Category Archives: History

Freedom Summer At 50

PBS’ “American Experience” is honoring the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer with a wonderful show. It showcases the thousands of student volunteers, organizers and local blacks who encouraged voter registration, created schools and challenged the segregationist state Democratic Party at the national convention in Atlantic City. That summer saw the murders of 3 civil rights workers, countless beatings, the burning of 35 churches, and the bombing of 70 homes and Freedom Houses.

Westport artist and writer Tracy Sugarman — who died in 2013 — played an important role in that effort. His words and drawings are featured prominently in the broadcast.

Channel 13 aired “Freedom Summer” last night. It will be repeated early tomorrow morning (Thursday, June 26, 2 a.m.) and Saturday (June 28, 2 p.m.). If you can’t see it live, this one is definitely worth recording.

Tracy Sugarman (above left, with his family), and some of his sketches, on the "American Experience" website.

Tracy Sugarman (above left, with his family), and some of his sketches, on the “American Experience” website.

(Hat tip to Dick Lowenstein)

 

Rabbi Rubenstein, Rev. King And Jail

Last month’s 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act drew well-deserved attention.

But the stroke of President Johnson’s pen hardly ended discrimination. In fact, just 2 months later — in June, 1964 — the largest mass arrest of rabbis ever took place, in St. Augustine, Florida.

The group — led by Rev. Martin Luther King — was striving to end segregation in the nation’s oldest city. Just a month earlier, he had spoken at Westport’s Temple Israel.

Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein

Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein

Now the synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein, returned the favor. He traveled south, and was part of the group that landed in jail.

Next month, St. Augustine commemorates the 50th anniversary of that event. There is  a panel discussion with 9 of the rabbis who are still alive; a reading of the letter the rabbis wrote and signed that night in the St. Johns County jail; a march to the church where the rabbis heard rousing calls to action by Rev. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Andrew Young; lunch cooked by the woman who cooked for Rev. King 50 years ago; a tour of the jail where the rabbis were incarcerated and fed baby food (overlooking the spot where black protesters were held, surrounded by barbed wire with no food at all), and a curated display in the city’s visitor center that reviews the 450-year-old history of blacks in North America.

Rabbi Rubenstein died in 1990. But his son Jonathan has been invited to attend.

Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the St. Johns County jail.

Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the St. Johns County jail.

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro told him, “The story of your father’s role in the largest mass arrest of rabbis in US history 50 years ago is legend here in St. Augustine …. (Some consider this) the most ‘undertold’ story in the history of the Jewish community of North America.”

That story was told in a recent edition of the Southern Jewish Historical Society newsletter.

Half a century ago, as St. Augustine prepared to celebrate its 400th anniversary — and Congress debated the Civil Rights Act — shopkeepers proudly displayed Ku Klux Klan robes.

King asked the Central Conference of American Rabbis for help. 16 rabbis — including Rubenstein — and Reform Judaism’s social action director, heeded the call.

The group joined members of St. Paul’s AME Church, attempting to integrate a motel swimming pool and lunch counter.

Monson Motor Lodge manager James Brock poured muriatic acid into the segregated pool, trying to get a group of rabbis and blacks to leave.

The Monson Motor Lodge manager poured muriatic acid into the segregated pool, trying to get a group of rabbis and blacks to leave.

In jail — by the light of 1 bulb burning outside their cell — the rabbis wrote a letter.

We realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came became we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act….

We came to stand with our brothers, and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God.

The newsletter notes that while plenty has changed in St. Augustine in 50 years, much has not. There is only 1 black firefighter, and no police officer, city commissioner or school board member. Barriers continue to keep African Americans from voting.

Rev. Martin Luther King is dead. So is Rabbi Rubenstein. But — as the newsletter notes — “the voices of those arrested can still be heard.”

Next month — 50 years after those voices were raised — St. Augustine celebrates them.

The rabbis composed this letter in jail. It is titled "Why We Went."

The rabbis composed this letter in jail. It is titled “Why We Went.”

 

 

No More Trolls: The Sequel

We’re in the midst of an important Westport anniversary.

At dusk 237 years ago yesterday — April 25, 1777 — 2000 British troops landed at Compo Beach. Tory loyalists planned to guide them up Compo Road to Cross Highway, across to Redding Road, then north through Redding and Bethel to Danbury, where they would burn a major munitions depot.

Patriots fired a few shots at the corner of the Post Road and Compo, but the British marched on. In Danbury they destroyed the Continental Army’s munitions, then headed back toward their waiting ships at Compo.

Hastily assembled patriot forces fought them in the fierce Battle of Ridgefield. Led by Brigadier General Benedict Arnold — not yet a traitor — and outnumbered 3 to 1, the patriots deployed a strategy of selective engagement.

