Historical Society Shines A Light On Westport’s Troubled Past

Iron shackles. Burned timbers. “Negro child.”

They’re not the usual things you see at the Westport Historical Society.

But this is not the usual WHS exhibit.

Slave shackles, on exhibit at the Westport Historical Society.

“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opened in May. It’s one of the most creative and compelling shows ever mounted at Wheeler House. (Which, the exhibit notes, sits across Avery Place from a building that may have been built by slaves.)

It’s also one of the most important.

I attended the opening reception. It was packed. I talked with people who recalled some of the important events, like Martin Luther King’s visit to Temple Israel, and the fight over bringing Bridgeport students to Westport through Project Concern.

But it was too crowded to really see the artifacts and photos, or read the texts.

So the other day I returned. The Sheffer Gallery was quiet. I had time to study the exhibit.

And to think.

I learned a lot. I’m a Westport native and lifelong New Englander. But I never knew, for example, that slavery was not fully abolished in Connecticut until 1848. (The decades-long process spared white farmers the loss of free labor while they were still alive.)

Some of Westport’s biggest names — Coley, Nash, Jesup — were slave-owners. The property deeds — as in, these human beings were their property — are right there, for all to see.

A 1780 payment voucher for a black patriot soldier who bought his freedom, and immediately enlisted.

We see too a recreated hearth, from a Clapboard Hill home. It’s cramped and dark — and it’s where a young slave girl might have slept.

The reconstruction of sleeping quarters in a crawl space, from a Clapboard Hill Road home.

I did not know that black Westporters fought for the Union in the  Civil War. Nor did I know that an unknown number of slaves are buried in unmarked graves in Greens Farms Church’s lower cemetery.

I did know — on some level — that African Americans have a long history here. But I had not thought about what it meant for them to work on our docks, in our homes, or at our farms.

Black Westporters were domestics, chauffeurs and seamstresses. But they were also, the exhibit notes, teachers, artists, physicians, activists and freedom fighters.

The exhibit includes a 1920s painting by J. Clinton Shepherd, “The Waffle Shoppe.” It may well be based on an actual restaurant on Main Street.

In the 1920s and ’30s, the Great Migration drew millions of African Americans north. Westport — offering work on farms and estates — was one destination. Black families lived on the Post Road, Bay Street — and 22 1/2 Main Street.

I have known for years that that address — set back in an alley that later became Bobby Q’s restaurant — was the site of a boardinghouse, where dozens of African Americans lived.

I knew that in 1950, it burned to the ground. Arson was suspected.

Photos and text about 22 1/2 Main Street.

But until the WHS exhibit, I did not know that a few months earlier, black Westporters had asked to be considered for spots at Hales Court, where low-cost homes were soon to be built. The Westport Housing Authority grudgingly agreed — but only after veterans, and others “with more pressing needs,” were accommodated.

Was that a cause for the fire? The exhibit strongly suggests so.

(Nearly 70 years later, construction at the old Bobby Q’s has revealed charred timbers — vivid testimony of that long-ago tragedy. It’s worth a look.)

I have long been fascinated by this photo, of one African American standing apart from everyone else in the Shercrow School photo. The WHS exhibit gives her a name — Anna Simms — and notes that she may have been a student or teacher.

The exhibit pays homage to African Americans like Drs. Albert and Jean Beasley, beloved pediatricians; Martin and Judy Hamer, and Leroy and Venora Ellis, longtime civic volunteers, and educator Cliff Barton.

It also cites the contributions of white Westporters like Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (arrested with Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida); Board of Education chair Joan Schine, who fought for Project Concern, and artists Tracy Sugarman and Roe Halper, staunch supporters of the civil rights movement.

Roe Halper presents woodcuts to Coretta Scott King. The civil rights leader’s wife autographed this photo. The artwork was displayed in the Kings’ Atlanta home for many years.

But ultimately, “Remembered” remembers the largely forgotten men, women and children who helped shape and grow our town. Some came freely. Others did not. All were, in some way, Westporters.

In the foyer outside the exhibit, a stark wall serves as a final reminder of the African Americans who lived quietly here, long ago.

It lists the 241 slaves, and 19 free blacks, found in the Green’s Farms Congregational Church record books between 1742 and 1822. Most were listed only by first names: Fortune. Quash. Samson.

Some had no names at all. They are called only “Negro Child,” or “Negro Infant.”

The wall does not carry the names of all the white people listed in the church books during those 80 years. Many are well known to us, centuries later.

And most of them, the exhibit notes, owned the men, women and children who are now honored on that wall.

(For more information on “Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport,” click here. The Westport Historical Society, at 25 Avery Place, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors. Members and children 10 and under are free.)

(WHS is also memorializing the names of over 200 Westport slaves, through bricks in the brickwalk. The $20 cost covers the brick and installation. To order, click here.)

In 1964, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the 5th anniversary of the dedication of Temple Israel. He autographed this program.

24 responses to “Historical Society Shines A Light On Westport’s Troubled Past

  1. Susan Ellis

    The exhibit is not only extremely informative about an essential–and usually overlooked–part of our history, but it is also beautifully designed and fully–if sadly–engaging. Kudos to Ramin Ganeshram and her team at the Westport Historical Society.

