, as he traded pleasantries with Mr. Graves on their adjacent waterfront decks. "This place was a boon to us. We have tribal-type roots here."
Shannon and Gail Richards, Synthia's parents, who are in their 30's, met here, played together as children, hung out as teenagers and still consider the summertime clique from their childhood their closest friends. Thumbing through pictures that span five generations, Mr. Richards characterized the relationships. "These are my cousins who aren't really my cousins and my brothers and sisters who aren't really my brothers and sisters," he said.
As for the adults of his parents' generation, the men were role models and mentors, said Mr. Shannon, a computer consultant whose wife worked at Oxygen Media until Synthia's birth. The women all watched over him like a son. To this day, he calls many of them "mom," knowing they "had the full authority that title implies."
Azurest's newest homeowners also seek a counterpoint to their Monday-to-Friday reality, mixing comfortably with whites at the Episcopal church or village board meeting, shopping and dining in the quaint downtown, but largely going their separate ways.
Among those newcomers are Tanya and Riley Williams, physicians in their 30's, who are supervising the finishing touches on their 4,000-square-foot house and backyard pool. He is an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan and she a pediatrician, who specialized in child abuse cases at Mount Sinai until she decided to be a stay-at-home mother.
Tanya Williams said she was often mistaken for a nurse or social worker at the hospital. Her husband is frequently confronted by new patients squinting warily and asking, "Dr. Williams?" Here there are doctors galore.
The Williamses live on the Upper East Side with their daughters, 2-year-old Haley and 4-year-old Tyler. Tyler is the only black child in her preschool class and comes home saying she wants blond hair and smooth bangs. "We want to be around other black families, other people who look like our kids," the young mother said. They are different, but I want them to know different is good. They're getting that here."
Most everyone, even the recent arrivals, has tentacles into the community. The Williams family came here at the suggestion of one of Mr. Graves's grown sons, each of whom has a modest home here and a knot of children. It also turns out that Riley Williams is distantly related to Helen Logue's second husband. Mrs. Logue, 87, is one of the four surviving original settlers.
Mrs. Logue grew up in Charleston, S.C., around the corner from Maud Terry's son-in-law. Mrs. Terry, Synthia Terry Richards's great-great-grandmother, was an early renter in these parts, in ramshackle lean-tos that had been home to freed slaves who worked in Sag Harbor's whaling industry in the 1840's.
The wooded path she walked to Gardiners Bay with her three grandchildren (one of them Shannon Richards's father) later became the first paved street in Azurest, named Richards Drive (for the Charleston son-in-law). It was Maud Terry, envisioning a beachfront community for blacks, who tracked down the owner of the 20-acre tract and arranged for its subdivision. In 1947, lots sold for $1,000 on the bay and $750 inland. They go for 200 times that today.
In Azurest, many of the oldtimers, including Mrs. Logue, came from St. Albans, a section of Queens that was once home to many black celebrities, including Lena Horne and Jackie Robinson.
Dr. Broderick's next-door neighbor on one side is Mr. Graves, also from
Scarsdale. On the other side is Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., the lawyer, who
last year bought his house from Kenneth I. Chenault. Mr. Chenault, son of
a Nassau County dentist who summered here as a child, moved when he was
named chief executive of
Shannon Richards fondly remembers seeing Mr. Chenault's mother on the beach one day when he was walking with his cousin. "Freddy? Terry?" the old woman called. She was mistaking them for their fathers at a similar age. Flattered, they did not contradict her. "Yes, ma'am," Mr. Richards said.
Only one or two white families live in Azurest. Nobody seems to know the exact count. Since homes sell by word of mouth, to friends of friends or relatives of relatives, there is not much worry that they will ever be more than a tiny minority, which is how the people of Azurest want it.
"This is a historically black community," said Lynn Hendy, president of the property owners association. "I'd like it to stay that way. White people can go anywhere. But how do you say that without sounding racist?"