People who live in glass houses — or those built by slave owners — should not throw stones.
Fred Cantor is a longtime Westporter. and a Staples High School Class of 1971 graduate. Passionate about local history, he co-curated a 2017 exhibit — “The High School That Rocked!” at the then-Westport Historical Society.
Having read the complete letter submitted by the Westport Museum for History and Culture, I think its critique of the River of Names mural has gone too far.
Quite frankly, it seems that the Museum has failed in a material way to practice what it preaches.
The inconsistency seems to be blatant with the way the WMHC criticizes the omission of information about Ebenezer Coley on the tile wall — which clearly was never meant to be a comprehensive history of Westport — and then the way the Museum omits or otherwise buries the same information on its own website.
The section of the WMHC letter to the Westport Library re Ebenezer Coley states:
With respect to the tile #7 (Curran) 1705 — Tidal mill for emerging West Indies trade; 1775 — Coley Store; Tile #13 (Curran) 1790 E. (Ebenezer) Jesup Builds Wharf on Saugatuck’s east Bank; Tile # 10 (Curran) 1775 E. (Ebenezer) Coley builds saltbox home, shop and wharf. The West Indies trade specifically refers to the Transatlantic Slave Trade in which local farmers and millers produced goods to sell to West Indian slave plantations. These plantations provided the greatest source of income for men like Coley and Jesup — who were among those who owned the greatest number of enslaved people in the town.
The WMHC’s headquarters — the Bradley-Wheeler house — happens to have been built by Ebenezer Coley. But visitors to the Museum’s website would have no clue of that unless they clicked through a number of links.
The primary “About WM link” on the WMHC site offers only the following background information on the Bradley-Wheeler House
The FAQ link on the site states simply: “Our headquarters building was originally a 5-bay Colonial House built around 1795.” Two more sentences follow re the structure (with no mention of Ebenezer Coley).
Visitors to the WMHC site will only become aware of the Coley family connection to the Museum headquarters and the Coley family’s involvement in slavery if they manage to reach the “Westport Driving Tour” portion of the site, and then click on the icons for the Bradley-Wheeler House and Coley’s Saugatuck Store.
Even then, there is still not all of the information the WMHC criticized the River of Names mural for omitting — most notably that “These plantations provided the greatest source of income for men like Coley and Jesup — who were among those who owned the greatest number of enslaved people in the town.”
It strikes me as very harsh to criticize the River of Names mural — which again, was never meant to be a comprehensive history of Westport — for failing to include all of the Coley family background when a) the WMHC website seemingly fails to do so as well and b) the family background that is included is almost treated like disclosures that are buried in small print in certain ads we are all familiar with.
I wrote 2 emails in the past 2 days to Museum executive cirector Ramin Ganeshram. One stated in part: “Why not disclose up front in the ‘About WM’ section — where you have a write-up about the Bradley-Wheeler House — the fact that the WMHC’s headquarters have such a close connection to the history of slavery in America? Wouldn’t such a disclosure be precisely in sync with the mission statement the WMHC emphasizes on its home page?”
I have so far failed to receive an answer.
It’s possible too that the Westport Library might not exactly practice what it preaches here.
As noted in the Westport Museum for History and Culture letter excerpt cited above, “among those who owned the greatest number of enslaved people” in Westport and whose trade with “West Indian slave plantations…provided the greatest source of income” for those prominent Westporters way back in the day was Ebenezer Jesup.
He was the grandfather of Morris K. Jesup, who was primarily responsible for the building of the first Westport Library.
So…Morris started a bank in his early 20s (which means he may well have gotten his business up and running with the help of family money made via trade with slave plantations and slave ownership).
Morris was indeed a great philanthropist during his lifetime including having donated money to the Tuskegee Institute. Having said that, did he get his start through tainted money, which ultimately helped the Westport Library have its first building?
Did the Westport Library ever look into this?
The History link on the Westport Library website has a picture of Morris K. Jesup and describes his role in the creation of the first Westport Library. (There is no mention of his grandfather or his grandfather’s role in the history of slavery in Westport.)
Among his local philanthropy, Morris K. Jesup also donated his grandfather’s mansion and 8-acre property to the Saugatuck Congregational Church.
Coming back to the River of Names mural, it was obviously never intended to be a comprehensive history of Westport. The Library should either figure out a place to reinstall it at the new library space (with whatever supplemental information is deemed appropriate to update it) or find a new location for it. Under no circumstances should the Library allow the River of Names mural to be destroyed.
