The stone marking the grave of Pyrrhus Concer, which can be seen at the southwest corner of the Old North End Cemetery near Windmill Lane, bears this very beautiful inscription:
Though born a slave
he possessed virtues
without which kings
are but slaves.
Concer, who died at the age of 84 at his home on Pond Lane, was buried following funeral services at the where the seats were filled with friends and admirers. They had come to pay homage to a remarkable man whose obituary in the Aug. 28, 1897 edition of hailed him as “one of the most respected residents of the village.”
Concer’s achievements over the course of an extraordinarily adventurous life would have been impressive even for a man born to privilege, which he certainly was not. The son of a slave, he was owned by the Pelletreau family of Southampton from whom he received his freedom as a young man. Like so many others at that time, he answered the call of the sea signing on with a whaling ship.
That an able-bodied young man would be eager to join that fearless fraternity of whalemen is perhaps not surprising. That black men were, in fact, well represented among them, is perhaps more so. In their research, curators of joint exhibitions held at the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum and the Black History Museum of Hempstead in 1982 found documentation for estimates that before the Civil War there were as many as 3,000 Africans, West Indians and American blacks manning the American whaling fleet, and that post-Civil War there were even more. The standard-issue harpoon, they discovered, was invented by a black man, Lewis Temple, and perhaps most impressive of all, some 40 vessels built during whaling’s golden era were designed and built by another black man, John Mashow.
If among all the others Concer became something of a celebrity, at least locally, it is because he was on board and played a role when the whale ship Manhattan, captained by Mercator Cooper of Southampton, made history in 1848. At the time, foreigners were forbidden to enter Japan but Captain Cooper, after rescuing the crews of two shipwrecked Japanese vessels, was determined to return them to their country.
In his later years, Concer delighted listeners with his narrative of that incident, describing how the initial hostility of the Japanese softened until in the end the crew and officers of the Manhattan were feted and given gifts before being sent on their way. The Japanese, who had never before seen a black man, marveled at our man Concer. As Arthur P. Davis relates in his booklet, “A Black Diamond in the Queen’s Tiara,” one after another, they would try “to rub off the black of his skin, stare at his marvelous perfect white teeth and listen to him speak.” The voyage not only offered a first glimpse of a reclusive land but earned good will for America, easing the way for Commodore Perry’s breakthrough eight years later.
Concer made a number of other voyages and went to California in 1849 during the gold rush, returning a year later without having struck it rich. In his old age he was a respected landowner, churchgoer (he included the Presbyterian Church in his will) and familiar figure around the village where he operated a ferry service on in summer. Passengers could shuttle between the village and the beach on his catboat for 10 cents a ride.
Sources from the archives of the : “A Black Diamond in the Queen’s Tiara” by Arthur P. Davis; “The Days When Blacks Went Whaling,” article by Barbara Delatiner from The New York Times, Aug. 15, 1982; Pyrrhus Concer Obituary, reprinted from The Southampton Press, Aug. 28, 1897.