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Oct 8, 2019 10:09 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Brenda Simmons Meets Roadblocks Head On To Help Complete Southampton African American Museum

Brenda Simmons on the steps of the Southampton African American Museum.   DANA SHAW
Oct 8, 2019 11:11 AM

Brenda Simmons is exhausted.

That’s the word she uses when she sits down to talk about the Southampton African American Museum, which was supposed to celebrate its grand opening in September on North Sea Road in Southampton Village.

For months, work was being done on the building that used to house Randy’s Barber Shop. But that work came to a halt, after it was discovered that the contractor, William Proefriedt of West Babylon, may have falsified documents in his bid to restore the Pyrrhus Concer House on Pond Lane. He’s currently facing felony criminal charges, and was removed from both the Concer House and SAAM projects, both of which are now sitting unfinished, waiting for the next step.

Mr. Proefriedt was more than halfway through the work that needed to be done to transform the old barber shop — which was designated as the first African-American historic landmark in Southampton Village in 2010 — into the museum, but the work he did was not up to par, according to both Ms. Simmons, architect Siamak Samii, and officials from LK McLean, the firm that oversees Community Preservation Fund projects.

The town is now in the process of preparing to put out a bid again to complete the project, but the work likely won’t be completed until the spring, at the earliest.

A Long And Arduous Journey

Last month, Ms. Simmons, the museum’s executive director, spoke about the frustrations she’s endured in what has been a years-long process to make the museum a reality.

Ms. Simmons is now retired after working for more than 30 years in various capacities for both Suffolk County and the Village of Southampton. But she has been just as busy in retirement after taking on both the lead role in the museum and serving as one of the key point people for the Concer House project.

Mr. Concer, a former slave, worked as a whaler and was on a ship that saved several shipwrecked Japanese sailors in 1845, and then returned them to Tokyo. He is believed to be the first African-American to visit Japan. He lived in a house overlooking Lake Agawam, on Pond Lane, and operated a ferry service there before his death in 1897.

Watching two projects that are central to shining a light on the area’s African-American history languish and hit multiple roadblocks has been a source of stress and frustration for Ms. Simmons. She is emotional when speaking about the museum and the difficulties she has encountered in bringing it to life, and has opened up about the toll it has taken on her, emotionally.

As a black woman who was born and raised in Southampton, and raised her daughters there as well, the project is personal for Ms. Simmons. She is also deeply passionate about African-American history and making sure the stories and experiences of black people living in the area throughout history are not erased. She is not afraid to submit freedom of information law (FOIL) requests when her questions about specific details related to the museum project aren’t answered.

Ms. Simmons routinely made visits to the site while it was under construction, attempting to share the history of the building with the contractors so they would understand the gravity of what they were dealing with, and she hoped, take extra care with a project that has such important historical and cultural significance. During those visits, she was not comforted by what she saw, and how she was received.

Randy’s Barber Shop was a center of African-American life in Southampton Village during the years it was in operation. The shop was built in 1950, and Randy Conquest took it over from Emanuel Seymour in 1979, working there until 2006, when it closed shortly after he retired. During the time it was open, Randy’s Barber Shop was a popular gathering place for black residents in the town. It also housed a beauty shop, which was run by Ms. Simmons’s aunt, Evelyn Baxter.

The building was purchased by Southampton Town in 2006, in partnership with the village, using community preservation funds. It was designated as a historical landmark in 2010, and Mr. Samii was hired to draft plans to transform it into a museum. The original estimated cost of the project was $825,000 — $725,000 came from the CPF, and additional funds were secured with the help of New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., from the state and municipal capital fund. The official groundbreaking took place in July 2018, and, the project was scheduled to be finished and host a grand opening last month. Mr. Proefriedt and his company, WGP Contracting, Inc., carried out work for several months, but it all came to a halt when his issues with the Concer house came to light. Since then, the project has been in limbo, and the month of September—which should have been the time of the grand opening—came and went.

Grappling with what went wrong and why has consumed Ms. Simmons.

“Lately, I’ve been crying a lot,” she said. “I’ve suppressed so much because the reality is that, when I was working at the village, I really had to walk a tight line, because of my job. But at the same time, I had to say what I had to say a lot of times. I had to be careful how I said it and who I was going to say it to. There were times when I’d go home and be frustrated and pull the covers over my head and cry, and sometimes I felt like giving up. That’s what I’ve felt like likely.”

A Lifelong Fighter

Giving up isn’t really in Ms. Simmons’s DNA. She grew up poor, on government cheese and powdered milk, she said, during the Civil Rights era. She learned at a young age that being black meant you could be a target for oppression and violence. She recalled being 10 years old, possibly younger, eating a bowl of cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons that were interrupted by a news flash. Suddenly, she saw images of police officers with dogs and sticks and hoses, attacking people that looked like her.

“I didn’t understand what was going on, but it was frightening,” she said. “All of a sudden I sat there and said, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to do that to me and my family.’ I’ll never forget it.”