Uh oh. It looks like two additional Westport institutions have some soul searching to do. Nice spadework, Fred.
Agree. Since it would appear that the Grievance Museum’s headquarters was made possible by slavery, it plainly must dispose of the building. Failing that, it must immediately post signage at all points of public entry which discloses this information – together with an explanation of the Museum’s role in suppressing same.
Thank you Fred. Thank you Mary Lou and her team of dedicated volunteers who raised the funds needed at that time. And kudos to those that helped to create the River of Names.
The Museum may want to consider for their next tour of the historic graves of slaves to also include the graves of the slave owners as well.I’ve been on the tours and don’t recall slave owners mentioned.
Mr. Cantor, Thank you for your research. As an amateur genealogist, I’ve found that looking back on any family history reveals things that makes one proud and other things that are shameful. One can’t “cancel” family history. It’s the same for a community and nation. Life is lived looking forward. The River of Names represents an imperfect but well intentioned fundraising effort documenting local history. Future fundraising efforts can build upon it and reflect the changing lens through which our society views history.
I suggest the boards of the library and the Westport Museum reflect upon this uncomfortable reality, as Mr. Cantor has highlighted.
Thank you Fred for your timely research, in order to steer this conversation in the proper direction.
I agree. Thank you, Fred
Hear, hear! Thanks for your thoroughness!
This has degenerated into a petty back and forth. Whataboutism is one of the lowest forms of argument. Rather than endlessly relitigating a tile mural most never even knew existed, I’d rather the town’s historic and cultural institutions dedicate their resources to ensuring that now and in the future, our history is fairly and accurately presented, reflecting the horror and injustice of the past without focusing exclusively on them.
“…petty back and forth,” my ass, Mr. Johnson.
It’s about dozens of donors disagreeing with a small cabal of folks who think the DEI of today must include the destruction of all indications that America has not always thought DEI important; in
this case, the guilt felt by those comprising the cabal is being foisted upon those of us who put thought, loyalty and money into
memories that became a beautiful tile mosaic, and helped renovate a library for all. If you did not see the wall, that is your loss and should not be ours.
You know who didn’t take the land from the Indians or own any Slaves? Those of us who are descendants from the post WWI/WWII immigrants…
While we may never be members of fancy societies like the Mayflower Society, Descendants of the Declaration of Independence, or Daughters of the American Revolution, and perhaps our families built the railroads and worked in the factories instead of owning them, we don’t need to re-write our history decades later.
David, does patting yourself on the back for your family’s late arrival in town, and for your resulting disconnection from the older history of Westport have some value in this discussion? If so, perhaps you could clarify?
An additional, albeit minor point (although as an anal-ist, analyst, whatever) I can’t let go of, are the “inconvenient truth” that the new, improved and NOW culturally fumigated Westport library which (1) owes its origin to a captain of slavery, (2) continues to adjoin JESUP(!!!!) Green and (3) environmentalist and horror of horrors!!!! the former town dump. So!!!! It’s a triple hypocrite!!!! As the saying goes: (False) “Pride goeth before a fall.” To quote Vice President Harris: “I love the smell of sanctimony in the morning, it smells like FWEE DOM!!!”
Hi Darcy, thanks for everything you do. I just wanted you to know that all of us fellow old time Westporters are here if you need us. XOXOX!!!!
Thanks Eric! That means a lot!! xo
Darcy: my behavior is questionable? If you saw my two emails to Ramin (not to mention my emails in the past to Ramin—along with my comments on this blog), your characterizations are so over the top it is hard to know where to begin (but I will try).
You are right that I have not been inside the Museum in the recent past. I have not been inside the Museum since at least the start of the pandemic.
And that is based on the advice of my infectious diseases specialist—because I have a compromised immune system; and, when coupled with my heart disease and age, I have been advised to avoid indoor spaces (and, for example, have not been inside a supermarket since the start of the pandemic).
I do not live in Florida; my wife and I live in Westport. We rented in California during winters prior to the pandemic—going away to a warmer climate for health reasons—but have not been able to do so once we were able to get back to Westport in April 2021.
I have hardly been “targeting” your director; if you took the time to read my comments on the River of Names issue, you will see that I have indeed been critical of Bill Harmer and the Westport Library.
Also, re the way you bring race into this in questioning my criticism—it is so off base; and perhaps you missed my comment in which I talked about the lack of diversity of the Westport Library Board of Trustees, the top-level staff of the Westport Library, as well as the entire small staff of the WMHC (which, as you know, are all overwhelmingly white) and that is why I brought up that people in glass houses… in that particular comment.
