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Sep 25, 2017 1:00 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Plaque Honors Sag Harbor Philanthropist

An early-20th-century postcard of Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage's Sag Harbor home, now the site of the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Sep 26, 2017 1:45 PM

Pierson High School, the John Jermain Memorial Library, Mashashimuet Park, Otter Pond and the former Sag Harbor train station round off the list of that village’s most recognizable public works. What is less recognizable is the shared origin of these community projects: one woman’s gaping purse.Now that woman will be granted her recognition.

To celebrate the centennial anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement, the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum will dedicate a historical marker honoring Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, a prominent 20th-century philanthropist whose former part-time Sag Harbor home now houses the museum, on Saturday, October 28, at 11 a.m.

“Many people recognize the responsibilities that wealth affords. I think it’s a good lesson for a number of people who are involved in our civic life,” said the museum’s manager, Greg Therriault. “See something, say something. She was someone who said something in a very powerful way.”

Ms. Sage was born Margaret Olivia Slocum in 1828 in Syracuse. Despite her father’s financial problems, she graduated from the Emma Willard School (now called Troy Female Seminary) in Troy, New York, the first institution of higher learning for women in the United States, and went on to begin a 20-year career as a teacher in Syracuse.

She was married late, at the age of 41, to Russell Sage, a Whig Party politician and financier entwined with the ruthless railroad robber barons, most notably Jay Gould, of the Gilded Age.

The childless pair were married until 1906, when Mr. Sage died at the age of 90 of stomach cancer.

Overnight, at the age of 76, Ms. Sage inherited the equivalent of roughly $100 million in today’s dollars.

“That’s very serious money,” Mr. Therriault said. “Anyone who inherited that amount of money would be constantly besieged.”

Ms. Sage did not sit idle through her final years, as one may expect from an elderly elite. Instead, she found the vigor to dedicate the last decade of her life to philanthropy, specifically toward public works and the education of women.

"Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage was incredibly forward thinking, and a great advocate for education that cut across racial and gender boundaries," said Catherine Creedon, director of the John Jermain Memorial Library, which is named after Ms. Sage's grandfather and located across the street from the marker.

"When she wrote the original Deed of Trust for the John Jermain Memorial Library she charged the trustees with the responsibility to ‘provide for such lectures, exhibitions, instruction, or amusements’ as they deemed necessary to the community,” Ms. Creedon explained.

“So when John Jermain Memorial Library opened in 1910 it was an innovator, offering English classes to the immigrant factory workers, weekly musical concerts, and materials in Italian, German, Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew."

Joining the ranks of the Progressive Movement—which was in vogue in New York at the time—Ms. Sage penned a paper titled “Opportunities and Responsibilities of Leisured Women,” which posited that those with wealth were morally obliged to help “the unfortunate by providing them with a good environment, opportunity for self-support, and protection from the unscrupulous."

And that she did.

Her biggest donation, $10 million, founded the New York City-based Russell Sage Foundation, an organization in existence today that studies social issues, with a keen focus on education, and recommends solutions.

She also founded the then-all women’s Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. Through these ventures Ms. Sage is credited with establishing the field of social work, which was not then considered a career or social imperative.

This is not to say that she did not live lavishly. She owned the customary (for her ilk) Fifth Avenue apartment, a home in the Bronx and a vacation home to the west on Long Island. And, of course, her summers were also spent in her beloved Sag Harbor, the beneficiary of many of her public works projects.

“She was well-tended, but education and civic betterment were her chief goals," Mr. Therriault said. “Her modest projects here really speak to that."

The newly installed marker was donated by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which fabricates historical roadside markers throughout New York.

The foundation sent out a general call asking statewide historical organizations if any former members of their community merited a distinction for their involvement in the women’s suffrage movement. Sag Harbor’s Whaling and Historical Museum made the case for Ms. Sage with the necessary primary source material and was granted a marker.

In the same vein as other markers throughout Southampton Town, Ms. Sage's marker is made of iron and sports a blue blackboard with yellow lettering, and stands roughly 2 feet tall and 3 feet across. It is located at the museum’s southern entrance, visible to passers-by on Main Street, and says the following: “SUMMER HOME FROM 1908-1918. TEACHER, PHILANTHROPIST AND ADVOCATE FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS. FOUNDED RUSSELL SAGE COLLEGE AND RUSSELL SAGE FOUNDATION.”

“She was a woman who broke out of the Victorian woman mold of being a good wife,” Mr. Therriault said. “The struggle continues.”

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Let's hope that the plaque can be returned. My understanding based on the reading of more than a few sources is that "The Lady Bountiful" had a complicated relationship with Sag Harbor. The locals didn't take well to her all-encompassing philanthropy and considered her, in modern parlance a control freak. She even went as far as forbidding a dance to occur after a basketball game at the Antheum. Things really went south when she accused local contractors of fraud in connection with the building ...more
By Just sitting on the taffrail (16), Southampton on Sep 25, 17 3:45 PM
Awww,,, Misspelling....Athenaeum
By Just sitting on the taffrail (16), Southampton on Sep 26, 17 6:34 PM
Bay Burger, Sag Harbor