As she grew older, Ms. Simmons channeled those fears into action, identifying with activists like Angela Davis and the black power movement. She helped organize and participated in a sit-out at Southampton High School, to demand a black studies class.

“And we got it,” she said.

Later on, as a mother who was intent on familiarizing her own children with black history and black culture, she realized it was not an easy task.

“I had to keep bringing them to New York City,” she said. “And finally I said, ‘This is crazy. We need to have something here for all the black children to understand their culture.’”

She was tired of people looking at her like she was lying when she said she was born and raised in Southampton, or asking her if she was from the Shinnecock Indian Reservation; tired of having to prove that black people lived and existed in Southampton and had rich traditions and culture and history, and a place in the village. In recent years, as the demographics of traditionally black neighborhoods like Hillcrest have changed dramatically, with many black families moving away and white or Hispanic families moving in — not to mention the current political climate, which Ms. Simmons quickly referenced before saying she was not interested in getting into politics — the need for a museum that showcases the black experience in Southampton has become even more crucial.

“This is our rich history, and it’s been erased,” Ms. Simmons said. “I almost feel like we’re going backward, the last few years.”

Ms. Simmons does not seem like someone who is often at a loss for words, or who easily falls prey to self doubt. But to listen to Ms. Simmons speak is to watch someone continually caught between what she wants to say and what she thinks she should say; what she wants to express, but feels she can’t because she knows it could undermine everything she’s worked for, and shift the narrative away from where it should be. As the frustrations and delays with the museum project have mounted, she has started to tend more toward a candid approach, but has to live with the weight of knowing that taking that tack, that speaking candidly and truthfully about her lived experience as a black woman, could easily be a liability rather than an asset. She hems and haws considerably before finally sighing, and telling the story of one of her encounters with the original contractors for the museum.

She remembered visiting the site when the project first started, to introduce herself to the contractor and workers. She expressed concerns about how they were going to lift the building off the cracked foundation, telling them about another instance where a historical house had been lifted off a foundation and then “fell apart.”

“I was having these crazy nightmares, so I said, I’m just going to go give them the history and tell them my aunt used to work [in the barber shop],” she said. “I was trying to feel them out. I said that I was really concerned about the lifting, and that the building was built by the barber, it’s been here since the 1950s and it’s a very important project. And he just kept interrupting me.

She sighs and pauses before continuing.

“There’s a lot of things I could say or imagine or think and I haven’t come out and said it,” she said. “I’ve been trying not to pull the race card.

“I used to be a counselor and I can read people very well,” Ms. Simmons continued. “They just kept saying, ‘Oh, we got this, we got this.’ And then one of them jokingly said, ‘If it falls apart, we’ll just break it down and build it over again.’”

Ms. Simmons said after she left the grounds that day, she immediately called Mr. Samii and told him about the experience, and her concerns that maybe they weren’t up to the task they’d been awarded — an assessment that, of course, proved to be true.

The Key Cog

There are only a few people who have a deep understanding of the commitment Ms. Simmons has shown to the museum project, having watched her be intimately involved in every aspect for more than a decade. Architect Siamak Samii is one of them. He says that he and Ms. Simmons are like-minded when it comes to their belief that arts and culture play a vital role in the growth and health of a community, and he says that without Ms. Simmons, the Southampton African American Museum simply would not exist.

“She’s been the driving force behind the museum for years now,” he said. “When it has taken this period of time, it becomes frustrating, but she’s been patient enough and persevering and not relenting to bring it to this place.”

Earlier this week, Matt Jedlicka, an associate with LK McLean who was in charge of overseeing the museum project, spoke about the setbacks the museum has faced. His firm serves as the historic project coordinator for the Community Preservation Fund, so he has been involved with the project from the start.

He said that the best case scenario now would be for the project to be completed in the spring. He said that the town is currently working on putting together the bid package again, and estimated that project could have a new contractor in place as early as December, if things go smoothly. Once a new contractor is in place, he said the actual work could be done in as little as three to four months, depending on the weather and how frequently work can be done during the colder months.

Mr. Jedlicka acknowledged that there had been mixed reviews and feedback about Mr. Proefriedt from the start, saying that there was plenty of evidence that he did solid work, and had strong references, but also feedback from others that his work wasn’t of a high caliber. But he pointed out that the bidding process does not allow for contracts to be denied to the lowest bidder based on “hearsay” or subjective information from outside sources. In effect, the town is obligated to award the job to the lowest “responsible” bidder as long as that bidder fulfills all the protocols and requirements, which he said Mr. Proefriedt did, at the time. He did admit that Mr. Profriedt’s original bid on the project was significantly lower than the other bids, which is a red flag, but when he was questioned about it, he was able to answer those questions to the town’s satisfaction. But in subsequent months, he proved unable to do his job correctly, and in addition to the troubles with the Concer house, there were also reports from other projects that the bonding company had to get involved.

