Category Archives: History

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.

Starring On TV: The Post Road

Alert “06880” reader David Meth sent along info about an interesting show airing tomorrow night on PBS.

“10 Streets That Changed America” looks at some very different roads, from coast to coast, and from colonial days to 2018. It “explores the ways real estate, technology, and travel alter ways we get around, and in turn, shape modern life.”

Right there — among Broadway and Wilshire Boulevard — is the Post Road.

Opened in 1673, the New York to Boston route dramatically cut the time of moving people, goods and information. 100 years later, Ben Franklin helped it become “an even more efficient, economical means of transporting ideas and publications, just in time to ferment the debate and dialogue that fed the American Revolution.”

That was then …

The show’s website promises to highlight “the importance of infrastructure, and how today’s planners are, in many ways, coming full circle in their efforts to return many of the country’s great roads to walkable, pedestrian thoroughfares.”

I guess the key word in that sentence is “many.”

Not “all.”

(“10 Streets That Changed America” airs tomorrow — Tuesday, July 10 — at 8 p.m. on Channel 13. Click here for more information.)

… this is now.

 

Image

America, America …

A Drive To Revive American Legion Post 63

Once, Westport’s August Matthias American Legion Post 63 had over 100 members.

One of America’s original posts — it was chartered in 1919, a few months after the Legion was formed in the wake of World War I — the veterans’ organization thrived after the 2nd World War.

Now, however, Westport has only a dozen or so members on its rolls. Some spend much of the year in Florida.

Many are World War II and Korean War vets. They won’t be around forever.

The good news: Bill Vornkahl — Westport’s indefatigable veterans’ advocate, and a Post 63 member since 1954 — has pledged to build the post back up.

Bill Vornkahl

The American Legion is one of 2 veterans’ organizations in Westport. Named for World War I soldier and Westport native August Matthias, it — like the rest of the Legion — is open to anyone who served in the military in the United States.

The VFW — whose Joseph J. Clinton Post 399 is also named for a Westport veteran, and unlike the American Legion has an actual physical building, on Riverside Avenue — is open to veterans who served outside the US.

For many years, Legion meetings were held at the YMCA downtown. Then Leo Nevas gave part of Birchwood Country Club property to the organization. Eventually Nevas bought back the land. The American Legion used the proceeds for scholarships.

Over the years it also sent Staples High School students to Boys and Girls State, a summer government program; sponsored youth sports teams, and contributed funds to other civic organizations.

American Legion posts around Connecticut also support Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and send students to State Police Youth Week.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Here’s hoping it’s also the beginning of the revival of American Legion August Matthias Post 63.

(To learn more about Westport’s American Legion post, or to join, call Bill Vornkahl: 203-227-3512.)

Great Scott! Annual Gatsby Day Is Proposed

On May 14, 1920, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald signed a lease to rent 244 Compo Road South.

Deej Webb — whose film and book about the famous couple’s wild time in Westport has shined a light on both their literary legacy, and our town’s Jazz Age days (naked swims at Compo Beach!) — wants to make May 14 an annual holiday.

It would be called “Great Gatsby Day.”

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Photoshopped in front of their Westport home.

The 1980 Staples High School graduate/history teacher/amateur historian is circulating a petition. Citing Westport’s influence on “The Great Gatsby” (and other Fitzgerald novels), it says:

We want to insure that the town celebrates and treasures its connection with the Fitzgeralds and the book.

Furthermore, in times of rapid change we wish to ensure that this town’s marvelous history is not lost.

Webb envisions events at the Westport Historical Society and Westport Library; a tie-in with the Longshore flapper party; a walking tour of Longshore-influenced scenes from “Gatsby” and “The Beautiful and the Damned,” and more.

He’s open to other ideas from the community too.

Maybe another naked swim at Compo?

(To view — and sign — the petition to make May 14 “Great Gatsby Day in Westport,” click here.)

Do Know Much About History

Sure, STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math — gets lots of education headlines.

But history is alive and well in Westport schools too.

Two Staples High students recently finished 8th in the nation.

Meanwhile, 4 Bedford Middle Schoolers landed in the national top 4.

Stapleites Shea Curran and Kate Enquist were students this past year in Drew Coyne’s sophomore US History Honors course. He asked his students to find a National History Day topic on the theme of conflict and compromise.

Initially, Shea admits, “Kate and I were not really looking forward to NHD. We imagined it was filled with history nerds and crazy parents.”

But as they searched for ideas, they found an article on Westport’s Nike missile sites on (ta da!) “06880.” They got hooked — and realized history can be interesting, exciting (and cool).

Nike missiles on display.

They spent months researching the topic, using old newspapers and other material — some of it previously classified. They also interviewed people who were there.

The process was not easy, Kate says. But it was rewarding.

Shea and Kate were amazed to learn that missiles were once stored on the current site of Bedford Middle School. They were stunned to discover how close the US came to nuclear war.

The project “opened our eyes to today’s society,” Shea says. “We realize the importance of civilians being able to voice their concerns, suggestions or opinions.”

During the Cold War, she notes, “if civilians did not speak up, the results of the Nike missile sites would be much different.”