Finally, re your statements about my “cruel, harassing emails sent to our museum director…(that, per your description constitute) Mansplaining and hate mail, even when accompanied by reminders that you went to Yale…” (which is so taken out of context)…,I deem this libelous and want an immediate retraction.
I also want to know if the Board of the WMHC stands behind this post by Darcy and whether any punishment of Darcy will be considered since she wrote this in her capacity as Chair.
If no retraction is coming, I will see if Dan is willing to post my emails of the past two days—along with my prior emails to Ramin to demonstrate just how outrageous your remarks are. And I will be contacting a lawyer.
I look very much forward to talking to your lawyer, Fred. I’ve got my own and this will be interesting. For now, my recommendation is to cease and desist.
Well, if it should be Josh or one of his partners, as I have conveyed to Josh I have nothing but the greatest respect for what he and his firm have achieved in the Alex Jones and Remington cases. That was indeed fabulous legal work.
But, having said that, if they saw the two emails—not to mention my past email contacts with Ramin—I would be very surprised that they would be willing to condone your description that I deem libelous and then be willing to represent the WMHC. I guess we will find out shortly.
I have to step in here to respond to your comments about Fred’s emails to Ramin. They were calm, well-researched and eminently reasonable. He asked questions about the Westport Museum for History & Culture’s lack of online information about Ebenezer Coley. He told Ramin he was giving her an opportunity to clarify the situation before commenting publicly about the fact that the Museum seemed to be doing exactly what it was accusing the Westport Library of.
His reference to Yale was this: “I support in principle what you and the WMHC seek to accomplish. One small example: as a Yale alum, I wholeheartedly supported the renaming of Calhoun College.”
I have long admired both you and Fred. You are true Westporters, and both want the best things for this town. I understand your sensitivity, as WMHC chair, to his “Opinion” piece today. But his two emails to Ramin were absolutely not “cruel” or “harassing.”
Fred claims to be a “researcher,” and you’ve allowed him to use your blog to correct an actual historian with the exact information SHE HERSELF brought to the museum programming. It’s lunacy.
I grew up here too, and so did my husband. We are so disappointed in the way both of you are sowing division and polarization in this town. It’s so sad and shameful. And you both know exactly what you’re doing.
I would hardly call some people over there historians, personally, as someone in the field. And many “amateur” researchers find the most interesting stuff.
It is interesting that you bring up Alex Jones, a conspiracy-monger and bully, on the heels of this piece. Talk about glass houses.
Have no clue who you are, Darcy Hicks, but you are so way off base in implying that Dan Woog is a bully or conspiracy monger that anything you say is suspect best and blatantly, embarrassingly ignorant at worst.
In my opinion Darcy is a prime example of a lot of what is currently wrong with our country. After reading her writing and name calling, I have to say I think its downright disgusting. The problem is people give these “pot stirrers” such as Darcy a podium and people will follow blindly. I think that is dangerous. It does seem that Westport has given this “historical society” some power either explicitly or implicitly, and it should be immediately revoked. Also, where is the First Selectwoman? Still hiding?
Couldn’t agree with you more. Darcy will do just about anything, and agree with any new lib fad thats out there, to be heard. When are her 15 minutes up?
Dan, Please publish Fred’s letters to Ramin. We all read the Historical Society’s (It will always be the Historical Society to those of us with long memories and a true appreciation of town history.) letter criticizing the River of Names. Fair is fair. Let us see what Fred wrote exactly. Especially since Darcy has seen fit to attack him over it. I have known and respected Fred for years and can’t imagine it is in any way like Darcy describes them.
Free the Fred Cantor Letters!!
John, per your request, below are the two emails I sent. The first one I emailed Monday morning at 7:22 am. I sent the second email on Tuesday morning at 7:58am.
Ramin: As I stated in my initial comment on Dan Woog’s story on the mural wall’s re-hanging: “…As for the original wall not reflecting what is deemed a more complete and inclusive history from today’s vantage point: the answer is not to destroy the original wall; it would make far more sense to supplement it.”
Having said that, I also think too little consideration is given to Dorothy Curran’s remark re the criticism that is being directed at the River of Names: “In general, these organizations noted that 84 briefly captioned images were not a comprehensive, inclusive history of Westport.”
Having now read the complete letter submitted by the Westport Museum for History and Culture, I think your critique has gone too far and, quite frankly, it seems that the WMHC has failed in a material way to practice what it preaches.
