22 ½ Main Street

The recent “06880” post about the circa 1950s House of Morgan store on Main Street drew plenty of comments. One reader wondered about a “tenement” downtown, around that time. A few others chimed in with similar vague recollections.

I told the story years ago, in my Westport News “Woog’s World” column. Here it is again — slightly updated, for modern references.

The address for Bobby Q’s restaurant is now 42 Main Street, but for many years part of the property was numbered 22 ½. Accessible off the alley that leads now to the popular restaurant, 22 ½ Main Street was a large wooden apartment building filled with black men and women who worked in Westport homes and businesses.

Longtime white Westporters remember the residents as keeping very much to themselves, causing no controversy. One man called the rooms “immaculate.”

This is a Main Street photo from the 1970s or ’80s. The tenants of 22 1/2 Main Street lived behind where these buildings are now.

William “Billy” Dew, a black man who worked as a house cleaner and maintenance man, owned the property, and lived there with his invalid wife. He was a hard worker, and so were his tenants. They included Beulah Casey, her sister, and a Mrs. Wallace who worked at the Open Door Inn, located near where police headquarters now sit. Because the Open Door had accommodations for guests’ maids and chauffeurs, it was a popular after-work spot for the residents of 22 ½ Main Street.

James Burch, who for several decades owned and lived over the Commuter Shoe Repair Shop near the train station, also began his Westport life on Main Street.

Herman Smith came to Westport from Orangeburg (SC) State College in the early 1920s. He too lived at 22 ½ Main Street for a while, working 2 jobs as a waiter and sanitation man.

Herman married a college woman. Eventually they bought a home on Crescent Road, and became established Westporters. Mrs. Smith told the Westport Oral History Project that her family never felt any discrimination here. “The only trouble we had was making the down payment,” she laughed.

Another view, this one further north. The alley entrance to 22 1/2 Main Street, was just to the right of Klein’s. The Townly Restaurant is next to Klein’s.

But the Smiths’ long stay in Westport, and their involvement in civic affairs, seems unusual. Many residents of 22 ½ Main Street appear to have kept deliberately low profiles. They left early for work, returned late, and remained apart from town life as much as possible.

Many old-timers interviewed for this piece had few memories of the downtown blacks. Eleanor Street worked as a librarian for many years across the street from 22 ½ Main, but could barely recall the tenants. She did note that the boys and girls came upstairs to her 2nd floor children’s library while their parents worked.

Other longtime residents had similar vague recollections of their 1 or 2 black classmates. All say they were treated well, with no apparent rancor.

But one veteran Westporter had a much clearer vision of 22 ½ Main Street. Dan Bradley, a retired attorney with over 50 years of Fire Department service, fought a fierce blaze there “sometime around 1950.”

There was a church in the basement of the apartment building, Bradley recalled, with a piano and chairs. One cold winter night the place burned.

“The scuttlebutt was that someone dropped a firebomb through a basement window,” he said. Nothing was ever proved.

“The fire got off to a heavy start, and the place was all in flames by the time we got there,” he said. “It burned everyone right out.”

Firefighters rescued the invalid Mrs. Dew, and there were no casualties.

When the fire was out Bradley entered the building, and searched every room. “I’ve been under a number of beds in Westport,” he said, “and those rooms were the cleanest I’ve ever seen. They were immaculate.”

A view across Main Street, from the pedestrian walkway to Onion Alley (now Bobby Q’s). That “alley” once served as an entryway to 22 1/2 Main Street.

The apartments were never rebuilt, and Bradley does not know what became of the 20 or so tenants. “I guess they relocated to Norwalk or somewhere,” he said.

“They were a good bunch of people. There was very little trouble there.”

The Townly Restaurant took over the site; a bar was built in the old alleyway. “People sat there and talked about the fire,” Bradley said.

The Townly Restaurant was later destroyed in a fire too. Henry Klein bought the property, and expanded his small shop into a department store. Decades later it closed; Banana Republic moved in.

No photographic evidence seems to exist of 22 ½ Main Street, or of the black men, women and children who lived there for at least 3 decades. A call to the Westport Historical Society turned up nothing, and a search of the Westport Public Library newspaper, photo and memorabilia files proved equally fruitless.

You won’t even find anything in Westport: A Special Place, Eve Potts and Howard Munce’s lovingly compiled, exhaustively researched photographic history of town. In fact, an examination of the book’s 200 illustrations turns up just 1 black face: a school picture of a girl in a mutton-sleeves coat, standing far apart from her classmates.

The only black child in this undated Westport school photo stands apart from her classmates, on the far right.

