[OPINION] Old Historical Plaque Belongs Near New

Thursday’s “06880” story on the installation of a new historical plaque behind Town Hall — one acknowledging that Westport’s founding fathers built a prosperous agriculture community using “forced labor of enslaved Africans and Natives” — drew comments from several readers noting the simultaneous removal of a similar nearby plaque.

This plaque behind Town Hall has been removed. (Photo/John Suggs)

That one — dedicated in 1980 — began:

“For nearly 200 years after the first white settlement here in 1648, the area east of the Saugatuck River belonged to the west parish of Fairfield; that west of the river to the Town of Norwalk.”

The text then describes the village of Saugatuck’s growth as a “thriving port for regional produce and goods”; the incorporation of the town of Westport in 1835, and our history as a farming community, artists’ colony and post-war suburb.

Text on the now-removed 1980 plaque (Photo/John Suggs)

Longtime Westporter John Suggs provided “06880” with photos of that now-removed plaque. He says:

I want readers to see what the old plaque actually said. Hopefully many other Westporters are as shocked as I am that this historic plaque was somehow deemed “offensive” and was unilaterally — and without any public discussion — removed from its setting 41 years after the town, the Westport Historical Society and the Connecticut Historic Commission first installed it in a place of honor.

This was not created during the dark days of Jim Crow. This plaque was installed in 1980. Many Westporters who were there when it was installed and were part of that day are still alive, and still live here.

I think it should be returned. And it, along with the newer plaque, can jointly offer a comprehensive and informative commemoration of Westport’s history.

The new plaque behind Town Hall. The old one (right of the double doors) has been removed.

This original plaque represented the best thinking of this community just 41 years ago — including 2 of the same entities who have brought forth this new plaque. It does not deserve to be consigned to the dustbin.

Not to restore it and return it to its proper place at Town Hall is unconscionable.  Hopefully, when people read what it actually says, they will understand and agree.

This isn’t a case of “either/or” between the old and new plaque. Rather, it is “both/and.” The way forward is to display both.

The new Town Hall plaque.

 

34 responses to “[OPINION] Old Historical Plaque Belongs Near New

  1. Ah, let the critical race theory wars begin! Was the old plaque officially declared “offensive” or merely considered incomplete?

    • Couldnt have said it better than the comment above, before anyone replies think long and hard about what you write and what you mean to say! Every corner of todays society is brewing a racial vs historical debate.. Racism sucks, hopefully everyone agrees. Westport is an awesome town, hopefully everyone agrees. Dan Woog is the man, hopefully everyone agrees! Good luck all!

    • Pretty upsetting to see that people would object to truthful history being presented.

  2. Janine Scotti

    I hope before anyone comments they take the time to read both plaques and reflect. How are they similar and how are they different? Is anything from the first plaque not incorporated into the second? Isn’t being historically accurate and complete important?

    I can see the point of having both there, especially to show how a large part of our local history was left off of the first one. Since the previous commenter said many people are around from the creation of the first one, I would be curious to know if there was a discussion about The indigenous people enslaved people who also lived here.

    If you walk around Sherwood Island you’ll see plaques that talk about indigenous people artifacts and artifacts from probably the Sherwood family, but there’s nothing mentioned about how the Sherwood family came to “own” that property.

    I want to know the true history, not an easier to swallow history. How about you?

  3. I’ve read both and the first one seems to just be an abridged version of the second without the pictures. It’s not “either/or.” It’s not “and/but.” It’s “who needs both and why?”

  4. India Van Voorhees

    The second plaque contains everything the first plaque said – and adds more historic detail. There’s no need for both.
    I would understand the desire to keep a truly historic plaque – say from the time of the founding of Westport – but I see nothing wrong and everything right with replacing a modern plaque with a more complete and informative one including photographs and drawings.

  5. Robert Selverstone

    Makes sense to me.

  6. Michael Calise

    John has opened an important discussion and I am not any less incensed than he is. There is an obvious and obnoxious movement afoot to rewrite our history at every turn to include the denial of many ethnic groups who arrived long after the cited historical practices. As we have passed through time in the growth of our country every ethnic group has suffered and is experiencing biases of one type or another not to be condoned but rather to be recognized as an ongoing challenge to our society. To singe out one claim of history to the denial of all others is as unconscionable as the claim itself. Thanks again John for speaking out. Your platform has tempered my anger but not my resolve.