British forces landed at Compo Beach, marched to Danbury, marched back south and — after the Battle of Compo Hill — retreated to Long Island.

The next day — April 28, 1777 — patriot marksmen waited on Compo Hill (the current site of Minuteman Hill road). They did not stop the redcoats — 20 colonials were killed, and between 40 and 80 wounded when the British made a shoulder to shoulder charge with fixed bayonets — but they gave them a fight.

A very different fight took place in the days leading up to April 26, 2013. Here on the “06880” blog, a post about the new town arts curator devolved into nasty attacks on her and her appointment. Accusations flew about a waste of town dollars. Even after it was noted that she is a volunteer, she continued to be vilified.

A post about a summer party planned for the “06880″ community quickly degenerated into a political catfight. Much of the joy of the announcement was sucked away by anonymous commenters.

There is a word for anonymous internet bullies: trolls.

There is a word for anonymous internet bullies: trolls.

So a year ago today, I pulled the plug on anonymity. In a pissed-off post, I described the reasons I finally had it with “trolls.” By stirring the pot so virulently, they were poisoning the blog for everyone. They clothed themselves in free speech garb, but in reality they were just cyberspace bullies.

That post drew 91 comments. Almost all were positive. A few people predicted the end of “06880.”

So what’s happened in the year since, now that commenters have to use their real, full names?

Well, I’m working harder. Not everyone follows the rules. I spend time deleting occasional anonymous posts — I have not gone as far as to demand pre-registration — and sending requests to re-post (I’ll even do it for you).

The number of comments is down a bit — but not significantly. Instead of 2 or 3 bozos shouting at each other, we’ve had (for the most part) civil conversations.

The dark spirits are gone. “06880” is lighter, freer.

We now know who is part of the “06880” community. And doesn’t any community — a blog, a town, whatever — function better when everyone knows their neighbors?

In the nearly 2 1/2 centuries since the Battle of Compo Hill, the British have never ventured inland again.

And — as the past year proves — the trolls are also gone for good.

 

Abraham Lincoln’s Westport Golf Course

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (Happy 215th, Abe!)

Once upon a time, that was a legit holiday. Now it’s been folded into the generic “Presidents Day,” lowering Lincoln to the likes of John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson’s wife.

But The Great Emancipator deserves an “06880” shout-out. With, of course, a Westport twist.

Abe LincolnLincoln supposedly stayed at Hockanum, Morris Ketchum’s 69 Cross Highway estate near Roseville Road, during his presidency.  (Woody Klein‘s history of Westport says only that Salmon P. Chase — Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury — was a frequent guest.)  Hockanum still stands; there is a “Lincoln bedroom” upstairs, and the deed states that no changes can be made to that room.

Like the great realtor she is, alert “06880” reader Mary Palmieri Gai has unearthed some fascinating new information about Hockanum. It doesn’t involve Lincoln directly, but it does provide a chance for me to use his name and the word “golf” in the same sentence — something that has perhaps never been done before, even though 15,000 books have been written about him. (True fact.)

Mary discovered a May 21, 1900 Norwalk Hour story that says:

Westport golfists are getting ready their clubhouse on the Morris Ketchum estate to repeat the splendid experience there of last summer.

Players from Westport, Saugatuck, the Norwalks, Greens Farms, Southport, Fairfield, Greenfield and even Bridgeport think highly of the quarters like that former old house as a place to see and to wait while others are playing. The club has completed an addition to the building. Play is indulged in every day.

Mary explains that Ketchum’s Hockanum property extended far north, long past where the Merritt Parkway is now — all the way to Lyons Plains Road. (It included homes that still stand, like the 1856 house at 499 Main Street.)

1900s golfRecently, Mary says, the owners of a house that backs up to the Unitarian Church found golf balls on their property. No one could figure out where they came from.

The answer: the Hockanum golf course.

It wasn’t there when President Lincoln (supposedly) visited. It isn’t there now.

But it sure provides a great way to look at Westport’s recreational — and presidential — past.

Back To Saugatuck

In the early- and mid-1800s, Saugatuck was the commercial and financial center of town. Then Horace Staples opened a bank upriver, built a couple of wharves and National Hall, and the area around what is now called “downtown” flourished.

In the 1950s Saugatuck — by then an Italian-American community — was ripped apart (physically and emotionally) by the construction of I-95. Main Street got its mojo; Riverside Avenue became an afterthought.

Now — with a renovation project bringing new restaurants, retail, apartments and street life to the area — Saugatuck is hot. Downtown is firing back, with a renovated Church Lane and $500,000 Main Street initiative on tap.

So this seems as good a time as any to revisit the New York Times of December 2, 1923.

“Urge That Westport Be Saugatuck Again,” the headline read.

And the subhead: “Many Citizens of Connecticut Town Think the Old Indian Name More Distinctive.”

