Growing up in Tennessee, Harold Bailey attended segregated schools.
The Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education when he was 6, but Bailey’s city integrated its schools s-l-o-w-l-y: one grade at a time. Not until 10th grade did he and his black classmates have the chance to attend school with whites — and even then, it was by choosing vocational offerings.
He and some friends wanted to be engineers. So they took drafting classes, adding as many academic subjects as they could. “That’s how we ‘integrated’ the high school,” Bailey — now a longtime Westporter, a business executive with IBM and other companies, and a former Brown University trustee — says.
White parents yelled; white students pushed the few black students into lockers. In late November, 1963 things came to a head. Everyone expected a big fight — but the next day, President Kennedy was assassinated. Bailey and his other friends talked to administrators when school resumed; things settled down.
Half a century later, Bailey recalls that “profound experience. It had a seminal effect on me.”
Realizing that racial prejudice has negative effects on members of the majority as well as minorities, he’s worked all his adult life to bring people together.
In the early 2000s, Bailey’s wife Bernicestine McLeod Bailey — owner of an IT consulting firm, and a Brown trustee emerita — talked with then-first selectwoman Diane Farrell about the need to address diversity in Westport. Local realtor Cheryl Scott-Daniels had the same idea, at the same time.
In February 2003, the Westport Library recognized Black History Month with a display of “black memorabilia.” Unfortunately, Bailey says, it was filled with “kitschy, offensive” items like a “Jolly Nigger” bank.
“There was no context,” he recalls. “Nothing showed how far we’d come.” Library director Maxine Bleiweis was away. When she returned, she immediately closed the exhibit. But damage had been done.
Bailey and other African American leaders in town met with library officials. (Bernicestine had just been named the first black library board member.) Soon, Farrell appointed a “Multicultural Steering Committee.”
The 16 original members — including Bailey and his wife — worked hard. Fairfield University professors led intense discussions on the history of race in the US. “We read 100 pages a week,” Bailey says. “We talked about the experiences of Chinese Americans, Hispanics and American Indians, and why Middle Easterners are considered ‘white’ here. It was intense.”
The group evolved into TEAM Westport. (Member Ivan Fong came up with the acronym: Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism. Miggs Burroughs contributed the logo.) Farrell named it an official town commission. I was the 1st white male to join (representing the LGBT community). Al Puchala and Nick Rudd followed.
“Our aim is to work with different organizations, in a way that’s natural for Westport. And to have fun.”
Over the past decade, TEAM Westport has hosted an event on the former slave ship Amistad, and sponsored discussions at churches and synagogues.
They organized speakers for Staples High School US History classes: men and women who lived through segregation, were interned as Japanese-Americans in US camps during World War II, and suffered discrimination as Hispanics. One year, all sophomores saw the Westport Country Playhouse production of “Thurgood,” starring James Earl Jones.
TEAM Westport brought a jazz master to work with the Staples band, as well as a black chef, authors and playwrights. The group also worked on issues of integrity and race relations with principal John Dodig. Each year, TEAM Westport presents 1 or 2 graduating seniors with scholarships, in recognition of their work around diversity issues.
The group also partnered with the Playhouse during “Raisin in the Sun,” sponsoring 24 lectures and discussions on topics like race and housing, and talkbacks following other productions. This fall they’ll offer programming around “Intimate Apparel,” the capstone of the 2014 Playhouse schedule.
TEAM Westport has awarded “Trailblazer” honors to people like Andy Boas, who works with Bridgeport schools; former superintendent of schools Claire Gold, and longtime pediatrician Dr. Al Beasley.
Earlier this year, TEAM Westport organized 7 weeks of panels around the famed “Eyes on the Prize” series. The group is also sponsoring an essay contest for high school students, on the theme of America as an increasingly pluralistic country.
Some of TEAM Westport’s most crucial work is done out of the limelight. “If someone is treated the wrong way by a merchant in town, or there is some sort of incident in one of the schools, we can talk about it,” Bailey says. “Maybe we can help get a resolution. That’s so rewarding — especially as we see children grow.”
Looking back on 10 years as Westport’s low-key, but very important, official multicultural organization, Bailey says, “So many people have told us, after a discussion or event, how touched they were. They say, in various ways, that what we do has enabled them to connect the dots of their lives — and talk about it all. That’s when we realize we really are making progress, and moving in the right direction.”