  7. John, it seems that the individuals/groups creating the new plaque were incorporating the history stated in the old plaque and were trying to make a more comprehensive and accurate history of Westport. I see no need to have the new and the old plaques side by side.

    Having said that, I wonder if a pertinent part of local history was omitted from the new plaque. The NY Times article link from Werner Liepolt a couple of days ago, the town’s website, and other sources state that much of what is current-day Westport was acquired from the Pequonnock tribe by Roger Ludlow in a real estate deal. If that is accurate, why wouldn’t this be included in an overview of local history?

  8. I’d love to see more historical plaques around town. It encourages people to walk, bike, and stop to read and learn. Sometimes when my wife and I are driving we double back just to read plaques.(many are in terrible places to stop to read them) I was excited to see this new one! When you go to any museum or place of interest you look for where the information displayed. Westport has a lot of history we should look at it as an open air museum and have as many informational history plaques as is practical & possible. It would make our town even more special.

  9. David Webster

    I really have to wonder if anyone asking for the old plaque to be presented alongside has actually read the new one? Since the creators of the new plaque clearly incorporated all of the key elements from the prior one, while expanding the narrative to be more accurate, inclusive, and holistic. The only scenario I can envision for keeping the old one around would be to use it as a teaching aid to call attention to the blind spots we had in our own history books as recently as 40 years ago? The new one is superior in nearly every way I can think of, and does nothing to diminish the story told in the prior one.

  10. Bill Strittmatter

    The old plaque doesn’t strike me as offensive, though it is incomplete. Having said that, the new plaque, while having additional content, is similarly inoffensive but similarly incomplete which is the difficulty with these sorts of things. Just not enough room to discuss everything and/or it’s context.

    For example, the new plaque notes the removal of restrictive covenants in deeds, which is nice, but leaves out choosing to restrict development via restrictive zoning which had the arguably intended (though unstated) practical economic effect of keeping most people of color out of Westport.

    But, of course, that’s not all it leaves out. There is nothing about the waves of displacement of native Americans by other native Americans in the thousands of years before Europeans arrived with the with the Paugussets simply being the ones on top at that point. Not to mention, of course, for better or worse, that the history of the world is pretty much the result of one group displacing and/or imposing their will on another. And, of course, that hasn’t stopped.

    One could go on with lists of good and bad things that happened as a result of good and bad things people, including Westporters, have done over history. Just not enough room. No doubt there will be another plaque in 40 years.

  11. I just want to say that, to me, the arc of these comments is what social justice is really about. Thank you to the folks who were willing to respectfully push back against the outrage toward facing our history with the new plaque, and to demonstrate what James Baldwin once said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

  12. If I recall correctly from Jill Lepore’s book on King Philip’s War, the whole concept of “purchasing” land from the indigenous population is a misconception since Native Americans never had the concept of ownership of land in the first place. It was more along the lines of “we will share this place with you and not contest your being here”; the exclusion of the prior “owners” was entirely a foreign idea.

    No doubt Roger Ludlow’s “purchases” in 1639 and 1640 were also made easier by his participation in having wiped out the remaining Pequots in the Great Swamp Fight in Southport in 1637.

    A lot of history to put on a plaque.

    PS: Why does the old plaque refer to 1648 as the “first white settlement”? The Bankside Farmers was a whole different thing.

  13. Arguing over signs has a frivolous aspect to it. While municipalities, state and the federal government make sincere efforts to talk the talk several states (and the Supreme Court) are curtailing voting rights and taking other actions that undermine racial progress. Window dressing is nice and soothes consciences but in the long run is pretty ineffective in accomplishing anything. Each of us needs to identify what we can do to contribute to genuine progress.

    • India Van Voorhees

      I agree in the main (voting rights is a far greater issue right now) and I applaud and support your entreaty that we each do our part for progress.
      But while each small act seems like ineffective window dressing – collectively they begin to work to change mass consciousness.
      In this instance, broadening the narrative of Westport’s history to be more inclusive and accurate is one sure step. It doesn’t have to be the only step.

  14. Ross Bernstein

    These new plaques are all part of this work narrative for social justice. The once great Westport Historical Society has turned into this guilt tripping negative and misses the whole point. Every plaque they’ve put up has a slave on it, as if that’s all westport was. Did we forget the history of a slave who built his own home? The overwhelming support of Underground Railroad homes in this town as well?

    When they’re not selling donated historical memorabilia, plugging a cookbook for self exploitation of fiscal gains, or removing the real historians of this town from their board, the town needs to acquire the building. And finally, they can lease the basement where historical documents are kept but no one can access.

