The release this week of Westport’s census data — showing, among other things, that just 1.2% of our town identifies as “black or African American” — got me thinking.
While that percentage has long been paltry — it translates to 305 men, women and children, up just 13 from 2000 — Westport does have a history of involvement in the broad civil rights issues of the day. Whenever that day was.
During the abolitionist movement, houses served as stops on the Underground Railroad. At least one — on Weston Road, across from the present-day Methodist Church — still stands. A once-hidden room — accessible from the outside — attests to its role in hiding runaway slaves. (Though Connecticut was a free state, fugitives could still be captured and returned.)
That home was part of Morris Ketchum’s sprawling Hockanum Hill estate. He frequently hosted Salmon P. Chase, as Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary sought funding for the Civil War.
Though no official record exists, Lincoln allegedly stayed at Hockanum Hill while president too. The estate — on Cross Highway, near the foot of Roseville Road — offered an out-of-the-way respite on secret financing trips north. The current deed refers to the “Lincoln room,” and a letter supposedly exists in which the president thanked Ketchum for his hospitality.
A century later, in the early days of the modern civil rights movement, Herman and Gladys Steinkraus lived on South Compo. He was president of both Bridgeport Brass and the US Chamber of Commerce. The couple were avid supporters of the United Nations, and often invited African ambassadors to Westport. It was the 1st time some had ever been inside an American home. Not all the Steinkraus’ neighbors were pleased.
Around that time, Ernestine White was a beloved music teacher at Bedford Junior High School. A pupil invited her to his bar mitzvah. A few tongues wagged — but the invitation was in keeping with the tenor of the times.
Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron T. Rubenstein, was deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. Rev. Martin Luther King spoke at the temple in 1964. A month later, Rubenstein and King were both arrested in the south, at a nonviolent march. Rubenstein and others were instrumental in organizing Freedom Rides from Westport, challenging laws that enforced segregation.
Tracy Sugarman was one of several Westporters to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Summer. He knew the murdered civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, and developed deep friendships with leaders like Julian Bond and Fannie Lou Hamer. Sugarman hosted them, and many others, in his Westport home.
The 1960s were a time of civil rights ferment, and many Westporters were active in the cause. Both the Intercommunity Camp — bringing together youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport — and the school district’s Project Concern, serving dozens of Bridgeport elementary, junior high and high school students, were direct results of local activism.
For nearly a decade TEAM Westport — the first selectman’s committee charged with achieving and celebrating multiculturalism — has worked to make this a more welcoming place for all minorities. African Americans have taken a leading role. TEAM Westport has organized trips to the slave ship replica Amistad; led school panels, talkbacks at the Westport Country Playhouse, and community conversations; partnered with schools, religious organizations and the library, and worked in dozens of other ways, large and small, to reinforce awareness of diversity issues and concerns.
Of course there have been less visible, lower-key events too. In 1960, Sammy Davis Jr. married Mia Britt. At the time, 31 states outlawed interracial marriage. Connecticut was not one of them — and, legend has it, the couple honeymooned at a home off Wilton Road.
These are just a few of the connections Westport has made, over many years, with civil rights issues. We’re not a racial melting pot — but neither are we immune from the world outside our borders. It was Westport’s involvement, in fact, that brought many families here in the 1950s and ’60s, when they could have chosen many other places to live.
Has Westport changed since then? Are these issues still important, and are Westporters as involved? If so, how? If not, why — and what’s taken their place? Click “Comments,” to share your diverse (and diversity) thoughts.