Westport’s African American History: Long Overlooked, At Last Remembered

The history of Westport was written by white men and women. This was — and continues to be — a predominantly white town.

But African Americans have a long history here.

From 1742 to 1822 the logbook of Greens Farms Congregational Church recorded the births, deaths, marriages and baptisms of nearly 300 black Westporters.

More than 240 were slaves. Their forced labor helped build our town’s prosperous farms and shipping businesses.

They fought in the Revolutionary War — on both sides. Some hoped for freedom in return for their service. Others departed with the British at war’s end.

Connecticut struggled with its place in the slave trade. It banned the importation of enslaved people, and very gradually — from 1784 to 1848 — abolished slavery.

Newly freed African Americans searched for a place in the community. Henry Munro — the first black landholder in Westport — built a house on Cross Highway in 1806. His family lived there for nearly 100 years — and the dwelling still stands.

The Munro house at 108 Cross Highway, today.

Others found work only a step above what they endured as slaves. They were laborers, domestic servants and farmhands. Some suffered from assault, false imprisonment, arson and murder.

But they persevered. They became educators, freedom fighters, artists, patriots and respected citizens.

Their stories are not well known. Later this month, the Westport Historical Society finally shines a light on the lives and contributions of these overlooked Westporters.

“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opens May 11. It’s an opportunity to rectify the myths about our town, state and New England, says WHS executive director Ramin Ganeshram. She hopes visitors will leave enlightened, and eager to learn more.

The interactive exhibit — created by Broadway set designer Jordan Janota — includes objects and artifacts from the 1700s through the civil rights era. There are slave documents; details about 22 1/2 Main Street, the alley boardinghouse for black families that mysteriously burned to the ground around 1950; material relating to Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1964 visit to Westport, and original artwork by Tracy Sugarman, an important figure during the Freedom Summer.

This newspaper clipping from 1964 — part of the Westport Historical Society exhibit — shows Rev. Martin Luther King at Temple Israel. He’s flanked by Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (left) and congregation president Dan Rodgers.

TEAM Westport — the town’s multicultural commission — partnered with WHS throughout the research, planning and installation of the exhibit.

“The generally accepted narrative is that the history and legacy of African Americans in Westport span the range of little to none,” says TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey.

“This exhibit turns that narrative on its head. For the town of Westport, it adds profound dimensions to where we’ve been, who we are, and where we can go in the future.”

A corollary exhibit — entitled “Rights for All?” — explores the effect of Connecticut’s 1818 constitution on emancipation, enfranchisement and civil liberties.

Judson’s store stood near today’s Beachside Avenue. This 1801 ledger entry — part of the WHS exhibit — gives credit to a free African American man. Many African Americans in the area were still slaves.

National attention has focused recently on important new institutions, like the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the just-opened memorial in Montgomery, Alabama dedicated to thousands of lynching victims.

Soon — in our own way — Westport joins those efforts. It’s an exhibit that everyone in town should  — no, must — see.

(“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opens with a free reception on Friday, May 11, from 5 to 7 p.m.)

11 responses to “Westport’s African American History: Long Overlooked, At Last Remembered

  1. Morley Boyd

    Wow. This sounds terrific. Way to go WHS and TEAM Westport!
    Can’t wait to check the exhibit out on the 11th!

  2. Bravo.This is an extraordinary exhibit and one that we shall all be encouraged to support…thank you for this one, Dan.

  3. Peter Hirst

    I wonder whether the installation will cover one particularly shameful episode in Westport’s history. In the late sixties, Wetport’s town-run summer school and Compo beach camp programs were open to any kid from any town in the area who could pay the fee. Any kid, that is, until a county charity signed up 60 or so black kids from Bridgeport, paid their fees and provided daily transportation for them by – Heaven Forfend – BUS!. Then there had to be town-wide debate, public meetings, speeches and testimony including some of the lamest excuses for opposition you ever heard on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. Are we remembering this?

  4. Thanks, Dan, for the wonderful article.

  5. Fred Cantor

    Sounds like a fascinating exhibit. How long will it run? (The WHS site didn’t seem to have an end date (or else I missed it).

  6. Thanks, Dan, for publicizing this exhibit. By the way, I presume you remember Mark Rudd, our librarian at Burr Farms Elementary School. I always wondered who in town in the early 1960s had the wisdom to hire a black man to turn Westport kids onto reading. Mr. Rudd is one of the reasons why I teach English today. He was so clearly passionate about books. Although I was always a reader, Mr. Rudd had this way of sussing out my interests and finding the perfect books for me. When I was in third grade, for instance, after learning that I loved to ice skate, he encouraged me to read a biography of Olympic champion Carol Heiss. By sixth grade, he was steering me toward classics such as Jane Eyre. I’ve often wondered what became of this wonderful man. Do you know?

    • Great comment, Prill. Matt (not Mark — Mark Rudd was one of the Columbia University strike leaders!) was a very cool, very wise librarian. He also got me reading books about the presidents. He met each Burr Farms student where he or she was, and treated each with respect and dignity while also planting the seeds of exploration and intrigue through reading.

      Matt was also a very talented saxophonist. Sadly, he died a few years ago — I think in New Haven, though I’m not sure.

      We did have many male teachers at Burr Farms — very rare in those days (and a male elementary school principal). It was quite a school, and quite a time. We were very lucky indeed.

  7. Laurie Sugarman-Whittier

    Does anyone have any idea how long the exhibit will run? I want to make sure to get down to see it!