Category Archives: Downtown

Historical Society Shines A Light On Westport’s Troubled Past

Iron shackles. Burned timbers. “Negro child.”

They’re not the usual things you see at the Westport Historical Society.

But this is not the usual WHS exhibit.

Slave shackles, on exhibit at the Westport Historical Society.

“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opened in May. It’s one of the most creative and compelling shows ever mounted at Wheeler House. (Which, the exhibit notes, sits across Avery Place from a building that may have been built by slaves.)

It’s also one of the most important.

I attended the opening reception. It was packed. I talked with people who recalled some of the important events, like Martin Luther King’s visit to Temple Israel, and the fight over bringing Bridgeport students to Westport through Project Concern.

But it was too crowded to really see the artifacts and photos, or read the texts.

So the other day I returned. The Sheffer Gallery was quiet. I had time to study the exhibit.

And to think.

I learned a lot. I’m a Westport native and lifelong New Englander. But I never knew, for example, that slavery was not fully abolished in Connecticut until 1848. (The decades-long process spared white farmers the loss of free labor while they were still alive.)

Some of Westport’s biggest names — Coley, Nash, Jesup — were slave-owners. The property deeds — as in, these human beings were their property — are right there, for all to see.

A 1780 payment voucher for a black patriot soldier who bought his freedom, and immediately enlisted.

We see too a recreated hearth, from a Clapboard Hill home. It’s cramped and dark — and it’s where a young slave girl might have slept.

The reconstruction of sleeping quarters in a crawl space, from a Clapboard Hill Road home.

I did not know that black Westporters fought for the Union in the  Civil War. Nor did I know that an unknown number of slaves are buried in unmarked graves in Greens Farms Church’s lower cemetery.

I did know — on some level — that African Americans have a long history here. But I had not thought about what it meant for them to work on our docks, in our homes, or at our farms.

Black Westporters were domestics, chauffeurs and seamstresses. But they were also, the exhibit notes, teachers, artists, physicians, activists and freedom fighters.

The exhibit includes a 1920s painting by J. Clinton Shepherd, “The Waffle Shoppe.” It may well be based on an actual restaurant on Main Street.

In the 1920s and ’30s, the Great Migration drew millions of African Americans north. Westport — offering work on farms and estates — was one destination. Black families lived on the Post Road, Bay Street — and 22 1/2 Main Street.

I have known for years that that address — set back in an alley that later became Bobby Q’s restaurant — was the site of a boardinghouse, where dozens of African Americans lived.

I knew that in 1950, it burned to the ground. Arson was suspected.

Photos and text about 22 1/2 Main Street.

But until the WHS exhibit, I did not know that a few months earlier, black Westporters had asked to be considered for spots at Hales Court, where low-cost homes were soon to be built. The Westport Housing Authority grudgingly agreed — but only after veterans, and others “with more pressing needs,” were accommodated.

Was that a cause for the fire? The exhibit strongly suggests so.

(Nearly 70 years later, construction at the old Bobby Q’s has revealed charred timbers — vivid testimony of that long-ago tragedy. It’s worth a look.)

I have long been fascinated by this photo, of one African American standing apart from everyone else in the Shercrow School photo. The WHS exhibit gives her a name — Anna Simms — and notes that she may have been a student or teacher.

The exhibit pays homage to African Americans like Drs. Albert and Jean Beasley, beloved pediatricians; Martin and Judy Hamer, and Leroy and Venora Ellis, longtime civic volunteers, and educator Cliff Barton.

It also cites the contributions of white Westporters like Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (arrested with Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida); Board of Education chair Joan Schine, who fought for Project Concern, and artists Tracy Sugarman and Roe Halper, staunch supporters of the civil rights movement.

Roe Halper presents woodcuts to Coretta Scott King. The civil rights leader’s wife autographed this photo. The artwork was displayed in the Kings’ Atlanta home for many years.

But ultimately, “Remembered” remembers the largely forgotten men, women and children who helped shape and grow our town. Some came freely. Others did not. All were, in some way, Westporters.

In the foyer outside the exhibit, a stark wall serves as a final reminder of the African Americans who lived quietly here, long ago.

It lists the 241 slaves, and 19 free blacks, found in the Green’s Farms Congregational Church record books between 1742 and 1822. Most were listed only by first names: Fortune. Quash. Samson.

