Pictured Above: The lifesaving station is now being restored as a museum telling the history of the lifesaving service in Southampton Town.
As the United States reckons with its history of segregation and slavery, there are many reminders, in our own backyards, of the injustices that marked this continent from colonial times through the present day. But to find those reminders here, you have to do some digging into history that is hiding in plain sight.
Historian, genealogist and journalist Sandi Brewster-Walker is taking on just such a challenging project by attempting to learn as much as she can about each of the men of color — about 150 men in total — who were stationed by the Coast Guard at the Tiana Lifesaving Station in Hampton Bays between 1942 and 1944.
Ms. Brewster-Walker gave a virtual talk about her research, sponsored by the Southampton History Museum, on Jan. 20.
The lifesaving station, built in 1912, is now owned by Southampton Town, which is renovating the building to serve as a museum documenting lifesaving stations along the South Shore. It was used as a beach club for many years, and was the home of the well-known Neptune Beach Club when it was sold to Southampton Town in 2013.
To date, Ms. Brewster-Walker has learned a bit about 136 of the men who served at the station, which was the second Coast Guard station manned by a crew of men of color, after the Pea Island Life Saving Station on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
She’s hoping in the future to contact the families of these men to learn more about their lives before and after their brief time in the service.
The men who were stationed there were trained at the Coast Guard’s segregated Manhattan Beach Training Station near Coney Island in Brooklyn, where 3,500 recruits were trained to be boatswain mates, quartermaster signalmen, pharmacist’s mates and yeoman.
Ms. Brewster-Walker said many of the officers in charge of training at this station had passed what was known then as the “brown paper bag test” — if their skin was lighter than a paper bag, they’d be promoted through the ranks.
In September of 1942, when four German would-be saboteurs came ashore from a u-boat in Amagansett, where they took the train to New York City, the Coast Guard realized the importance of patrolling Long Island’s South Shore beaches.
At the time, the Shinnecock Life Saving Station, at the foot of the Ponquogue Bridge and had been destroyed in the hurricane of 1938, had just been rebuilt, and the surfmen from Station Shinnecock had been at the Tiana Life Saving Station while their station was rebuilt. There was another lifesaving station just to the west, in Quogue. But when the Tiana station was staffed with a crew of color, it took its orders from Station Shinnecock.
“It was almost like they didn’t trust the men of color to be able to run the station on their own,” said Ms. Brewster-Walker.
The Officer in Charge of the Tiana Life Saving Station during those years was Cecil R. Forster, who died in 1996 and is buried at Calverton National Cemetery.
Ms. Brewster-Walker has been able to collect basic facts about 136 of the men stationed in Tiana between 1942 and 1944 — staffing decreased dramatically in 1944 as the war was ending, and the station was decommissioned in 1946.
Many of them, she said, were not from Long Island, and she’s found, through the National Archives and the Coast Guard Historian, photos of the station’s baseball team. She also found a record that a quartet from the station performed at the Fleet Street A.M.E. Zion Church in Brooklyn in April of 1943.
Most were likely spurred to join the service in the patriotic fervor after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, she said, though they knew when the joined the service that they would not have the same experience as white service members.
“They probably joined, some because of family tradition, some because we were coming out of the depression and it was a steady job,” she said. “But at the end of the war they did not get the same benefits. For example, in Levittown, they couldn’t buy there.”
“If they were in the Navy, on an aircraft carrier, they were cooks and stewards,” she added. “They lived below the below deck, and they had a whole different experience.”
The question of how their time in the Coast Guard shaped their future is one Ms. Brewster-Walker plans to explore further.
“Where did the men go (after they left the station)?” she asked. “I’m curious if they stayed on Long Island because they might have met a young lady.”
Cecil Forster, the commanding officer, showed up in some historic articles in The Amsterdam News, she said, including an account of his visitng with friends in Sag Harbor, and being appointed the Chief of Vocational Guidance and Occupational Testing for New York City Mayor Robert Wagner.
Census records are only public through the 1940s, said Southampton Town Historian Julie Greene, who participated in the Southampton History Museum discussion, due to privacy laws.
“There’s lots of history about this building. I hope we bring all of that to light,” she said. “The surfmen who worked and lived there were dealing with prohibition issues, and we don’t really think about what went into this type of service, especially during World War II. It was a really trying time, especially along the coastline.”
Ms. Greene said the building is expected to reopen as a museum in about a year.
“The exterior has been completed, and we’re now working on the interior restoration process, in the hopes that we can have a museum here at the lifesaving station that will honor the men, and the heritage of the men, who served there.” —BHY