Venora Ellis — whose long life and civic contributions in Westport would be memorable even if she had not been a proud, pioneering black woman in this almost entirely white town — passed away peacefully on May 23. She was 96 years old.
Her death cannot go unnoticed.
In 2009, TEAM Westport honored her with its Trailblazer Award. It said:
“In her 68 years as a businesswoman and resident of Westport, Venora Ellis challenged traditional social mores and shattered racial barriers, by action and example.”
That only scratches the surface.
Venora arrived in Westport from Mississippi in 1938. A dean at Tougaloo College told her there was work here as a “mother’s helper.” She liked the area, returned every summer, and in 1942 — thanks to a scholarship from Columbia University’s Teachers — she came north to stay.
Race relations were as hard to define here as down South. There was a bustling black enclave off Main Street, where Bobby Q’s restaurant is now. In the 1940s and ’50s it included a church, barbershop and nightclub. One night, it burned to the ground. The cause was never determined, and most residents never returned.
Venora opened a house couturier business. For 42 years, she dressed homes with draperies, bedspreads and slip covers, using expensive silk. She created items that were featured in Seventeen Magazine.
In 1952 she married Leroy Ellis, whom she had known at Tougaloo and who then went on to play music at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. He ran a home and industrial cleaning service. Every year, he sang at the Memorial Day ceremony.
The Ellises lived on Jennie Lane, and bought an investment property on Gorham Avenue.
They were active in town affairs. Venora joined PTAs, served on housing and human services committees, assisted with Project Concern and at the Senior Center, chaired the Bicentennial Ball, volunteered for the Red Cross and Westport Library, participated actively in Brown Bag luncheons, and was a docent at Martha Stewart’s Long Lots Road house.
Venora chaired the Experiment in International Living, which placed college students with families across the US. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, students stayed in her home — joining the one she and Leroy were hosting.
She also helped found the Intercommunity Camp, which brought together youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport. She helped the innovative effort succeed.
Life was not always easy. Storeowners on Main Street sometimes looked at her with suspicion — while, she said, white teenagers stole whatever they could.
Her 2 daughters were occasionally taunted. Venora told them to respond: “You spend all your time at the beach trying to get tan. What’s the difference?”
After 64 years in Westport, Venora moved to Pennsylvania to live near her daughter. Before she moved, AJ Izzo of Crossroads Hardware called her “The Mayor of Gorham Avenue.”
Also before she moved, Venora reflected on her time in Westport. “I’ve enjoyed this town so much,” she said. “It’s given me a lot — spiritually, culturally, educationally, business-wise. But I’m 87, you know. It’s time to move on.
Venora moved away, physically. Now she is gone from the earth, too. But her mark on Westport can never be erased.
(Venora is survived by 2 daughters, Nona Brady Ellis of Washington and Myra Parker of Pennsylvania; 2 grandchildren, Richard Ellis of New Jersey and Cheryl David of Washington, and 2 great-grandsons, Tommy and Jack Ellis.
(A memorial service is set for Saturday June 27 , 11 a.m. at The Church of the Good Shepherd, 186 Corum Avenue in Shelton. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Tougaloo College Office of Institutional Advancement, 500 West County Line Road, Tougaloo, MS 39174).