In the 1920s, Esposito's gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it's Tarry Lodge.

In the 1920s, Esposito’s gas station and taxi company stood on Charles Street. Today it’s Tarry Lodge…

The story described a drive by “leading citizens here in another attempt to restore to this village its original name.”

The major selling point: There were 18 other Westports in the US, and 4 more around the world. That led to “confusion of the mails and the long-distance telephone calls.”

There was only 1 other Saugatuck, however — a Michigan town that took its name from ours.

With Westport, Connecticut growing — the Times called the town of nearly 5,000 “the largest and most noted art colony” in the country, home to “a dozen different industrial plants” and a brand-new, $300,000 YMCA — there was “agitation for the restoration of the town’s old name of Saugatuck.” The drive was led by John Adams Thayer, with support from state legislator Harry M. Ayres and “many other prominent citizens.”

...while a couple of miles north, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores.

…while a couple of miles north, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores.

The Times reported that the name Saugatuck came from the Indian “Sauki-tuk,” meaning “outlet from a tidal river.” The town of Saugatuck was founded in 1640, and called itself that until the incorporation of “Westport” in 1835.

That was the Times’ 1st — and only — report of the proposed name change. There is no word on when, how or why the idea sank to the bottom of the river.

(Hat tip to Fred Cantor for unearthing this New York Times story.)

MLK

This story ran last year. Several readers asked me to republish it today. Here it is.

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Artist Roe Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

When Lenny And Isaac Played Westport

Because the my baby boom generation is so obnoxiously self-important — and because we still cling to control of much of the media — throughout this decade we will insist on foisting 50-year anniversary stories about a mind-numbing number of 1960s events on the rest of the country.

We’ve remembered John Glenn’s orbit of the earth and John Kennedy’s assassination. Next month is the Beatles’ 1st trip to America. On the horizon: the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Soupy Sales’ “The Mouse.”

So — as Martin Luther King Day nears — this is a good time to remember another 50th anniversary: the night Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern played together for the 1st time in public.

It was half a century ago this August. It was a benefit for the Student Nonviolent  Coordinating Committee. And it happened in the Staples High School auditorium.

Leonard Bernstein, back in the day...

Leonard Bernstein, back in the day…

According to the New York Times of August 31, 1964, the concert’s genesis came from Tracy Sugarman. The Westport artist and civil rights activist — who died a year ago, the day before Martin Luther King Day — described his recent “Mississippi Summer” work in Ruleville, Mississippi to Frank Brieff, conductor of the New Haven Symphony.

Brieff called Bernstein, who called Stern. The 2 had played piano and violin together for pleasure, but had never performed in public together.

They were joined by 4 other Fairfield county musicians. The concert sold out, at prices from $3 to $35. That raised $8,250 bringing Westport’s 1964 contributions to the Mississippi Project to $29,000. Previous fundraisers for the NAACP and National Council of Churches included a townwide solicitation, and a small gathering at the home of attorney Alan Nevas. He had just returned from Mississippi where, the Times said, he provided “legal counsel to Negroes.”

Nevas’ son Bernard — age 20 — was one of 6 “freedom workers” honored at the Bernstein/Stern concert. Five were from Westport: Nevas; John Friedland, 22; Martha Honey, 19; Deborah Rand, 20, and John Suter, 19.

...and Isaac Stern.

…and Isaac Stern.

Another guest introduced at the concert was Charles McLaurin. Just a few days earlier, he was a member of the controversial Mississippi Freedom Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Also at the concert, Sugarman displayed 43 pen-and-ink drawings of Mississippi, and 6 photos used by SNCC. He called the involvement of youths like the ones from Westport courageous.

“They went there afraid, lived there afraid and worked there afraid,” Sugarman said.

But, the Times noted, “the experience has affected some so deeply…they are torn between resuming their college careers and going back to Mississippi.”

(Hat tip to Fred Cantor for research.)

What Do Evelene Parsell, Swinburne Hale, The Westport Sanatorium And Kewpie Dolls Have In Common?

Read the story below to find out.

The other day, alert “06880” reader/amateur historian/all-around awesome woman Wendy Crowther was researching Alan Parsell’s connection with the Geiger barn.

Alan Parsell

Alan Parsell

(Important digression: Native Westporter Alan Parsell was the stereotypical crusty old New England Yankee. He served Westport in many capacities over many years, and despite throwing pennies around like they were manhole covers, he always had the town’s best interest in mind. For decades, his family owned Parsell’s Garden Mart, where Geiger’s is now.)

On the internet, Wendy found a record of Alan’s wife (Evelene) having mortgage transactions in Westport with a man named Swinburne Hale. Evelene was descended from one of Westport’s oldest families (the Couches). Intrigued, Wendy wanted to learn more about this fellow with the unusual name (Swinburne Hale, not Couch).