    • I’d like to think that we have come so far…. but when I see the number of minority people who come to Westport to mow the lawns, watch the children, clean the house, etc…and I recognize they are not paid anywhere near a living wage… it’s very discouraging.

  15. I would be interested in knowing the names of the people unilaterally decided to replace the plaque. I was not aware of such a group’s existence.
    Whether you agree with the decision or not I think a town discussion of such things is important.

  16. Welcome to Wokeport

  17. One of the problems here is that we’re working with incomplete information. To wit:

    1. We don’t actually know the current disposition of Westport’s original bicentennial plaque. All we know is that it was evidently removed at least nine months ago – and that the plaque’s support posts were, for some reason, left in place. For all we know the plaque was taken down to allow for some kind of building maintenance and will be shortly re-installed. In this regard, the administration hasn’t helped matters by choosing to remain silent. On that point, I feel it would be reasonable for the First Selectman, whose initiative this apparently was – to offer some clarification.

    2. If Westport’s original bicentennial plaque was indeed retired, we don’t know at this moment if that action is part of a broader policy initiative. Afterall, there are quite a number of historic plaques on town owned property in Westport. To pick just one, consider Machamux Park on Greens Farms Road – presumably named for the particular subset of the Pequonnocks who called the general area home prior to the arrival of white settlers. The park, once the site of the first meeting house in what eventually became Westport, contains a large plaque which is notably silent about the Native Americans who previously lived there. Certainly their story should be told. But does that mean the plaque there now will be ripped off the large boulder it was affixed to in 1932?

    3. Finally, we don’t know if the tiny group responsible for the recent updated historic signage has also concluded that it must address examples of what it might consider cultural misappropriation. If so, certain Native American-derived local place names such as Machamux, Compo and Saugatuck come to mind. Of course, there are more.

    At this point, it’s impossible to know the outlines of the administration’s effort to address deficits in the portrayal and treatment of our local history. All we know is that those responsible for the updated signage only met in private and, since this controversy developed, have opted not to share their thinking with us.

    I’m not a fan of the practice of presentism but I do think it’s important to portray our history fully and accurately. I just wish this current effort had been a little more transparent as I feel it would have benefited from thoughtful public input.

  18. Werner Liepolt

    I admit to surprise at the disappearance of old signs and the sudden and unexpected appearance of NEW SIGNS!!!!!! This could be the inspiration for a dystopian sci-if novel, a sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs”, or a reworking of “Next Stop Willoughby…” where an authoritarian leader asserts arbitrary control on a democracy.

    I also admit to confusion. Is this plaque making me aware of something I missed? I checked my copy of Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut (published by the Westport Historical Society). In it he testifies to the practice of slaveholding by early Westporters. He has different numbers—more than those the Museum puts forth. If the Museum has uncovered new and important information why not issue a new edition?

  19. Wendy Van Wie

    Fairfield wasn’t settled by undifferentiated “European colonizers.” It was settled by Puritans who brought with them revolutionary ideas about community, self-government, education, and widespread property ownership that have been central Westport’s culture for almost four centuries (a culture very, very different from all other European colonies and indeed all other places on the planet at the time.) And while I cannot think of one other place on the planet that did not have forced labor at the time, here the overwhelming majority of early families had many children over many years to work their own farms and to provide for their parents in their later years. As the first U.S. Census in 1790 shows, one half of one percent of Fairfield’s population were slaves (of the 4,009 people in Fairfield, 1,027 were free white males over 16; 896 were free white males under 16; 1,869 were females; 14 were “other free persons”; and 203 were slaves.) While enslaved Africans are part of Westport’s story, they are not central to Westport’s story as depicted in the new plaque which is misleading rather than educational.

  20. The new plaque simply seems to be a more complete portrayal of history. While I am curious as to who made the decisions (and why), the complaining seems more like a distraction from the issue of portraying an accurate history. I guess I’m more curious as to why Mr. Suggs and his ilk are clutching their pearls over a more complete representation of our history.