Some had no names at all. They are called only “Negro Child,” or “Negro Infant.”

The wall does not carry the names of all the white people listed in the church books during those 80 years. Many are well known to us, centuries later.

And most of them, the exhibit notes, owned the men, women and children who are now honored on that wall.

(For more information on “Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport,” click here. The Westport Historical Society, at 25 Avery Place, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors. Members and children 10 and under are free.)

(WHS is also memorializing the names of over 200 Westport slaves, through bricks in the brickwalk. The $20 cost covers the brick and installation. To order, click here.)

In 1964, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the 5th anniversary of the dedication of Temple Israel. He autographed this program.

Abstract Irony

Alert “06880” reader — and ace photographer — JP Vellotti sent me this shot, from the weekend’s Fine Arts Festival. He calls it “Abstract Irony.”

(Photo/JP Vellotti)

It took me a few seconds to figure out why he gave it that title.

When I realized the reason, it fit perfectly.

If you catch the irony in JP’s image, click “Comments” below.

Meanwhile, kudos to the Westport Downtown Merchants Association for this year’s 45th annual event.

Over 180 exhibitors in charcoal, watercolor, pastel, pencil, ink, photography, digital art, sculpture, printmaking, mixed media, glass, ceramics, jewelry and wood filled Main Street, Elm Street and Church Lane.

Live music, special performances, children’s activities, food and non-profit groups’ exhibits added to the flair.

Around the corner, the Westport Library‘s annual book sale drew plenty of bargain hunters (some of whom were also paying serious prices for art).

The book (and CD) (and DVD) (and more) sale continues tomorrow (Monday, July 16, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., half price day) and Tuesday (9 a.m. to 1 p.m., everything free but contributions gladly accepted).

It was a great weekend to be downtown.

And I say that without any irony whatsoever.

Friday Flashback #99

At first glance, this photo looks unremarkable.

Fred Cantor took it in 1977, he thinks — during the Great Race. That was the fun, funny and often alcohol-infused event in which people dressed in costumes, created their own vessels, ran from Taylor Place to the river, jumped in their watercraft, raced out to Cockenoe Island, filled a bag with garbage (the cheaters already carried pre-packed trash), then rowed or sailed or whatever-ed back to shore.

Meanwhile, Main Street merchants held sales. This was the scene outside Remarkable Book Shop. The stalls were always outside, but on this day they attracted huge crowds.

(Photo/Fred Cantor)

The Great Race is (regrettably) long gone. But this weekend the Fine Arts Festival returns to Main Street. It’s a great show.

Unfortunately, few Remarkable-type stores anymore offer something else to all those art-lovers (though Savvy + Grace is worth a trip from anywhere).

Also this weekend, the Westport Library hosts its 26th annual Book Sale. Those squintillions of volumes make this Remarkable scene look, well, unremarkable. But whenever and wherever people buy books, it’s a good thing.

Finally, this Friday Flashback raises the question: Now that Remarkable Book Shop is gone — and Talbots too is a long-ago memory too — will anything ever take their place?

Pic Of The Day #451

A street musician, 2 art gallery receptions, a sidewalk jewelry sale, artisinal honey, comfy chairs and perfect weather — Church Lane was the place to be tonight. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Westport’s Watery, Wondrous Bohemia

Westporters are used to seeing our town pop up in stories about things to do and see in the tri-state area.

But WCVB-TV — a Boston station whose viewers usually head to places like Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Lake Winnipesaukee — featured us in its recent “A Tank Away” series on cool spots to see.

Like a teenager, we’re always concerned with what other people think of us. Here’s how we look on Boston TV.

Westport, it seems, is a place with “celebrity status, elegant neighborhoods and an expensive [or ‘expansive’] public beach, the arts, and an immaculately groomed town center lined with restaurants and shops.”

Our “immaculately groomed town center.”

Our history is “very bohemian,” says interviewee (and Westport Historical Society director) Ramin Ganeshram.

Compo Beach and marina are a 29-acre “park.” Historical properties are “a-plenty.” The Historical Society itself is “a gathering place for the public.”

The Westport Country Playhouse gets a shout-out. So does Earthplace (with a tangent about chinchillas) and DownUnder (especially its “Paddle With Your Dog” program).