  2. A. David Wunsch

    Dan: this is one of your best entries ever.
    ADW Staples 1956

  3. Jacques Voris

    I have mentioned before that my great-great-grandfather, Charles Mills, was the master mason who built the foundation for the original Staples. I have also mentioned before that among the workmen listed on the project was one Charles E Coley (Colored) of Easton. This little morsel of information has intrigued me since I first saw it twenty odd years ago. It raises many questions in my mind. First and foremost, that he was employing a black man at all. It was 1884, and while Connecticut might not have had such overt segregation as many other places, there certainly were “rules’ as it were, and to employ a black man on a crew of otherwise white workers would seem to go against those rules. The second is that he came in from Easton for the project. Easton isn’t far, but it isn’t close either when you have to walk or ride a horse. If Charles Coley was just labor, it seems a far distance to go. Surely Charles Mills could have found someone closer, someone whiter, if Mr Coley was just a laborer.

    Which leads me to the speculative part of this story, the Charles Coley was either a semi-skilled or skilled worker, someone that Charles Mills would specifically employ as opposed to just another strong back. This is supported by Charles Coley was about 65 at the time of the project, hardly an age where youth and vigor were the defining qualities. Furthermore, that Charles Coley was known to Charles Mills prior to the project. Why else would he come down from Easton? Was he a regular employee of Charles Mills? I can’t say, but I do believe there must have been an existing relationship.

    So what can I tell you about Charles E Coley? Not as much as I would like. He was born in Connecticut in about 1819 to Pomp Coley and Anna Beers. He seems to have been born in that part of Weston that became Easton, and lived there his entire life. He was married to Julia Ann. He was listed as either a “farmer” or “farm laborer” in all the census records. He died 9 June 1894 in Easton. If he had children, I cannot say. Most of the census records just list him, or him and Julia. There is one, in 1860, that list some younger members of the household, a girl Sarah and boy Isaac. But they are not list in 1850 when they should have been.

    So there you go, a man of color helped build the school that has educated generations of Westporters.

    • William Coley

      When I was doing genealogical research many years ago, I found documents in Westport Town Hall granting freedom to Pomp Coley and three(?) others in the 1790’s.

      • Jacques Voris

        Do you happen to recall from who’s service he was freed? I presume a Coley family member

        • William Coley

          I believe it was Morehouse Coley who lived on North Ave. where Paul Newman lived. Their farm extended up the east side of North Avenue into Weston. I’m not at home now so I can’t be certain. I will check later after I get home and look at my genealogy records.

          • Jacques Voris

            On another note, what is your line? We may be cousins. Well, we more than likely are, just a matter of how

            • William Coley

              My line is Samuel, Peter, Peter, David, Ebenezer, Morehouse, William, Horace, Henry, Henry, me. I checked my records and it was Morehouse who freed Pomp and three others in the late 1790’s

      • Mr. Coley–please come see the exhibit if you can. Ebenezer Coley and the people he enslaved figure prominently. 25 Avery Place is the site of an original home built by Ebenezer for his son Michael. No doubt, Ebenezer’s enslaved people worked at his “Saugatuck Store” site, of the former Remarkable Bookshop, across the street. For a time, Michael managed the store. Three of Coley’s enslaved men escaped him to enlist with the British in the Revolutionary War. They evacuated New York with the British in 1781 and made their way to Nova Scotia as free men.

  4. There is so much out there to learn. I lived in Westport for many years and didn’t know any of this Westport history. Thank you for this truly informative article. I look forward to reading 06880 every morning.

  5. Doris Levinson

    Thank you for this superb column.

  6. Danny A., director, Willowbrook Cemetery

    Excellent write up, Dan! I recall going through our records a few months back to find the notation “Negro Child” next to the entry of a burial. I’ll have to take a look and see what the boy’s name was that died. I think this occurred either in the late 1800’s or early teens at most.

  7. I’m happy to see the exhibit will be open through October since that will give Debbie and me an opportunity to see it. I hope a lot of Westport class trips to the exhibit will be taking place since I know that local history brought to life in this manner can make more of an impression on kids than just reading a history book might.

  8. Stephanie Bass

    Beautifully written and a real eye opener. Thank you.

  9. Thank you Dan for this thoughtful review. Judy Hamer

  10. Bonnie Bradley

    One of your most meaningful and important postings ever, Dan. Thank you.

    My handwritten Bradley genealogy, beginning with the arrival of Francis Bradley, 15 yrs. old, alone, coming from Coventry, England and arriving in Hartford in 1636 , shows the following entry:

    “In 1786 Gershom Bradley willed his daughter Dorcas, a negro girl aged 9, reserving said girl to himself and his wife during their lives.” In an inventory of possessions after his death Dorcas is identified as a “slave.”

    At that time Gershom and his family lived and farmed in the area of “Fairfield” which became Westport.

    I can only hopelessly wish that that the entry above had read “freed his beloved daughter Dorcas, a negro girl aged 9, to be honored and kept safe within her family thoughout her lifetime.”

  11. Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

    This is an excellent post, including the comments that add background . I’ll be back in September and will make seeing the exhibit a priority. Thank you Dan and all those who contributed.

  12. Daniel Katz

    Hmmmmm; will there now be a push to remove from roads, schools and markers the names of those important Westporters who owned, sold and bequeathed slaves?

    • David J. Loffredo

      I think it’s time to rename the Coleytown schools, and offer free access to anyone who can prove their a descendant from one of the Coley’s former slaves (ala Georgetown University). There will be no outrage of course, like Bill’s comment about the beach in a previous post – we live in a “do what I say, not what I do” society.

  13. Daniel Katz

    But, David, access to our public schools is already free….have to come up with a different gimme, I’m afraid.

    • David J. Loffredo

      Only if you’re a Westport resident….I think proven descendants far and wide should be given access to Slave Owner Elementary and Slave Owner Middle School…..

  14. Daniel Katz

    Of course…how myopic of me to have overlooked them from far and wide.

  15. So much history that so few people know about!