Our History

about SAAM

our history

How it all started. In 2004, a local resident, Gloria Cannon, had the founding idea to preserve “The Barbershop”—an iconic local gathering place for Blacks in the late 40’s. She wanted to ensure that owner/builder/barber Emanuel Seymore’s legacy be recognized, as well as that of “Fives”—a restaurant and juke joint built and owned by Arthur Robinson—the other iconic establishment where locals who where part of the Great Migration secured as their safe haven. After a dusty day of labor—picking potatoes, scrubbing toilets and floors, ironing, and other domestic work—they would dress up and step high to “Fives”.  And on a typical Saturday or Sunday evening, the line up at the infamous hot spot included the soulful sounds of soloist Sylvia Francis “Snooks”Smith, the suit sweating, rhythmic, hip curling, back jerking vocals of Little Curtis (Curtis Highsmith Sr.) and the Big Men, as well as many other local performers. A good time was had by all.

Ms. Cannon’s daughter Bonnie approached another local resident, Brenda Simmons, to help with carrying out her mom’s plan to keep the legacy of the barbershop/beauty parlor and juke joint alive. Brenda gladly agreed to help out, as she was born and raised in Southampton, and is the niece of Evelyn Baxter, the beautician who shared the building with Mr. Seymore.

A personal connection. Brenda often reminisces about being 11-years-old, eager and excited to go to the beauty parlor and answer the phone and schedule hair appointments for her auntie (fondly called Aunt Et). One of her best memories was being excited when asked by her auntie to do coffee runs to the local greasy spoon restaurant at the corner. Her Auntie always told her she could keep the small change. With a big grin, she would have her choice of purchasing her favorite sweets. Brenda also had the generally-forbidden privilege of going to the men’s side of the barbershop when her Auntie would ask to deliver something to Mr. Seymore. Nancy Stevens-Smith also recalls fond memories of getting her Sunday do’s, as the shop was THE spot where most of the black girls and women came to look their best, no matter what the occasion.

To fulfill Gloria Cannon’s heartfelt wish, Bonnie and Brenda went to meet with the Town Supervisor at the time, Linda Kabot, to share their somewhat outlandish proposal of establishing an African American Museum in the world-renowned destination known as “Da Hamptons”. The first thing Supervisor Kabot suggested was to establish the museum as a nonprofit. Secondly, she strongly suggested a campaign to get the museum’s name known through the village and beyond, as this was most likely going to be a long, drawn out process. So the official name African American Museum of the East End and Center for Excellence (AAMEE) was established. Brenda envisioned this iconic space to fulfill the vision of promoting education and excellence, and the task of making that vision a reality was put in motion.

First AAMEE Exhibits and Events

AAMEE’S first exhibition for Black History Month, entitled “Black Firsts”, was displayed in a cabinet on the second floor of Southampton Town Hall. The informative exhibition consisted of many unknown famous Black inventors.

The next exhibit was the re-introduction of an extraordinary man named Pyrrhus Concer. A former indentured servant born and raised in Southampton, he was taken from his mom and sold at the tender age of 5 years to work on the Pelletreau farm. But through the many challenges and adversities he faced being born in the time of slavery, Mr. Concer became an historical whale steerer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist.

In 2005, Brenda and Bonnie’s love of films, and Brenda’s Mom—Ms. Gloria’s—delicious Southern-style cooking were the inspiration for the First Annual Black Film Festival. This all-day event featured the tantalizingly delicious dishes prepared by Gloria of the Hamptons, including fried chicken, collard greens, peach cobbler, and everything in between. The Film Festival consisted of a children’s film, a classic film, and a feature film. All were welcome and all were satisfied.

Historical Designation

In March 2008, after a challenging learning process, AAMEE was awarded non-profit status by New York State, and that accomplishment set a clear path towards making the museum a reality. As Assistant and Recording Secretary for the Southampton Village Mayor, Ms. Simmons was made aware of the opportunity to pursue AAMEE as the first African American site to be Historically Designated in the Village of Southampton. In preparing their presentation to the Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation (ARB), Brenda and Bonnie had the rare opportunity to interview Sylvia Francis “Snooks”and Curtis Highsmith, legendary performers at Juke Joint, as well as several other individuals who provided colorful commentary and historical context. The ARB review took place in 2010, and was unanimously approved. The East End African American Museum and Center for Excellence located at 245 North Sea Road was Historically Designated, and we were well on our way!

New Leadership and Expanded Programming

In 2011, Bonnie and Gloria Cannon decided to choose another path. Brenda Simmons enlisted long-time schoolmate Nancy Stevens-Smith, as well as Cheryl Buck and Charles Certain to continue to lead the way to making the museum a reality.

For the next few years, AAMEE continued to sponsor memorable events. Along with the continuation of the Annual Black Film Festivals, Brenda, who is a poet, added Spoken Word Live Jazz to the mix. Charles Certain and his phenomenal band Certain Moves became the house band for the Spoken Word/Live Jazz events, and accompanied bookings of some amazing guest performers, such as R&B singer Cherly “Pepsi”Riley, HBO Def and Grammy Award Poet J Ivy, dynamic 2x Grammy Award singer/songwriter Tarrey Torae, and Dwayne Kerr, former flutist for the legendary Erykah Badu. The musuem also endeavored to promote young local poets, and sponsored open mic nights.

AAMEE hosted several influential film viewings, which were followed by riveting panel discussions. Special guests included Janks Morton, and Yusef Salem—one of the Central Park Five—who left us spellbound by his forgiveness and compassion. The museum was also one of the few to have the privileged to screen the film “Life Essentials” produced by Muti Ali, grandson of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. The film was also followed a panel discussion where Mr. Ali elaborated on the intimate stories, relationships, and foundational wisdom passed on by his iconic “Grand Ruby”.

A Name Change

Letcher Johnson, a local long-time business owner, suggested to the Board the addition of “Southampton” to our name, and the benefitst that would include, such as recognition from travelers searching for “things to do in Southampton”. In April 2014, the NYS Department of State Division of Incorporation approved the name change, establishing that the East End African American Museum will be doing business as “Southampton African American Museum ( SAAM). And thus, SAAM was established.

Renovation and a Grand Opening!

For the several years now, our main focus has been on the renovation of the museum building so that SAAM can have a permanent home. The Town Community Development Fund purchased the building from the previous owner, which rests on Village property, thus the Village is required to maintain the building. An agreement was put in place allowing SAAM to operate the museum. A bid process was posted by the Town, and in March 2018, a contract was awarded with a July 2018 timeframe to begin the job and completion by September 2019.

Due to unforeseen issues with the contract, a second bid process was initiated in December 2019, and was awarded to Liberty Construction in February of 2020, just before Covid restrictions hit, forcing a pause in work. When the restrictions were finally lifted, the renovations were delayed again as the contractor had contracted Covid19 himself. Couple that with delays in manufacturing, and the timeline for a Grand Opening has been pushed back to June of 2021, for which we are planning a surprise unveiling and an outstanding opening exhibit.

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