Dr. Georgette Grier-Key is the inaugural Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society. Under her leadership at Eastville, membership increased by 30%, funding increased by 52%, and the organization created a strategic plan. Additionally she is the President of the Long Island Historical Societies, serves on the board of the Preservation League of NYS and the NAACP Brookhaven Town Branch and is an adjunct assistant professor at CUNY Medgar Evers College and director of the Long Island History Institute at SUNY Nassau Community College.
Grier-Key received her Bachelor of Arts from State University of New York at Old Westbury in Visual Arts with a concentration in Electronic Media, her Masters of Arts from Adelphi University in 2004 in Education with a concentration in Art Education, and her Doctorate of Education in 2012 from the Dowling College.
She has served on the Museum Association of New York’s board of directors since 2017 and will begin her tenure as Vice President in April 2022. We spoke to Dr. Grier-Key to learn about her role in arts and cultural organizations on Long Island’s East End.
How did you end up as the Executive Director and Chief Curator at Eastville?
I’m the first Executive Director for Eastville. Before I got involved, the organization was 100% volunteer. We’re still a heavily volunteer organization. I joined the organization in 2009 at the suggestion of my Godmother who at the time had a house in Azurest and was a member of Eastville Community Historical Society and a volunteer.
What other jobs did you have before you arrived at Eastville?
In 2011, I started at the Huntington Arts Council as the Grants for the Arts Outreach Coordinator where I worked to increase minority participation in grant applications. I also served as a panel review for the JP Morgan Chase Grant Program in 2013 and for the Long Island Decentralization Grant Program from 2011 to 2012. At the same time, I was an administrative Assistant and Volunteer for the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton. I’ve also worked for Guild Hall in East Hampton, and was an art instructor at the Children’s Museum of the East End.
All of these places are located on Long Island’s East End so the East End has been a part of my life for a long time.
Can you tell us more about your background?
When I was going to school, art wasn’t encouraged. But art was always in my life and a lot of people in my family are artists including Lionel Hampton who was an American Jazz artist. My family came to Harlem through the Great Migration. My grandfather was an Underbishiop for one of the major of the Black churches and had 145 churches under his jurisdiction from Bridgehampton to Brooklyn and that's what brought us to the East End.
My family wanted us to focus on professional careers. But I decided that I was able to incorporate art into whatever degree that I was doing even in my Masters Degree where I was studying education, but I was concentrating on art education.
When I started working at the Huntington Arts Council, we were working on a program with the NAACP and the Children’s Museum of the East End to create a program to help immigrant mothers integrate into the school district by trying to help them feel comfortable by using the museum as a resource. Almost all of my work has been working with museums.
When I met with the board at Eastville and learned more about the Executive Director position, I got excited it allowed me to incorporate both art and history. I thought that this was a great opportunity. Throughout my time at Eastville, I understood more and more the significance of what this place was and how to deal with it. It just was in the cards for me so to speak.
What are some of your main motivations to do what you do? What gets you excited in the work that you do?
That’s the thing with Eastville, it’s been a regional group and most of the work that I do is tied to them.
Right, because you are also a founding member and lead organizer of the Pyrrhus Concer Action Committee in addition to your work on the Preservation League of NYS.
Yes, with the Pyrrhus Concer house, Eastville served as a regional organization. We tell the story of the Black Whalers because this was the whaling port for our area–Sag Harbor - where the first customs house was located. Pyrrhus Concer was a Black Whaler and he also had family in the area.
When it came time to advocate for his property, the Eastville Community Historical Society was there. Preservation is in our mission. It’s in our articles of incorporation and it’s in our charter. It’s preservation for these buildings and preservation for these BIPOC stories. Along with art and everything else. It’s something that the founder of this organization did from the start. I really commend my institution. They were ahead of their time especially when you think that while the institution is forty years old, the community started in the 1830s and because of the Eastville community, SANS [Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah Beach Subdivisions Historic District] community started to develop in the 1940s. Eastville has been able to survive through the creativity of the people who were there and the arts that surround them. I’m talking about artists that defied all odds from performing arts to visual arts. I work to protect and preserve what was a haven for 19th century African American and Native American artists like Olivia Ward Bush Banks–a poet and journalist of African and Montauk descent, Amaza Lee Meredith– who laid the blueprint for Azurest, Daisy Tapley– a classical singer, and Nathan Cuffee–a Native American author who co-wrote Lord of the Soil. Part of my job is to highlight their art but also protect it and teach it. How do we fit their stories into the story of the East End and how do we continue to add to that story thinking of artists like Standford Biggers and Colson Whitehead is our challenge.
Where did your passion for preservation start?
I think it naturally happened alongside everything else that I was doing. There’s such a void on Long Island because we are so spread apart. I think that’s part of why I would always seek out other people’s advice and help. It’s one of the reasons why I got involved with MANY and the Preservation League of NYS. There’s a need for this knowledge about the importance of preservation. An example is the cemetery that Eastville owns, the St. David AME Zion Church cemetery [an adjacent century-old cemetery to the St. David AME Zion Church in which African and Native Americans of the earlier St. David's Church membership are buried, many of whom were Sag Harbor Whalers]. We needed a survey of the cemetery and it led us to a grant and further understanding of this historic district and the preservation of it. And of course, preserving the Pyrrhus Concer house which has been an eight year struggle.
Eastville has always served as a regional organization and organizations in the East End count on Eastville for help. That’s why preservation has been important to us, to preserve the built environment.
Do you have a favorite day on the job? Or a favorite moment?
During the first event we were having in the first summer of the pandemic I got a call from one of our regular donors affiliated with a prominent African American business. She called to let me know that she was still going to support our organization at her regular level. That really made my day because everybody was going through this time where we didn’t know what to expect or how to deal with things. There were so many things that were way more important going on in the world, but she remembered us. It showed me the love and support for community and for Eastville. That moment stood still for me and it stands out as one of the best days on the job.
This is my job but I feel like I’m charged with a greater call to continue the mission of this organization because it’s important to the community and it’s important to me.
What is your superpower?
I’m a hands-on type of director and we’ve grown in many ways. When I first came to Eastville we didn’t have a digital imprint and we didn’t have a website. My progression as a director really follows my career in that everything I learn, I incorporate. It’s one of the things when I meet other small organizations especially in my capacity as the President of the Long Island Historical Societies. I let them know that it’s okay to be small and you can still learn how you do it. I love to pass that advice on to other organizations that are trying to survive in this new digital age. These are the organizations that I try to help by sharing resources that will help them grow. I’m a connector and I raise people up.
Do you have any key mentors or someone who has deeply influenced you?
For the qualities of leadership that would be my maternal grandfather, Rev. Dodenhuff Green [1915-2014, who founded Christ Temple Church of God in Christ Church in Uniondale], my father –George W. Grier, and Bishop Frank Otha White who has gone on. I have heavy influence from them but then as far as the historical society, the founding historian Kathy Tucker. She was a heavy influence to me as well as someone who I trained under and learned most about the organization and about the area.
Would your 18 year old self imagine that you would be where you are today? What would you say to yourself?
Absolutely not. I thought I would be dancing around the world. But I would just say enjoy it because it goes fast.
Learn more about Eastville Community Historical Society:
Learn more about Long Island Historical Societies: https://lihsocieties.org/