Pyrrhus Concer was born a slave in Southampton in the early 19th century, but he went on to lead a storied life—and today, residents still celebrate his legacy.
Born on March 17, 1814, Mr. Concer was a black slave owned by the Pelletreau family in Southampton. His life has become local legend; lore more captivating to many residents than any fictitious work. Generations marvel at how one man born to humble roots, was able to cut such a monumental swath, traveling the world on a whaling ship, breaking down cultural barriers in Japan, heading west to seek his fortune during the California Gold Rush—and finally, finding his way home to Southampton, where he started a business and gave back as a local philanthropist.
“He was just an extraordinary person,” said Mary Cummings, an archivist at the Southampton Historical Museum. “He did everything. He was a hero.”
Known for his physical prowess and far-flung adventures, Mr. Concer was also a pious Christian who won praise and respect from his peers, Ms. Cummings added.
Slavery was Mr. Concer’s birthright; his mother was a slave. But, after he was granted his freedom when he was 21 years old, the young man followed his heart, heeding the siren song of the sea and setting off on a whaling adventure on the ship Manhattan, owned by Southampton forefather Mercator Cooper, whose historic home is now owned by the Rogers Memorial Library.
The tale that unfolded is a story that captured the imagination of Arthur P. Davis, who chronicled Mr. Concer’s life story in the historical document, “A Black Man in the Queen’s Tiara,” published in 1974.
Mr. Davis was the father-in-law of Lucius Ware, the current president of the Eastern Long Island branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mr. Ware said his father-in-law always had a penchant for learning from the past. “This was a piece of history that would have disappeared, if someone didn’t do something about it,” he said.
In his writings, Mr. Davis captured an odyssey that is the stuff of legend, describing the story of how Mr. Concer seared his name onto the pages of history with an adventure so memorable that there is a monument standing today in Agawam Park to commemorate his voyage.
“Once again,” it’s proven that “truth is stranger than fiction,” Mr. Davis wrote.
Not only did Mr. Concer experience the drama of the high seas, leaving Southampton in 1848 for a three-year whaling voyage—at one time battling a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean, but he forged new frontiers. At the time, Yedo, or Tokyo, was a forbidden port where sailors were unable to venture in 1848. Foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan.
After helping to save Japanese shipwrecked sailors and returning them to port, however, Mr. Concer was the first black man to trade with the Japanese, who were mesmerized. “One after another tried to rub off the black of his skin, stare at his marvelous perfect white teeth and listen to him speak,” Mr. Davis wrote. “They had never seen a black man before.”
Stepping onto Japanese soil was a historic act—Mr. Concer was the first black man ever to enter Japan, according to an obituary published in The Southampton Press in 1897. “Pyrrhus is famous in Japanese history because he’s a black person they traded with,” Mr. Ware said.
So famous was the story that years later, in the 1970s, Japanese officials traveled to Southampton to trace Mr. Concer’s history and a ceremony was held in Agawam Park, where a memorial was dedicated, located directly across from the Southampton Cultural Center, in his name.
“Since Pyrrhus was famous in their history, they wanted to know where he lived,” Mr. Ware said. “All of a sudden, all of these dignitaries from Japan were coming to Southampton. They wanted to see the house where he lived.”
Wanderlust sparked Mr. Concer’s next adventure, in which he headed off to the California Gold Rush. He came home soon after, his pockets lined not with gold, but memories.
Once back in Southampton, he began a business ferrying individuals from Lake Agawam to the beach in a sailboat.
In addition, he left a lasting gift to future generations when he dedicated a Christian education fund to the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton, which was meant to pay for the education of future generations of congregants.
Brenda Simmons, assistant to Southampton Mayor Mark Epley and chairwoman of the African American Museum of the East End, spent time researching Mr. Concer and explored the trail of landmarks that defined his life, including his Pond Lane home. His story resonated on many levels, she said. “He was a strong black man of faith. In spite of all he went through and the transitions he had to endure, that’s what helped to sustain him on his journey,” she said.