The inconsistency seems to be blatant with the way the WMHC criticizes the omission of information about Ebenezer Coley on the tile wall—which, again, was not meant to be a comprehensive history of Westport—and then the way the WMHC omits the same information on its website (where obviously the WMHC has all the space in the world to incorporate such background information).
The section of the WMHC letter re Coley is the following: “With respect to the tile #7 (Curran) 1705—Tidal mill for emerging West Indies trade; 1775—Coley Store; Tile #13 (Curran) 1790 E. (Ebenezer) Jesup Builds Wharf on Saugatuck’s east Bank; Tile # 10 (Curran) 1775 E. (Ebenezer) Coley builds saltbox home, shop and wharf. The West Indies trade specifically refers to the Transatlantic Slave Trade in which local farmers and millers produced goods to sell to West Indian slave plantations. These plantations provided the greatest source of income for men like Coley and Jesup—who were among those who owned the greatest number of enslaved people in the town.”
As I thought you knew, the Bradley-Wheeler House was built by Ebenezer Coley (per the submission made to have the structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places).
Yet, when you click on the About WM link on the WMHC site, this is the sole information about the background of the Bradley-Wheeler-House:
“Bradley-Wheeler House, the museum’s headquarters, at 25 Avery Place, Westport, Connecticut, was purchased in 1981. The house, built in 1795, was remodeled in the Italianate style in the 19th Century and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Connecticut Register of Historic Places as well as a Historic Landmark.”
Were you unaware of this connection to Ebenezer Coley? Or was the information on the submission to the National Register of Historic Places inaccurate?
I am writing to you with a cc to Dan Woog because I would like to give you an opportunity to clarify this situation before I post an extended comment about this on Dan’s site (or before Dan possibly decides to write an independent story about it).
And, just a reminder, I support in principle what you and the WMHC seek to accomplish. One small example: as a Yale alum, I wholeheartedly supported the renaming of Calhoun College.
But, in trying to correct and/or draw attention to past injustices and to establish a more comprehensive/accurate history—whether local or otherwise—I have always believed there needs to be an appropriate, common-sense perspective, period.
Thanks, Fred Cantor
Ramin: I now see that you are indeed aware of the Coley family connection to the WMHC headquarters. I only discovered that because I happened to stumble upon—buried deep within the WMHC website (and after clicking several links)—some relevant information about the Coley family in the Westport Driving Tour portion of the site.
And, even then, there is still not all of the information you criticized the River of Names mural for omitting—most notably that “These plantations provided the greatest source of income for men like Coley and Jesup—who were among those who owned the greatest number of enslaved people in the town.”
It strikes me as very harsh to criticize the River of Names mural—which, again, was never meant to be a comprehensive history of Westport—for failing to include all of the Coley family background when a) the WMHC website seemingly fails to do so as well and b) the family background that is included is almost treated like disclosures that are buried in small print in certain ads we are all familiar with.
Why not disclose up front in the About WM section—where you have a write-up about the Bradley-Wheeler House—the fact that the WMHC’s headquarters have such a close connection to the history of slavery in America? Wouldn’t such a disclosure be precisely in sync with the mission statement the WMHC emphasizes on its home page?
Thanks, Fred Cantor
Thank you Fred for releasing your emails to Ramin. As I suspected – knowing you as I do – there is nothing “cruel” or “harassing” in these emails. Nor are you guilty of “mansplaining” and they are most certainly NOT “hate mail.”
Since Darcy addressed you and made those allegations in her position as Chair of the Historical Society, I must agree with you that an apology to you is most certainly warranted here.
Ramin, this might be a good time for you to speak to this. Not only for the gross mischaracterzation of Fred’s comments by Darcy but also to the overall validity of his observations in the first place.
This back and forth is getting tiresome- and now even includes “he said/ she said” and “race” arguments.
Sadly the focus on the “River of Names” and the Westport Library has been lost and shifted to the Westport Historical Society/WMHC because they pointed out the “innocently placed misrepresentations” on the mural.
Back to basics- What was once a valuable fund raiser for OUR library (obviously created in rosier and much less contentious times) deserves to be preserved and displayed.
Where could the tiles be relocated and what explanatory material could be appended to update it- is the question to be debated and answered.
Should it be inside or outside the Westport Library or are there secondary choices in Town Hall as a civic lesson to our citizenry or one of our many schools, where students can learn the many ways history can be presented- depending on the lenses and filters used.