But photographs don’t always tell the full story. And perhaps their invisibility says more about the relationship between the residents of 22 ½ Main Street and Westport than any picture ever could.

20 responses to “22 ½ Main Street

  1. Just had to comment on that old Westport school photo – painful to look at that young girl’s face — pretty haunting — and an important piece of Westport’s story that seems not to be finished. Hard to even tell what year that photo was taken. Someone schooled in costuming may be able to date it from the clothing and haircuts/styles? 30’s or 40’s? Maybe someone will read this blog who was there or maybe lived in those apartments as children. We moved to Westport in 1960 and even though too young to remember the early days, I don’t remember one African American in my school — Saugatuck/Bedford. Maybe someone does but I don’t.

    I do wonder if there were any official police reports about the possible fire bombing of the basement church? Very sad. Who knew about this almost invisible piece of Westport’s history? Thanks for the post, Dan.

    • THANKS, Mags. My guess is the photo was from the early years of the 20th century, but I could be wrong.

      Though I did not go to Bedford Junior High, I have often heard the name Ernestine White. I believe she was a very gifted African-American choral teacher. Not a student, true, but a beloved woman (from all I’ve heard).

    • Elisabeth Keane

      The voluminous upper sleeves of the young girl’s coat resemble variants of sleeves c. 1892-1894 as they evolved into what most people remember, the voluminous mutton-chop sleeves of 1895. Possibly the coat was a gift from a parent’s employer to the parent or an older sibling or perhaps the young girl had her own fashion sense, liked the drama of the sleeves, and the coat was altered (probably by a family member) to fit her. Just because the coat sleeves seem to shout “c.1894” doesn’t mean it could not have been worn much later.

      Gauging the year of the photo based on the childrens’ clothing would be difficult because children often wore hand-me-downs and schoolmates tend to want to wear similar clothing. However, if the photo were larger and clearer, it might be possible to get a general idea based on the teacher’s clothing. Her coat might not be new but her dress and hat might be as they would have been less expensive than a coat. When looking at her dress, check the neckline. To me, it appears that she wears a high collar (covering part of her neck) and perhaps there might be a bow tied at her throat since it appears to me that there is some visual un-evenness that could be the result of a bow Also, check her hairstyle, something that could be adjusted to the latest fashion at no cost while updating her appearance.

      If the photo were larger, one also might want to examine the clothing of two of the girls, who are second and third from the right in the third row. The girl second from left in second row and the girl second from left in the third row both have dark bands at top of their necklines giving the appearance of an earlier style. It appears that all the girls’ hairstyles are similar, that is, pulled away from the face (and likely hanging down the back). It does not seem that any of the girls has short hair although it might be possible to find out if the photo were larger. The boy second from right in the first row appears to be wearing a turtleneck top which would date the photos later than one might think.

      Note that no one in the photo is smiling. Smiling in photographs is a 20th century occurrence and although there are occasional earlier photos of smiling faces in photos, it was not usual practice.

      This photo also makes it difficult to determine time of year. The teacher and boys are wearing coat and jacket. Most of the girls do not appear to be wearing coats although possibly the coats could be on their laps.

      • Thanks, Elizabeth — wow! — that’s just the expertise I was hoping someone would get on and talk about. I do notice very little smiling in old photos historically, however, the little girl standing separate from her classmates is somehow painful to me. Maybe just my impression of what was going on, I realize.

      • Fascinating, Elisabeth. A somewhat clearer version of the photo (including more kids — I cropped some out) appears on page 58 of the book “Westport…a special place,” which is (hopefully) still available at the Westport Historical Society. This is one just one of scores of fascinating photos in the book.

  2. Yes, I do remember her name- my sister loved choral there. I didn’t stay long enough to get involved there in Bedford JH as much as my sister was — we moved. I attended also Bedford El. before moving to Saugatuck El. Can’t remember an Af. Am. student at any of the three schools myself but could be wrong. It seems the “P coat” of a sort was definitely “in” if you look at the back row of the photo.

  3. Eric Buchroeder

    I went to Bedford Junior and will never forget Mrs. White. She lived in Stamford and was an absolutely wonderful woman and a very gifted teacher. I had absolutely no interest in choral music prior to meeting her and she came up to me out of no where in 7th grade and didn’t ask me, she TOLD me I was going to sing in the chorus. I was not, how they say, a child who responded well to authority but I immediately accepted with NO argument (unheard of for me) and was charmed by Mrs. White from that day on. One thing led to another and choral music, thanks to Mrs. White was my “outlet against the insanity” through junior high, high school and college. Its my guess that the Great John Ohanian was responsible for bringing her into Westport as a music teacher and she was one of a wonderful collection of music educators that Mr. Ohanian assembled in Westport. But she was the only black teacher I recall in the music department, she was a collection of “charming contradictions” a black woman whose name was White and who had the ability to reach and connect with every one of her students as an individual even though for the most part she directed large choral groups. I can’t remember anyone I went to school with at BJHS that didn’t love her and I can’t understand why she was so little known beyond her devoted students at Bedford Junior. She was truly an angel!!!!

