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Historically Black beach communities on Long Island working to protect area's unique character

Protecting Long Island's historically Black beach communities
Protecting Long Island's historically Black beach communities 05:28

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- As part of our Black History Month coverage, we are focusing on a little-known part of that history:  a planned Black community in the heart of the Hamptons, a beachfront haven, which in the 1940s began to attract middle class African-American families.

As CBS2's Carolyn Gusoff reports, there is now a passionate effort to protect its unique character.

Eighty-year-old retired attorney Ed Dudley still lives in the summer home his parents bought in 1953. His father was the first Black United States Ambassador and Manhattan borough president. His mother was a teacher.

As a child, Dudley would find a safe harbor on the shores of Sag Harbor.

"It was a whole different world because ... there were other middle class Blacks," he said, "and we started having a social network."

His parents were among the trailblazers to find respite in one of the nation's first planned summer communities by and for people of color.

"I was the only male Black in my class, and here, there was nothing but Black boys and girls to play with," Dudley said. "It was just wonderful."

Racism and redlining barred Blacks from mortgages and access to other beach resorts.

In 1947, two sisters, Maude Terry and Amaza Lee Meredith, partnered with the land owner, Daniel Gale, who was struggling to sell what was then undesirable woodland. They enabled ownership.

The enclaves of Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Nineveh would flourish into a beloved mecca.

"Here you could have a beachfront deeded to your property. You could leave your door open and not be afraid of the threat of the Ku Klux Klan, which was very prevalent, even out here on Long Island," said Georgette Grier-Key, executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society.

They would attract a who's who of Black elite.

"Politicians, corporate CEOs and heads of companies, and then you have the best of the best in terms of entertainment," Grier-Key said. "It was known as one of the areas that you were safe ... not to be called names, not to be in a fishbowl."

Generations of families have congregated here, enjoying a treasured lifestyle and a strong sense of community and belonging.

"This is a history worth saving in that this is a unique history and part of the American history of the mid-1900s in the post-Jim Crow, post-World War II environment where African-Americans were not allowed for recreational or other purposes just to live in many areas. They were covenants," SANS Organization President Renee Simons said.

"A formed planned community of people who are middle class and upper middle class African Americans, family-oriented on probably the most primo bayside beach in the Hamptons ... where we are being flooded by people with too much money who want to build too big houses, and they are targeting that community," Sag Harbor Mayor Jim Larocca said.

Developers have discovered these undervalued homes steps from the beach.

"Then they knock it down and build McMansions ... Taxes are going up. The values will go up over time, then who lived there for generations are sometimes almost forced out," Simons said.

Some residents, naming the communities the acronym SANS (Sag Harbor Hills Azurest Nineveh Subdivisions), are working to preserve its special history, earning state and national landmark status.

The village of Sag Harbor recently adopted special zoning, which provides some protections, but some believe the village must do more.

"The best possible tool for preservation that we have is a historic district," Grier-Key said.

A historic district would stop unlimited demolition, which some say is altering its character, but there is disagreement over how far preservation should go.

"If a home is designated historic, then it falls under strict rules or guidelines, federal guidelines, an act of Congress, that limit how these home can be modified or changed," said Steve Williams, president of the Azurest Property Owners Association.

Williams lives in the house his father built. A property owners association president, he says most of the 330 owners want to retain the right to modify their homes as they please and benefit from market demands.

"What needs to be preserved is the spirt of the neighborhood, not a cold building," Williams said.

"We cannot keep buyers from buying ... but we do have the authority and the will and the responsibility to keep the history," Simons said.

"We need to make sure that this place exists so that it will never happen again, where we see this type of segregation and unequal services. Everybody just wants to have the same thing, to have a fruitful and whole life," Grier-Key said.

SANS, also known as "historically Black beach communities," is one of the last remaining in the nation. Others have succumbed to development.

Public meetings with village officials will determine next steps but there is agreement:  this community is historic and worthy of protection.

"It's a place for my kids and my grandkids to feel comfortable and to see other kids just like them," Dudley said.

A place for future generations to understand the discrimination that spawned this community and the resilience that made it thrive.

Visit the following sites for much more information on the rich history of these Sag Harbor communities:

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