New Plaques: Honest Insights Into Local History

Across America, towns and cities grapple with difficult elements of history by removing statues, and changing names.

In Westport, we’re putting up plaques.

Without fanfare, a pair of historic markers have been installed downtown. One adds important information about the founding of our community. The other honors a long-forgotten group of Black residents.

The first plaque stands behind Town Hall, on a door near the parking lot.

The plaque behind Town Hall.

 

It notes that indigenous people lived in this area for thousands of years, before Europeans arrived. It says that the Paugussets were driven away in the Great Swamp Fight of 1637, and acknowledges that Westport’s founding fathers built a prosperous agriculture community using “forced labor of enslaved Africans and Natives.”

The plaque describes events like the Revolutionary War; the importance of the river and railroad, and our growth as an arts colony and New York suburb.

The Town Hall plaque.

But it mentions too that Westport became more diverse “with an influx of international residents and a thriving Jewish community. These residents worked to remove restrictive deed covenants in the housing and commercial real estate markets.”

The plaque includes the image of an enslaved woman. A QR code brings up more information about Westport’s history.

A marker commemorating 22 1/2 Main Street (now 28 Main Street) has been placed on Elm Street, opposite Serena & Lily. That’s near the rear of what was once a thriving Black community.

The Elm Street plaque.

A similar brass plaque will be placed soon on the Main Street entrance to the Bedford Square courtyard.

Both explain that residents of the neighborhood made up the majority of Westport’s African-American population. Many were descended from people enslaved by European settlers.

Residents of 22 1/2 Main Street were “maids, cooks, gardeners, drivers and groomsmen to affluent Westporters.” The area included a grocery store, barber shop and Baptist church.

The plaque commemorating 22 Main Street.

In December 1949, the plaque says, residents petitioned the Representative Town Meeting to be considered for planned affordable housing. They were rebuffed.

The next month, a local paper predicted “great loss of life” if a fire broke out in the “slum.”

Eight days later, a blaze did occur.

There were no fatalities. But most buildings were destroyed, and nearly every resident moved from Westport.

Though arson was suspected, there was never an investigation.

The 22 1/2 Main Street plaque includes photographs, an illustration and a QR code.

Both plaques are highlighted on the official town website. The “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” page says:

Westport is a town with a future that is bright and full of promise. We respect the richness of our past, and commit to addressing future challenges with particular focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion for all who live, visit, and work in our town. As an engaged community, we are bound by a passion for the arts, education, the preservation of natural resources, and our beautiful shoreline. We are uniquely positioned to thrive in the years to come.

The Town of Westport, in consultation with TEAM Westport is committed to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in our community. The plaque project works to correct prior versions of Westport’s written history.

The plaque project was undertaken by TEAM Westport, with help from 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, town operations director Sara Harris, Public Works director Peter Ratkiewich, and Westport Museum of History & Culture director Ramin Ganeshram.

A 2018 exhibit at the Westport Museum of History & Culture included photos and text about 22 1/2 Main Street.

 

18 responses to “New Plaques: Honest Insights Into Local History

  1. If people ask, “What is critical race theory?” Let them come to Westport.

    • Werner Liepolt

      How odd. It seems from both the angle of the piece and the abrupt removal of existing artifacts that Westport’s rather splendid celebration of our nation’s bicentennial is being made equivalent to the statues honoring Confederate leaders commissioned during and following the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War. There is no equivalence. I was there in 1976. Our bicentennial celebration was indeed splendid. Lots of historically hip Westporters and not a few of those who have made Westport notable made it that way.

      https://www.nytimes.com/1975/08/17/archives/a-trip-into-history-on-the-westport-bus.html

      We live in strange times. Let’s add to the best of our history, correct what’s been wrong, but not try to delete it.

  2. Note of clarification: in the background of the town hall image in this piece one can see the two posts which until- I guess- quite recently, used to support the large metal historic plaque which had been there for many years.

    • I recall that the plaque which has apparantly been removed from the rear town hall entrance contained an overview of Westport history.

      • Yes, Morley Boyd, those customized plaques were installed during the Bicentennial celebration in each of Connecticut’s 169 Towns and Cities. Wonder where Westport’s has gone?

      • I’m reasonably sure that, relative to Mr. Grant’s observation, the apparantly disappeared plaque was indeed part of a state-wide program directed by, I think, the, Connecticut Historical Society in the 70s/80s. The plaques erected in the various towns across the state are all very large cast metal pieces finished in National Park Service blue with the CT state seal in silver at the top. They’re really quite attractive and I always make an effort to read them when circumstances allow. I never really understood why ours was hidden behind town hall – but I suppose that doesn’t matter any more.

    • Michael Calise

      WOW! We really need an answer on this change ASAP!!!!!

  3. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Yesterday’s slums are today’s “affordable housing projects.”

  4. I commend those who established this committee, and for getting these placed in town. It’s a great start! Life is complicated, but facing our past will help us to improve the future for all.

  5. Deirdre O'Farrelly

    These are great, thank you Team Westport

  6. John F. Suggs

    I have two immediate reactions/questions to this action.