If what information all about the Library destroying Art is true (in the early stages of any debate one must question veracity and explore for truth) I do think it is incumbent for each Trustee to state their logic for their decision. The Director of the Library already has, for better or worse.This is a serious community discussion, one of the most important in memory for a town the prides itself on love for The Arts and as such has produced fantastic and often famous works of stage, screen, radio, canvas…and on and on.
I suppose one question for the Westport Museum chair might be how did the hardworking women at WM allow themselves to become a fig leaf for a white male’s (Bill Harmer) plan to trash the mural?
The Hypocritic Oath clearly states: “First!! Do no Harm(er)!!!”
Am I missing a humorous intent here or just a fatal flaw?
My intent humorous??? If you have to ask……my joke portfolio is located at the Westport Museum of Humor, Incontinence and Flatulence (located in the lower level restroom of the boutique upscale retail building formerly known as the Westport YMCA
What we like to think of as history is little more than a mosaic of narratives. All of these narratives capture an element of truth, but none of them are “true” in the sense of telling the whole story or the story we necessarily want to hear. However, they’re still of interest and, if told or depicted well enough, need to be preserved.
I was enthralled by our Westport mural when I first saw it and I still am. I certainly don’t want to see it removed or even amended with apologetic footnotes. We need to be cognizant of the fact that future generations will regard our contemporary moral pre-preoccupations as passe but will still be interested in our artwork if it’s good enough. And the library mural, exactly as created, certainly is.
How about the name Coley & Jesup used in town schools, parks etc?
There are still Coleys and Jesups living in town, so we’ll have to get rid of the schools and parks.
Everyone who is interested in learning about the real history of Westport, specifically the names on this comment thread (Jesup, Coley, Staples, etc) and their involvement in slavery, I invite you to come to the Museum for History and Culture! Our executive director Ramin Gameshram (an actual award winning historian and author) has gathered massive amounts of information on these topics. One of my favorite History Walks which they host is the Black History walk, which will blow your mind. It’s truly ey-opening, and not to mention empowering to have real facts! Amateur research can be fun, but the real thing is right at the museum. These days, it’s hard to find people who don’t suffer from bias – or who package research someone else has done as their own. Institutions like history museums are becoming all we’ve got. All are welcome, and we are always smiling and happy to help you find out the true answers to your questions. Have a peaceful day everyone!
Thinking this thread needs to be shut down and everyone take a deep breath or 3
Hi Darcy, I live in Cincinnati, among other things, home of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center museum. It is also considered “ground zero” for Obergefell v. Hodges (my brother in law Scott Knox worked on the legal team that prevailed in this landmark case). I will be in town early next year visiting old Westport friends and family. I will most definitely and seriously take you up on your offer to visit the reconstituted historical society. I also went to Staples with the late Doug Sheffer (you may recognize that venerable Westport family name) I hope to meet you and shake your hand. Have a blessed holiday season.
Does the Museum also address the plight of the Italian Americans Catholics many who were discriminated against by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants …or the Jews who were not embraced by many of the predominantly Christian gold coast towns and discriminated from real estate purchases or membership into local clubs. How about the Irish Immigrants who were considered, drunks and lazy and in so many cases were cast aside with signage that said “Irish need not apply”. Can we just agree that injustice and bigotry has and unfortunately continues to impact many. The River of Names was a nice and thoughtful artistic tile installation that was meant to evoke joy and not divisive rhetoric.
Thank you for pointing this last part out! It has always been a bit of contention for me over there.
Agree. This nonsense about the so-called “professional historians” at the Westport Museum is getting a bit tiresome. This is the outfit that, among many other things, thought the Raid on Danbury (April, 1777) and the Burning of Fairfield (July, 1779) actually happened on the SAME date. And it asserted as much on the town website. It actually took some doing to get that corrected.
That… just amuses me. Because as a local, I already knew that since childhood.
And in my own experience, many historical organizations have volunteers/”amateurs” doing a lot of quality work. They tend to be the lifeblood of such organizations. I myself was able to do a lot as a volunteer and intern during my undergraduate and graduate studies (in history and archives).
Maybe Remington Arms might want to consider an honorarium to the culture museum. In honor of the many Westporters who gave their lives in the cause of liberating the world from Nazi oppression. More than a few of them used weapons made locally by Remington, Winchester and other “factories of death.” The Honor Roll of Westporters killed defending freedom from Nazi oppression is just a stone’s throw over the back fence from the culture museum. It could be easily worked into the newly reconstituted museum’s apology tour.