Friday Flashback #337

Adam Stolpen moved to Westport with his parents in 1958, and has lived here on and off since then.

As he heard stories of impressive men and women during February’s Black History Month, he remembered Ernestine White. She is not a famous name — but she made an impact he has never forgotten.

Adam writes:

When I started 7th grade at Bedford Junior High on Riverside Avenue in 1959 we had most of our academic classes in the “new” building, which exists today as Saugatuck Elementary.

Our enrichment classes (such as mechanical drawing, metalwork and shop for the boys) were held in the adjacent old Stapes High School building, regrettably torn down and now replaced by an auditorium. Music classes were on the top floor of the Staples building, tucked under the rafters.

The original Staples High School. When it became part of Bedford Junior High in 1958, music classes were taught there.

Chorus was taught by Mrs. Ernestine White. She was the best teacher I have ever had and was, I believe, the only Black teacher in the school at that time.

She was tall, elegant and definitely the kindest, most caring and compassionate teacher I had in all my schooling. Her skill as an educator who somehow magically coaxed actual choral music out of rambunctious pre-teens was only surpassed by the self-awareness, respect and deference she awoke in her classes.

You had to earn her accolades, and you definitely had to deserve one of her hugs. It was a singular privilege to have been in her classes.

In May 1960 I was being Bar Mitzvah. My parents asked me to choose who I wanted to invite to my party, which would take place at our home. My request to invite one of my teachers who they had never met surprised them, but they offered no resistance.

I took the invitation to Mrs. White in school. The following day she asked me to stay after class. She said she would not be able to come, as Mr. White was still living in Washington for work.

She said it would not be appropriate to come alone. I asked if she had any other family around. She said her sister-in-law was in the area, so I invited her also.

Ernestine White, from the 1959 Staples yearbook. In addition to Bedford Junior High, she also taught at the high school.

Weeks later when I had my ceremony, Mrs. White and her sister-in-law listened as I sang my portions of the Torah. Immediately after my grandmother. there was my teacher to give me a big hug and congratulate me on my singing. It felt good; I knew I’d earned it.

At the party that afternoon, there were reactions I remember to this day. Eisenhower was president. The Civil Rights Act had not been passed; Dixiecrats controlled federal legislation, and it was only 5 years since Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat, and Emmett Till was murdered.

When my favorite teacher and her sister-in-law walked into the party, the room fell silent. My mother immediately walked over to the 2 ladies, who were clearly uncomfortable. My mother said how pleased she was to have them there, and ushered them over to the chair right next to my grandmother: the best seat in the house.

The room divided. I heard someone tell my mother that she wouldn’t stay at a party with a person of color. My mother replied that it was a shame she would be leaving, but Mrs. White was our guest too. It mattered to us that she felt welcomed.

It’s interesting that those who were nicest to Mrs. White turned out in later years to be those people I remained closest to, while those who scorned her were those I subsequently found reasons to avoid.

The party was wonderful, but I find that what I recall most vividly from that day was my teacher’s smile while sitting alongside my grandmother, both kibitzing away and as happy as if they were old friends.

I’m sure I was not the only student this marvelous woman encouraged in a positive way. I’ve often wondered what her career was like in the years after I left Bedford. She is an important part of Westport’s Black history.

Adam adds one final note:

By Monday morning word had spread at school that a teacher had attended a party. That day, in the crowded hallway passing between classes, and for the first and only time in my life, I faced prejudice.

Someone loudly yelled, “Adam Stolpen is a kike.” I never knew for certain who it was, and it never happened to me again, anywhere else.

But for that moment I experienced — in my safe place — what Mrs. White had to face daily in society.

20 responses to “Friday Flashback #337

  1. Is this a story of how we’ve come, or how far we have yet to go?

  2. Ernestine White was one of my teachers as well. She was inspiring, warm, professional and one of the more empathetic teachers during my formative years in Westport. Adam, you done good. Praise was infrequent and well-deserved. Clearly you scored with her.

  3. Adam, thank you for a beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul.

  4. Dorrie Barlow Thomas

    What a great piece! Nicely crafted, Adam…and such a full and loving remembrance. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. What a beautiful story!

  6. What a terrific tribute to such an influential teacher.

  7. What a wonderful story. So happy you shared it with all of us.

  8. Gloria Gouveia

    Dear Adam,

    Your remembrance is as special as it it is beautifully penned. You are proof that good apples don’t fall far from the tree.

  9. Thank you for that story and rekindling my memory of Mrs. White. I too had Mrs. White in 1964-65 in seventh grade in the old Staples building that was still a part of Bedford Junior High then. The funny thing is that I obviously knew that Mrs. White was black, but I don’t remember that being in any way important. She was just a lovely, supportive music teacher and even gave me the courage to stand up in front of the class and sing a solo (while being accompanied on piano by another student). I think we performed “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins.

  10. Bobbi Essagof

    Wow. That was incredible. Just what we all need to know about. How can we find more Mrs. White’s and more Adam’s. You made my day!

  11. Wonderful story … made my day! Thank you, Adam. Mary Condon, Southport

  12. At Burr Farms School, Matt Rudd was the librarian and only Black presence at the school–either among students or faculty. He would have been the first Black person I ever interacted with. I was too young to have even given it a second thought–he was just a wonderful person.

    I remember having lost a library book, which my parents had me pay for from my allowance. It turned out it was mired in the seat of my father’s Nash Rambler. A bit later he traded it in for his midlife-flinged Triumph TR-3 and the dealer eventually found the book and returned it to the library. Never got my money back.

  13. Interesting. I was also at BJHS in the mid 60’s. And I too had Mrs. White as a music teacher. I loved her and I wasn’t aware of anyone who didn’t. Never even thought about her being black. In fact as I recall in all my years in the Westport school system (k-12) we were all pretty much color blind.

  14. Glen M Cummings

    Adam – thanks so much for your beautiful story and the photos too! There is not too much that I could add because you covered it all so well. I too thought the world of her and like the comments of most, never thought about her color, but did always have nothing but respect and admiration for her.

  15. Cathy Smith Barnett BJHS class of '63

    Mrs White was a class act! I will never forget the day I stayed after school just to ask Mrs White if I could join the 8th grade chorus. I was terrified to approach her and got up the nerve to talk to her alone. The moment came and she looked up from her desk and beamed a great big smile “Of course you may!”she said to me. No teacher at BJHS ever made me feel this special. From that moment on I treasured Mrs White!

  16. Heartwarming story. It also says something special about the Westport school system for hiring this wonderful woman in the bad old days. Thank you Adam.

  17. Linda Pomerantz Novis

    Great stories! Reminded me of both Drs Al & Jean Beasley,during
    same turbulent 1960’s,how special they were to so many in Westport ant Weston. 🙂

  18. Thank you Adam for this wonderful story not really to long ago
    Much love Ulla Atweh

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