  4. The “great John Ohanian” is an understatement as well, Eric — thanks for mentioning him. I wish I had known Mrs. White too — her story sounds like it should be it’s own post. Mr. Ohanian is the reason I pursued playing the violin for many years and became involved in all of the activities for youth orchestra in the state of CT and beyond. He brought my mom back into violin when she was a Westport housewife — he allowed her remember herself as the budding young concert violinist she almost became. There are some people you never forget. Westport could be really something.

  5. I went to Saugatuck Elementary School in the 50s. I remember one black girl her name was Juanita White. I liked her so much because she was different. Later in the 70s when my daughter went to Hillspoint she also had a very special friend who was black. I remember her coming home from first grade and telling me about this little girl who had beauitful shiny skin.

  6. Eric Buchroeder

    Mags, It probably doesn’t do him justice, but I always think of Mr. Ohanian every time I see one of my favorite musicals “The Music Man”. It was a “Golden Age”.

  7. I recall Ernestine White fondly. My ’66 classmate Steve Miner, a longtime Hollywood director, wrote/directed a movie entitled “Soul Man” about a young man who alters his skin tone to gain admission to Harvard. Allegedly, this movie reflected Steve’s recollection that there were no African Americans at Staples in our era. Wrong. Here’s a partial list 1963-66: Kenny, Barry and Gail Johnson; Sam and Loretta Pair; Calvin and Charley Reynolds; Charlie Joyner. There were others, but these are the name/faces that come immediately to mind. Not many, but way more than none.

  8. Not to get off the subject of this post, but to Eric, Mr. Ohanian always brings to mind for me Handel’s Messiah that we had to analyze in music theory summer program for Jr. Orchestra at Staples HS back in the day. Were you ever present when he would throw his baton out of frustration? Someone didn’t practice! Those were some good moments and he blessed many of us. Golden age it was and Westport has contributed greatly to some of us having a quality childhood.

  9. Ernestine White was a wonderful teacher and person at BJHS. I held her in very high esteem and she had a great way with the kids. Yes Tom, Gail and Barry Johnson were at Saugatuck El with us. Gail was in my girl scout troop. Kenny was at least 2 yrs older, I think he was president of his class. Do you remember Tom?

  10. Kenny Johnson president of his class at BJHS??

  11. Sure, I remember, Cathy. Kenny was president of his class at BJHS and Staples too, I think. He was also a leader of my Boy Scout troop. Outstanding guy. Class of ’64. Gail was hilarious and Barry a superb artist.

  12. Dan, when you go to Westport Public Library, check out its huge collections of Staples High School yearbooks, dating back to 1930s or so. Perhaps you can come across a handful of African-American students in there. A student graduated in 1948 would be 82 years old today and perhaps she or he is still living? It has to be one or two surviving ex-resident(s) of 22 1/2 Main Street living somewhere else.

  13. Jack Whittle

    Dan – I sent you the page from the 1940 Census reporting on the residents of 22 1/2 Main Street in Westport (all African Americans, to use a term not then in use); as you report a Mr. Dew is listed as the “head of the household” – lots of interesting info captured in the census sheets.

  14. Mr. Douglas was my art teacher at longs lots back in the 60s. Not considering myself the artiste type back then, I still can remember a lot of the different things he taught me about working with clay and making ceramic jewelry. Then when I went to Staples, Scotty Waite was a black student in our classes. Great guy. It wasn’t anything that you thought about until later in life when conversations such as these make you look back and ponder…..My socialization with black people was more active when I went into the military. This had a very strong positive impact on my values and beliefs in equality for all. I dread to think how tarnished I COULD have become had I remained in Westport where my beliefs and values of equality would surely have been jaded by my adult role models. It is sad reading and looking back now that Westport was not more integrated for whatever reason. Thanks Dan for your insights and investigative journalism.

  15. I knew the brilliant Kenny Johnson when he was at Pratt Institute, and met Barry as well. If anyone knows how to get in touch with either brother, could you please contact me? I was close to Kenny, but lost touch with him about fifteen years ago. I would love to talk with him again.

  16. By the way, I believe the Johnson family was partlally Bengali, by way of the West Indies.