When asked if he was surprised when things fell apart with Mr. Profriedt, Mr. Jedlicka paused before answering.

“I just thought it would be difficult, but that you can oversee someone and make sure they do the right thing,” he said. “But it was way beyond that. Things had to get re-done, and it was him never listening or taking any direction.”

Like Ms. Samii, Georgette Grier-Key also has a deep understanding of what Ms. Simmons has done to make the museum a reality, and she has been instrumental in the Concer House project as well, as one of the original members of the Pyrrhus Concer Action Committee. Dr. Grier-Key is the executive director and chief curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor, and holds many other titles, but is widely considered one of the most authoritative voices on African-American history on Long Island. She points out that Ms. Simmons has done far more than her executive director title calls for, dealing with every other aspect of the project, jobs that would typically be handled by other people, from programming and day to day operations for the museum programs, which have been ongoing, such as the film festival, jazz festival and other events, to bookkeeping, social media engagement and of course keeping tabs on everything going on with the construction.

“She’s wearing every single one of those hats,” Dr. Grier-Key said.

Dr. Grier-Key expressed many of the same frustrations as Ms. Simmons that it has taken so long for the museum to be brought to completion, and added that the fact that the Concer house project has also faced delays has made that feeling even more acute.

“Why are we going through this, with both the Pyrrhus Concer house and this?” she said. “Something is not right here.”

She pointed out that the delay of the museum opening puts a strain on operations in general, particularly from a fundraising perspective, which is key to the museum’s ability to survive and thrive.

“For investors and donors, it’s hard to give to something that they can’t see,” she said.

Dr. Grier-Key also had a message for people in the community asking questions about why the museum isn’t finished yet or why it has taken so long.

“Before you ask what’s going on, have you considered making a contribution?” she said. “People don’t understand how much it takes to get a museum going. When people have questions, they should ask the town or the village, because [Brenda] is doing the best she can.”

The Road Ahead

Southampton Town officials insist they are committed to the project and are working to see it to completion. Town Attorney Jim Burke and Assistant Town Attorney Kara Bak said last week that they are hoping to finalize the needed information from the engineer so they can move forward with putting out a bid again and find someone to complete the project, and they’re hopeful that the work that needs to be finished is mainly interior work. Ms. Bak said that while they are still in negotiations with Mr. Proefriedt regarding what they owe him for the work he’s done, those negotiations don’t need to be complete in order for a new bid to go out.

It’s a sure bet that Mr. Proefriedt won’t be doing work for the town or village anymore, but Mr. Burke and Ms. Bak said that the town was unaware that there would be any issues with him. They said that he was awarded the bid for the museum before his issues with the Concer house were discovered, and they added that the town had a positive experience with him on a different project, so they did not have a particular reason not to award him the bid.

“We certainly have compassion for this particular project,” Mr. Burke said of the museum. “We know some projects are more meaningful to the community than others, and we understand that this is a very meaningful project. We’re looking to complete it as soon as possible.”

Soon, Ms. Simmons will be back to attempting to monitor the situation from afar, as she’s preparing for a trip to Uganda with her granddaughter, and will also head south to her second home in St. Martin in the Caribbean, where she has spent winter months since retiring.

She had to return earlier than planned this year, in the spring, because of issues related to the museum, and she said she isn’t sure if she’ll have to return early again this year. She added that some people have even tried to make her feel guilty for going with the museum in flux.

Months ago, she figured the timing would be perfect: she’d celebrate the museum’s grand opening right before heading to St. Martin, enjoying a retirement she earned after working government jobs for 36 years.

She had found Crystal Seymour, the granddaughter of Emanuel Seymour, the original owner of the barber shop, and said Ms. Seymour and her large extended family had been looking into taking multiple buses out to Southampton for the grand opening, and also planned to gift several items from the barber shop to the museum, including Mr. Seymour’s original barber license and original business card. A large contingent of the family had been looking into booking hotels and making other travel arrangements. Now, they are waiting to hear from Ms. Simmons about when they should revive those plans.

Ms. Simmons said the stress of the setbacks with the museum and the Concer House have taken a toll on her, mentally and physically, but that at the age of 64, she can’t let it kill her. It’s why she’s become more comfortable with speaking her mind, and why she’s become increasingly comfortable with the idea of passing the torch to someone else in the near future.

“When you suppress stuff because you’re trying to present yourself as official or whatever, it eats at you,” she said. “It’s doing something to me. On top of that, as a black woman, there’s always the stereotype as the angry black woman. I’m trying my best not to present myself like that.

“After all these years, it’s affected me physically, and I’m concerned,” she added. “I’m praying to give this to someone else. Of course, I’ll always be involved, but it’s never been about personal glory. It’s really for the community.”

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Who's watching the ship? Grants are involved and should be investigated by the AG.
By knitter (1941), Southampton on Oct 13, 19 12:29 PM