Swinburne Hale

Swinburne Hale

She found that he is connected not only to some of America’s most prominent professors, writers and artists — but that his life intersected with Westport a couple of times.

Hale published his only book in 1923: The Demon’s Notebook — Verse and Perverse. The frontispiece is by Rose O’Neill, an artist and writer who is far better known for creating Kewpie dolls. In 1922 she bought a 10-acre estate on the Saugatuck River.

In 1925 Hale was committed to an “insane asylum”: the Westport Sanatorium. He died there 12 years later, age 53.

The sanatorium was the 2nd use for the majestic building on the corner of the Post Road and North Compo. Built in 1853 for Richard and Mary Fitch Winslow, its original name was Compo House.

Today, of course, nothing remains of Compo House or the Sanatorium — except asphalt paths. You can see them as part of the 32-acre property, which today we call Winslow Park.

Compo House, back in the day.

Compo House, back in the day.

So what does it all mean? I have no idea — except that the “06880” tagline (“Where Westport meets the world”) is proven true every day, in sometimes crazy, but always interesting, ways.

(To read more than you ever wanted to know about Swinburne Hale, click here.)

J.D. Tippit, And Jack

For years growing up here, I knew Westport had a special connection to the assassination of John F. Kennedy: J.D. Tippit and Jack Tippit were brothers.

J.D. was the Dallas police officer killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, less than an hour after JFK was shot.

Jack Tippit, cartoonist.

Jack Tippit, cartoonist.

Jack Tippit was an award-winning cartoonist (“Amy”), co-founder of the Museum of Cartoon Art, and the editorial cartoonist for the Westport News. He lived here, but was born in Lubbock, Texas — and still spoke with a twang.

My 1st job after college was as sports editor of the News. I knew Jack Tippit, but I never mentioned the connection. What would I say — “Hey, sorry about your brother”?

He died in 1994. His obituary ran in the New York Times.

I had forgotten about Jack Tippit — and J.D. — until the recent run-up to the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. Then, the other day, a Westporter posted on Facebook: “I went to school in Westport with J.D. Tippit’s niece.”

Curious to learn more, I did the obvious thing. I googled “J.D. Tippit Jack Tippit.”

Officer J.D. Tippit

Officer J.D. Tippit

Up popped several books and newspaper articles. They described an “unknown, but clearly frightened, woman” who, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, called “a distant relative of Officer Tippit” in Connecticut. The woman claimed to have known Oswald’s father and uncle — who’d lived in Manhattan — and that they had been Hungarian communists.

But there was also a link to With Malice: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Murder of Officer J.D. Tippit. There, author Dale K. Myers writes:

There is no connection between Jack D. Tippit of Westport, CT (a self-employed cartoonist for several national magazines in 1963), and J.D. Tippit of Dallas, TX.

Mrs. Jack D. Tippit got a crank call on Nov. 30, 1963 (her husband listened in on the call), after an article appeared in the Norwalk Hour, a local newspaper, on Nov. 25, stating that Jack was a “distant relative” of Officer Tippit.

Genealogy research shows no direct relation between Jack and JD….

Author John Armstrong (“Harvey & Lee”) seized on an FBI report detailing the anonymous crank call, changed the date of the reported call to Nov.23, and used it to support his theory that two Lee Harvey Oswalds were used in an elaborate CIA plot to kill JFK.

My own book, “With Malice” explores many conspiracy allegations made over the past 50 years while focusing on the true facts of Tippit’s life and death. The obscure FBI report regarding the crank call to the Jack D. Tippit household in 1963 was not one worthy of print.

I checked out the genealogy on the J.D. Tippit home page (!). It shows that J.D. Tippit had 6 brothers and sisters. One, named John, was born in 1936. Jack Tippit was born in 1923.

So the urban myth — well, suburban myth — that Jack Tippit was J.D.’s brother is untrue.

Now, about that magic bullet theory…

November 22, 1963: The Police Log

I can’t imagine national headlines intrude much on the Westport Police Department desk log.

Then again, the headlines on November 22, 1963 were unlike any other in history.

Here’s what the book looked like 50 years ago today:

WPD Desk Log_112263 (1)

There — sandwiched between a 1:05 p.m. arrest by Officer Chapo for an unregistered motor vehicle, and a 2:45 p.m. arrest of a 26-year-old by Detective Finch — are these 2 entries by R. Skinner:

1:55 pm Reports that Pres. Kennedy was shot in the neck while riding in a car in the streets of Dallas Texas

2:30 pm It was confirmed that Pres. Kennedy was dead.

As noted at the top of the page, the weather at 12 noon was 58 degrees, and clear.

The Westport Police Department’s handwritten log books go back to 1924. But few entries may be as poignant as these.