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.
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.
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.
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.
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.