Inside the Herb McCarthy estate, Tom Edmonds pulled two canvases out from a closet in the late 19th-century mansion and took a step back. He turned to his companion, Sheila Guidera, in disbelief.
“Oh my God, how interesting,” he murmured to himself, adding the folk-like paintings to the treasure trove of donations headed for the Southampton History Museum, where he is executive director.
But that is where his wonderment started and, temporarily, stopped.
Without much of a second thought, Mr. Edmonds took the 18-inch-by-24-inch paintings back to the Rogers Mansion and stuffed them into another closet, where they lived for the past 10 years — until their recent rediscovery this past fall, not to mention the piece of forgotten history they represent.
As it turns out, the pair of circa-1940s paintings by unknown artist J.E. Agard once hung on the walls of what is now Union Burger Bar, when it was then Mr. McCarthy’s Bowden Square restaurant.
Except the story doesn’t end there.
More notably, they decorated the back of the restaurant, which apparently operated as a segregated juke joint known as The Coal Bin, explained Brenda Simmons, executive director of the Southampton African American Museum. And with the museum opening this summer, the paintings — which depict African Americans dancing, drinking and reveling together — will proudly hang here, in their forever home.
“It’s time for us to tell our own story,” she said, “with hope there will be tentative ears to hear.”
By reviving the memory of The Coal Bin, the paintings will ultimately play a role in that, said Ms. Simmons, whose search for artifacts for the museum ultimately led her to Mr. Edmonds, who simply asked her what she needed. Listing off items like a barber chair — the space was formerly Randy’s Barber Shop — Mr. Edmonds immediately remembered the paintings he had stashed away.
“It just occurred to me, ‘Oh, I’ve got these two paintings of Black people in a closet,’ and it just popped into my head,” he said. “I went and grabbed them, showed them to her and we both practically had heart attacks — because she remembered hearing stories in her neighborhood about what, at the time, was called a juke joint. It was a segregated bar.
“Right at that moment, Brenda and I had an ah-ha, and I said, ‘Oh my God, well you’ve got to have these. And we’ve got to talk to Sheila Guidera.’”
When they ran their discovery by the octogenarian, who serves as a trustee for the Southampton History Museum, her own memories came flooding back — or, rather, those of her father, Lawrence McMahon. The eldest of 11 siblings, he took the only piano lessons his family could afford, which happened to be offered by a Black woman who ran a brothel in Sag Harbor that was heavily frequented by the whalers of that era.
Mr. McMahon developed into quite the musician, playing gigs across the East End on weekends when he wasn’t working for the local telephone company. In time, his talents landed him behind the piano at The Coal Bin — which was unusual, his daughter said, considering he was, presumably, the only white man there in the early 1950s.
“I’m not sure how it came about and there’s no one around to ask,” Ms. Guidera said. “That first time, he was out until 5 o’clock in the morning, and he came home a little tipsy. My mother was enraged that he was out so late, so he emptied his pockets onto the table, and he just kept pulling out money and dollar bills — and he had more money in his pockets from tips from playing the piano than he made in a week at the telephone company.”
He would only play one more concert there before his wife yanked him from the bar — “He had too good a time,” Ms. Guidera said with a laugh — but his memories of that place live on in The Coal Bin’s entirely oral history.
Not much is known about the place, other than passing anecdotes, Ms. Simmons said. It didn’t even have a sign out front, mostly because it didn’t need one. And as for the name itself, it’s likely a derogatory reference to skin tone, though it is unclear whether a white or Black person coined it.
“You ever seen the coal guys going to a coal cave, and when they come out, their whole face is completely black?” she said. “Well, that’s where it came from.”
After rediscovering the paintings, Ms. Simmons realized that a couple people had casually mentioned The Coal Bin to her over the years, without her knowing. While it had community recognition and understanding, not much else ties it to the East End through historical records, which is now proving problematic for Mr. Edmonds and his team.
“I’ve been at the museum for 15 years and nothing was written down and nothing was published. I don’t have a record of it; most things were passed down orally,” he said. “There is no, that I’ve ever seen published, documentation for this bar. It’s only by memory. And you’re actually the first one to write this down, to record it.”
The paintings themselves are the first nod to The Coal Bin that Mr. Edmonds has ever seen, and while he was inclined to keep them for the museum, they were officially donated to the Southampton African American Museum last month and outfitted with frames by Mary Godfrey Custom Framing and Photography.
“They’re vibrant and they’re just as alive as probably the inside of that bar was in the 1940s,” Mr. Edmonds said of the paintings. “They’re like nothing that’s in our collection at the Southampton History Museum, and I really, really, really loved them. Of course, now that I knew what they were, I didn’t want to give them up — but I did the right thing. I gave them to Brenda, which is where they belong.”
In the coming months, Ms. Guidera, who is also an antique appraiser, said she would like to hold a contest that attempts to identify the bar-goers and dancers — except, perhaps, the woman flashing her wares — in the paintings.
“If we can find out who they were, then we could maybe get a little bit more information about all this. I find it fascinating,” she said. “I think it’s exciting and I’m pleased that we’re adding to this bit of history.”
Just as The Coal Bin crossed racial barriers, so will the Southampton African American Museum once it opens, explained Ms. Simmons. With it, she aims to shine a light on this chapter that is rarely associated with the East End, she said, and all that it represents.
“With all the racial tension, we have more in common than not,” Ms. Simmons said. “And this museum, even before it’s opened, has connected with people from not only across the color line, but the territorial line and the economical line. And with the intensity and the deaths and the uncertainties of 2020, to me, it’s like a rainbow in the cloud. That’s how I’m feeling. It’s refreshing.”
As published in the Southampton Press