    (And while I’m at it, how many people who are complaining about “critical race theory” now had the slightest idea what it was, six months ago? It’s the latest right-wing bugaboo, like “woke,” “erasing history,” and “cancel culture” – just the attempts of people to distract the topic from wrongs being called out, to complaining about why wrongs are being called out *now.*)

    • John F. Suggs

      Mr. Grimm, you are missing the point. I support and welcome the addition of the new plaque. I just object to the removal of the Bicentennial Plaque. Plaques and other historical markers (yes, including statues) tell us as much about the times they were erected as about the times they commemorate. The historical significance of the old plaque is CT’s apparent pride, as the bicentennial approached, in our towns’ shared history; hence the huge organized rollout and uniformity of the plaques across CT and the rather formulaic telling of events. The new plaque is very much of these times; it tells the same story as the Bicentennial plaque, with some additions, but from a darker perspective, with not a little guilt and a lot of identity politics, both of which are characteristic of 2021 but would have puzzled Westporters in 1975. Heaven knows what future generations will make of that, but they’ll be sure to have their own perspective.

    • Bill Strittmatter

      Hi Chris. You’ve probably have seen this by now but interesting perspective on the current “culture wars”.

      https://jabberwocking.com/if-you-hate-the-culture-wars-blame-liberals/

      As for the new plaques, no question are more informative than the prior ones however it seems reasonably likely that there was selection bias in the added information reflecting current cultural hot buttons as there is certainly other historical information, or context, that could have been added. Perhaps that is a good thing given how those issues have been overlooked in the past but it is what it is.

      Having said that, the new plaques seem like typical Westport behavior. Low cost, non-invasive virtue signaling without actually doing anything substantive. Just like “hate has no home here” signs but you can’t go to the beaches or actually live here due to artificial economic barriers that have been erected to keep most people of color out. Little interest in dismantling those or the town might become Norwalk or, gasp, Bridgeport.

  21. It wasn’t “offensive,” it was intentionally wrong and has been corrected. We should display the old one next to the new one to show the white washing of history and how it’s being gradually corrected.

  22. Bill Strittmatter

    By the way, here is an idea of what Westport can consider if it actually wants to do something other than virtue signal. Track down the descendants of the individuals dispossessed of their homes in the 22 1/2 Main Street fire, offer to build (and give) them houses in Westport, provide training (if they want and if necessary) for jobs working for the town or otherwise, let their kids go to the outstanding Westport schools and jumpstart some real diversity in Westport.

    Sure, it might cost some money, but money is one of the things at least a good number of Westporters have (I’m sure a progressive taxation system could be developed to not disadvantage the less well off members of the community). And Westport certainly already owns enough property where housing could be built. Winslow Park, for example, unless a dog toilet is more important than, you know, doing something. Or swap that property for lots around town (and drop zoning to quarter acre on those lots) if you want to avoid the appearance of creating a ghetto.

    Let’s go, RTM. You can do it.

  23. Jeez Bill, I can just see the Gelato being spit up around town with that suggestion. Bravo!

  24. Deborah Silton

    OMG get over it. Are you guys such cranky relics that you have nothing better to do than complain about an beautifully updated plaque with all the same info ++? Maybe you can find someone to tote the old one around dropping it off in your backyards so you each can gaze for a bit. Put it on the road! Honestly, move on.

    • Ms. Silton,

      The concern over this unilateral decision, that was made behind closed doors without any open or transparent community discussion or knowledge, to take down Westport’s historic Bicentennial Plaque – one of a series of 169 such unique plaques erected across the entire state to celebrate and commemorate the Bicentennial is a legitimate concern.

      I was in Waterford just yesterday afternoon for a work mtg. Guess what I saw as I drove into their Town? Yep, Waterford’s Bicentennial Plaque. Installed in 1975 as part of the same project, it contains the exact same poles and design. So we know this statewide rollout took at least 5 years (1975-1980) to finalize and complete. But complete it the state did.

      I have already made clear that I welcome the new plaque and everything it is attempting to achieve. But, ironically, the creators of the new plaque, inadvertently, are defeating their own purpose by simultaneously removing the Bicentennial Plaque instead of displaying the two plaques side by side. By so doing they are at risk of repeating exactly what they seek to condemn – this time the erasure of the memory of Westport and CT’s effort to celebrate the historic moment that was the Bicentennial.

      That risk of repeating what they seek to condemn is now further compounded by the deafening silence by the Administration, TEAM Westport and the Westport Historical Society in not stepping forward and offering any comment or explanation as to why they apparently have ignored the very ideals behind the new plaque by not maintaining the Bicentennial Plaque as well.

      Mr. Marpe, Mr. Bailey, Ms. Ganeshram please tell us why you three decided – evidently on your own volition – to remove the Town’s Bicentennial Plaque – and, in the doing, sought to erase the historical memory of Westport’s celebration of the Bicentennial?

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