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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.