    First, it is disturbing to me that the original plaque was unceremoniously taken down and removed without any apparent public noticing, discussion or explanation as to what about it people found offensive? Although it’s been a while since I last read it, I am hard-pressed to imagine that anything on that plaque was explicitly offensive. At best, we may be looking at that its content omitted some of our history. If that is the case – that it was not all encompassing and representative – then it has been adequately addressed by the new plaque. But, barring some explicit offensive statement in its content, it should not require that the original be removed. What is wrong with both plaques, taken together, telling our story?

    And second, why is it that both of these two new plaques were placed behind their respective buildings rather than in front of them? By not putting them prominently front and center isn’t the Town, in fact, relegating them to “back door status?”

  7. Kathi Sherman

    No one goes in the front door. Everyone parks in the lot in the back and enters the building through the back of the building. Certainly made more sense to put them there.

  8. Mary Schmerker

    When I saw this this morning my initial reaction was why the back doors! I also was surprized that I did not remember the 1949 fire. I would have been old enough and I have pictures of Joe E. Fuller and his Bullodzer in 1948 preparing the ground for the foundation of our Calumet Road home with my brother on the Bulldozer. Mr. Fuller was a favorite of ouf family and may very well have lived in the Main Street building so I went to see if I had some forgotten newspaper article about the fire before commenting. I am so pleased however that Westport is acknowledging it’s history. Mr. Fuller was an African American and beloved in the town. One of my last conversations with my Dad was about Mr. Fuller. He also had a Steam Shovel and l had asked my Dad if he remembered if it was a “real Steam Shovel or more modern and powdered by gas. Dad did not remember! I am running on now so I’ll leave the rest to currrent residents.

  9. I remember reading about the 22 and 1/2Main Street residents and the fire. Interesting and sad part of Westport history. I will never understand why some Americans do not understand the deep wounds of the slave people of Africa and the Native Americans here who were used and totally displaced from their land, and their way of life destroyed. Fighting for freedom means freedom to all people. Why that was missed is beyond me in founding our country. You can’t build greatness on the backs of oppressed and abused people. Karma man. You can’t just violently take over lands and innocent people without consequences.

    My great grandmother was a Lenape tribe woman living in the Lake Hopatcong, NY region and apparently some sort of disgrace to the family. The wounds of that side of my family are cellular….generations later. There seems no awareness that this wound doesn’t heal without deep understanding conversations and repentance of the cruelty to innocent people. Restoration begins with acknowledgment and care to lift up the wounded.

  10. Chip Stephens

    I do not miss this drama in town, the town I love and grew up in. Ask your selves where will the plaques to the Italian Americans be placed ? In Saugatuck where they lived, built the town, I 95 , our many businesses and first responders only to have their home part of town paved over by the highway, housed plowed down and churches and businesses demolished ? Where will the plaques to our Polish and eastern European predecessors who also formed our town as masons, labor workers and continually were referred as dumb @#@@s and struggled to be allowed to enter our society? And where will the plaque to our Jewish community who had to build their own community golf club, fight to establish their houses of worship and had to endure slurs and hurtful treatment even after surviving the holocaust and just trying to assimilate into the community as legal, social and financial leaders?
    This culture kill time is so offensive to so many that remain silent to keep the peace and try to keep a community.
    All the communities are now one in Westport a community that has a history of social justice, a history of giving and sharing, and a community in my time over the past 50 years has been a beacon of fairness, assimilation and understanding. Stop the self flagellation and celebrate a successful town that has been way ahead of their times with all races, creeds and colors.

    • Many interesting points…but you may have missed the big one. All of the groups you mentioned chose to come here in hopes of the pursuit of a better life. Yes, there was predjudice against the Italians, Irish, Polish, Jewish, etc.
      But they weren’t chained and brought here against their will, and sold on a slave block or murdered or removed from their homes because they existed on this continent thousands of years before the settlers got here. They weren’t enslaved here or had their lands stolen and families murdered. So… with the unrest in this country, listening humbly to what we need to learn might heal this nation more than anything. Think about when someone has wronged you terribly. What has made that ever right except a heartfelt apology and reformation of the relationship. That is all I was saying. I’m trying to understand too how our country got to where it is. What I need to do and understand. And when I lived in Westport in the 60s and part of the 70s, I can’t remember a single black student in my schools. If there were, far and few between. My science teacher once called me Pocahontas once 🙄 so….

      • Dick Lowenstein

        …..and in the more recent past, Senator Elizabeth Warren was demeaningly called Pocahontas by you-know-who

  11. Andy Friedland

    Good on Westport for owning the entirety of its complicated history. No one is better off when we act as though the uncomfortable parts of our town and its past don’t exist.

    I urge everyone to zoom in or visit and read the plaque. No one’s history is being erased, these plaques are a fuller account of our history that acknowledges Black and Indigenous history alongside English, Irish, Italian and Jewish history.

    If working really hard to ignore and not talk about race, racism, enslavement and Indigenous genocide made for national harmony…. I reckon that strategy would’ve worked by now. Let’s try truth and reconciliation for a change.

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