Friday Flashback #77

February is Black History Month.

It’s a time to celebrate the many contributions and accomplishments of African Americans — and to reflect on our country’s often tortured relationship with race.

It’s a time to think about how Americans treat every person in our country.

And it’s a time to look back at how we did so in the past.

Alert “06880” reader — and amateur historian — Mary Palmieri Gai made an astonishing find recently. The Town Crier of December 15, 1949 ran this photo:

The caption reads:

For the first time in Westport history, a Negro attended one of this community’s town meetings. The group was especially interested in the debate on public housing.

It’s amazing — and embarrassing — to see what qualified as “news” nearly 70 years ago.

It’s also probably quite wrong.

Among Westport’s most historic homes is 108 Cross Highway. Built in 1805, it’s one of a few dwellings in town documented as being built by “a free black.”

Henry Munroe, a farmer, bought the land from John Burr in 1802. Munroe’s descendants were members of Green’s Farms Church.

Black families lived here throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. Some were servants and housekeepers. But others — like Munroe — were farmers, shopkeepers and businessmen, with a vested interest in town.

I can’t believe that 1949 was the first time a “Negro” attended a town meeting.

And I’m surprised that the Town Crier did not even dignify him with a name.

Which is one more reason why Black History Month remains vitally important today, for all of us.

13 responses to “Friday Flashback #77

  1. “A Negro!” At the RTM Meeting! Oh, my God — what is this world coming to?

  2. Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

    Joe E. Fuller was a resident in 1948 and I am sure before that. He had several pieces of big equipment and helped to build many homes. I have a picture of him in his bulldozer on Clinton Avenue with my brother riding on the dozer with him. Mr. Fuller dug the basement for our home on Calumet Road in 1948. I remember that Mr. Fuller also had a “Steam Shovel” and my brother would beg to go to a construction site near the Red Barn to see the Steam Shovel work. We lived on Wilton Road from 1943 to 1948. Miriam Mizelle lived on Cross Highway as a Nanny to Debbie Walley. ( Debbie was a movie star as an adult) That would be about the same time period. In addition I remember Imogene Graves. She was a live in housekeeper for one of the families in Owenoke. My grandmother considered Imogene a friend. Imogene attended our wedding in 1966. These are just a few I know and I have no idea if any of them ever attended a meeting. I do know they were highly respected and loved by all who knew them. However, this does not excuse any of the injustices that took place. I sincerely hope that we, as a country, do not move backward. P.S. if anyone is interested I can dig out the pictures of Mr. Fuller and my brother and one of Debbie Walley with Miriam Mizelle and scan them.

  3. Great that you’re actually able to critique this old news article By providing accurate & fuller scope of Westport’s home & business owners at that time, & esp Before it ended up in a book/paper/film/ museum defining Westport’s history incorrectly.

  4. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    Mr. Fuller and his bulldozer excavated our house in 1956. As a 4 year old I sat on his lap while he was doing so. Biggest thrill of my life.

    • Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

      So pleased to see your comment. Do you have a picture? My brother also loved riding with Mr.Fuller and loved to watch him work also.

      • Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

        Mary, I was having too much fun to get a camera and my phone cord didn’t stretch long enough in ’56 to take a selfie. Another recollection of the event was (while on his knee) asking him how I could become a bulldozer driver and he pulled out a brass keyfob with his union’s logo on it and said it wouldn’t be easy. What I do remember is that my mother knew him well and this was the 1st new house we ever built so he certainly must have been well-known and well regarded.

  5. Dan, thank you very much for this post. As you know, this is a topic personally dear to my heart and one that TEAM Westport and Westport Historical Society will be exploring further in our May exhibit this year. Your advocacy for highlighting the contributions of our “invisible” and often-forgotten brothers and sisters is a priceless asset to efforts to set the historical record to rights.

  6. There’s an ugly backstory to this image. As the caption notes, this was an RTM meeting about affordable housing. Some of those pictured resided in the infamous 22 1/2 Main Street tenement and were in attendance to press for more humane housing options. In May of 1950, the tenement, home to dozens of African Americans, was firebombed. And that was that.

  7. Chip Stephens. Staples 73

    Dan I am not 100 percent sure but I seem to remember from a few years back during a p&z application that the cross hwy house that you mentioned was claimed to have been associated historicaly as that of a “free negro family” but on further research by locals was actually a family from India.

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