Though born a slave
he possessed virtues
without which kings
are but slaves.
This beautiful inscription can be found on the stone marking the grave of Pyrrhus Concer at the Old North End Cemetery where he is buried beside his wife, Rachel.
Indeed, Concer was a very respected resident of Southampton such that when he passed away in 1897 at the age of 83, the New York Times wrote an obituary about him. His burial service in the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Meeting House Lane and Main Street was attended by friends and admirers including prominent speakers such as the Rev. Jesse Halsey who described him as “good as gold.”
Concer’s inscription on his tombstone was written by Elihu Root, who was his neighbor and who served as U.S. Secretary of State. Born a slave but made history while living an adventurous seafaring life, Concer’s story was rarely known until recently when the Village of Southampton announced that it was going to rebuild the home of Concer. What remained of his house, which was declared a historical landmark in January 2021, was a worn-down pool house. Thanks to historical and architectural materials collected, his home would be reconstructed, authorities announced.
So who was Concer and why is his story so significant in history?
Born a slave in Southampton in 1814, Concer was the son of Violet William and Shadrach Concer, who were also slaves. Concer became the property of his parents’ enslaver, Captain Nathan Cooper, who sold him when he was five years old to the Pelletreau family for $25 (about $513 today).
By the age of 18, he had been freed by the Pelletreau family and he went on to sign on with a whaling ship like so many others were doing at the time. Patch.com reports that curators of joint exhibitions held at the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum and the Black History Museum of Hempstead in 1982 found that before the Civil War there were about 3,000 Africans, West Indians and American Blacks operating the American whaling fleet. The numbers were probably more post-Civil War, documents found revealed.
Whaling trips lasted a year or more, and Concer went on four of them for the next 11 years, making history during his last trip in 1845. That year, while a boat steerer aboard the Manhattan, captained by the son of his former enslaver Mercator Cooper, they rescued the crews of two shipwrecked Japanese vessels in the South Pacific. During this period, foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan but thanks to Captain Cooper and the skillful steering of Concer, they returned the Japanese sailors home safely. Their arrival with Concer and his team caused a frenzy as many in Japan had not seen a Black man before then. According to Arthur P. Davis in his booklet, “A Black Diamond in the Queen’s Tiara,” many Japanese attempted “to rub off the black of his [Concer] skin, stare at his marvelous perfect white teeth and listen to him speak.”
The Manhattan thus became the first American ship allowed entry into Tokyo Harbor and Concer became one of the first African Americans to enter Japan. The voyage also paved the way for U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry to land in Japan successfully eight years later.
Concer made some money from his whaling adventures but went to California in 1849 during the gold rush. He hoped to make it big but he returned home a year later with nothing much. So he got married to Rachel and the two settled down at 51 Pond Lane, Southampton, which had been bequeathed to Concer by his grandfather, Gad. Concer ran a ferry service during this period, taking passengers across Lake Agawam on his small sailboat from the center of town to the beach on the far shore.
Passengers paid 10 cents a trip but for Concer, it wasn’t really about the money but the interesting stories he narrated to passengers about his life in the process. In his last years, he became a well-known figure in his community and a respected landowner. Sadly, he lived the last years of his life alone as his wife died before he did and his two children also died before they could reach adulthood.
Concer, upon his death, donated his estate, totaling $5,000, to the church and other charities, including a fund for the widows of whalers. Owing to his good deeds and local records, Concer remains one of the formerly enslaved people whose histories were best recorded.
“This is an instance where we know his name, we know the family that had enslaved him and his mother and family, and we know how his life went throughout; we can trace it,” founding member of the Pyrrhus Concer Action Committee Dr. Georgette Grier-Key explained to behindthehedges.com recently. “And that’s not always so, because as opportunities happened or if someone was enslaved and sold off, there was a dead, cold track in the research and understanding of how they lived and contributed to the community, and that’s not so with Pyrrhus Concer.”