“Nature has a starring role” in Westport, Bostonians learn.

And — oh yes — we have “watery wonders.”

You can catch the entire 5 minute-plus feature on WCVB’s website.

Where the subhead is: “Paul Newman was a fan – how much more motivation do we need. We’re off to Westport, Connecticut, a mix of beach town and bohemia that’s worth a trip.”

WCVB’s perky anchors tell Boston viewers to “head west on I-84 for the shores of Connecticut.” At some point they’ll have to head south, too.

(Hat tip: Bob Mitchell)

Pic Of The Day #447

Full house at the Levitt Pavilion (Drone photo/Dave Curtis, HDFA Photography.com)

Remembering Barbara Van Orden

Many Westporters may not recognize the name Barbara Van Orden.

But without her, the Westport Historical Society might not be what — or where — it is today.

Barbara Van Orden

Barbara — who died on Sunday, age 88 — was a museum docent in several places where she and her husband Paul lived. After moving to Westport in 1977, she spent 26 years as a very knowledgeable and much-loved docent at the Yale Art Gallery.

She was also active in the Westport Garden Club and Saugatuck Congregational Church. But it was at the Historical Society that she made her most impressive local mark.

Barbara worked with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to raise money to purchase Wheeler House, the handsome 1795 home in the heart of downtown.

Then, attending countless auctions, she led the drive to furnish the period parlor, kitchen and bedroom, to look as they did in 1865-70 when Morris and Mary Bradley lived there.

She was also the longtime head of WHS volunteers and collections.

Thanks in large part to Barbara’s untiring, loving work, the Westport Historical Society moved — literally as well as figuratively — into the modern era, while honoring the town’s rich heritage.

Thanks in large part to Barbara Van Orden, the Westport Historical Society owns this handsome home on Avery Place.

Barbara was born in Ohio, and graduated from Bowling Green State University. In addition to history and art, she loved traveling, gardening and her summer home on Nantucket.

Her family says, “throughout her life, Barbara provided a constant example of the value of personal strength, discipline and perseverance, even in the face of challenges. Her daughters and grandchildren have inherited her tenacity, openness to new ideas, a keen perspective on what is really important, and an appreciation for all the good things life has to offer.

She is survived by her husband of 67 years, Paul; her daughters Sharon Alexander and Lisa Berger, 4 grandchildren and 1 nephew.

A funeral service is set for this Sunday (July 8, 1 p.m., Saugatuck Congregational Church), followed by a reception at the church.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Westport Historical Society, Westport Garden Club or Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Pic Of The Day #438

 

Reading on the Library Riverwalk (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Pic Of The Day #435

The beautiful Levitt Pavilion Riverwalk — trashed, because someone just had to be a jerk (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

Last Call For The ‘Port

The ‘Port — the casual family restaurant that opened in National Hall 13 months ago — serves its last meals and drinks this Saturday.

Owner Sal Augeri told his staff of the closing this afternoon.

Augeri told “06880””

It’s been an amazing year. I’ve had the privilege to meet and get to know so many wonderful people in our community.

We tried our best to bring something special to the community. We knew it was a challenging business in a competitive market, and it was difficult to maintain as an independent business.

The idea of opening The ‘Port was to create a comfortable space for families to gather and celebrate good times. I am thrilled we accomplished that. We loved hosting everyone from local teams for victory dinners, to Staples Players, to Catch a Lift, to giving local musicians a place to showcase their talents.

It was also wonderful to be able to give so many teenagers and young people an opportunity to work at The ‘Port.

So many people who have been a part of this have been so supportive, including all our local investors, and the friends and families who became our regulars. We appreciate everyone who filled this past year with great memories. We look forward to seeing these new friends around town.

The ‘Port occupied the site of the former Vespa. Before that, it was Cafe Zanghi,

It’s an excellent space, with views of the Saugatuck River and a nice patio. Nearby parking — shared with Bartaco and now OKO — is tight, though a multi-level garage sits across Wilton Road.

The ‘Port filled an important niche. But in today’s tough restaurant business, in the end it wasn’t enough.

There is no word on what may replace The ‘Port. An everything-must-go auction is set for Monday (July 2, 9 a.m.).

Meanwhile, we’ve still got 4 days to enjoy this true Westport restaurant.