Shea Curran and Kate Enquist

The entire National History Day experience has sparked Kate’s interest in government and history. She’ll volunteer in those areas this summer, and will take AP Government in the fall.

(To view Shea and Kate’s project online, click here.)

At the junior level, Bedford’s Jason Chiu-Skow, Jordan Chiu-Skow, Johann Kobelitsch and Lyah Muktavaram worked since October — during their lunches — with teacher Caroline Davis. They also spent hours together after school, and on weekend.

Their topic was “How the Treaty of Versailles Ended the Great War.” They chose it because they realized that compromise is not always fair.

The Bedford Middle School National History Day team, at the national competition.

As part of their project, the Bedford students learned how to do research, present a convincing argument, answer judges’ questions, and work as a team.

They finished 3rd in Fairfield County, then first in Connecticut, before earning 4th place at the national competition (which also included Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, Singapore, South Korea and South Asia).

The National History Day winners will be honored — and their exhibits shown — at a reception on July 14 in Connecticut’s Old Sate House.

There certainly is a lot of history there.

Jose Feliciano’s Star-Spangled Honor

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of many historic moments: the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Student revolts at Columbia University, and in France. The tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago. The election of Richard Nixon.

Less remembered, a bit less significant — but as long-lasting in its repercussions — was a rendition of the national anthem. Jose Feliciano — coming off his 1st American hit, a remake of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” — performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 5 of the World Series in Detroit.

The Puerto Rico-born guitarist — just 23 years old — infused the anthem with his trademark Latin jazz style.

No one had ever performed America’s anthem like that before. The country was used to straightforward, quick renditions of a very difficult song.

Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance was a year away. Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga — their memorable “Star-Spangled” performances, and those of so many others, were decades in the future.

All owe a debt to Jose Feliciano’s ground-breaking interpretation.

It did not go over well.

Last year — looking back at the controversy — the New York Times wrote:

Taking liberties with Jim Morrison is one thing. Taking liberties with Francis Scott Key proved more contentious.

Feliciano went on the field with his guide dog and an acoustic guitar. He was quite free with the song’s melody, giving it a slower folk tempo and adding extra syllables and different stresses. What resulted was an anthem that to today’s ears is mellow and expressive.

Many ears in 1968 heard it differently.

Boos were heard from the stands, but the real blowup came afterward.

“It was a disgrace, an insult,” a baseball fan, Arlene Raicevich of Detroit, told The Associated Press. “I’m going to write my senator about it.”

“It sounded like a hippie was singing it,” said another Detroiter, Bernie Gray.

For several years, Feliciano was blackballed. Last year, he told Deadspin:

Some people wanted me deported—as if you can be deported to Puerto Rico. All I know is, from 1968 until the 1970s, radio stations stopped playing my records. It wasn’t the fans—the fans were with me. But the program directors didn’t play my songs. I don’t think I deserved that.

He got back in America’s good graces with “Feliz Navidad” — one of the most popular Christmas tunes ever — and the theme song to “Chico and the Man.”

Now — finally — the longtime Weston resident gets his historical due.

This Thursday (June 14), Feliciano will be featured at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s annual naturalization and donation ceremony.

Roger Kaufman — a 1966 Staples High School graduate, Westonite and fellow musician, who helped arrange the event — says that the Smithsonian celebrates creative, open-minded, groundbreaking musicians who have become part of American history.

Friday is, of course, Flag Day. The ceremony takes place in Flag Hall — where the original banner that inspired Francis Scott Key’s 1814 song proudly hangs.

Just as proudly, Feliciano will deliver a keynote address. He’ll donate artifacts — including his custom 1967 guitar — to the national collection.

And then he will sing — as only he can — our national anthem.

BONUS FEATURE 1: Click here for a New York Times retrospective of Jose Feliciano’s World Series controversy. Click here for Marvin Gaye’s national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game. Click here for Whitney Houston’s rendition at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. Click here to hear Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969.

BONUS FEATURE 2: In 2010 — 42 years after Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell invited Jose Feliciano to perform the national anthem — the now-legendary musician returned to Detroit, in a tribute to Harwell who had died a few days earlier. One of the sportscaster’s last wishes was to have Feliciano sing again.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Photographs Westport Protest

Tyler Hicks — the globe-trotting, Pulitzer Prize-and-many-other-honors-winning New York Times photographer — was in his hometown of Westport today.

If there’s a newsworthy event, he finds it.

Several dozen people — including Congressman Jim Himes and State Senate candidate Will Haskell — stood on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge downtown.

They held signs deploring the separation of children from families at the US border; the detention centers those young kids are placed in, and the government’s refusal to let even a US senator investigate conditions.

(Photo/Tyler Hicks)

From his current home in Nairobi, Tylel Hicks roams far and wide. He covers deadly conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Russia, Bosnia, the Mideast, Chechnya and across Africa.

In 2011, he and fellow Westport Pulitzer Prize winner Lynsey Addario were kidnapped in Libya.

This protest was quieter than those he usually sees.

But the cause — the treatment of human beings — is as important as anything else Tyler shoots. As Rep. Himes said: “This is not a political issue. It’s a moral issue.”

So — as he always is — Tyler Hicks was there.

Tyler Hicks’ sister Darcy turned the tables, and photographed the photographer as he photographed the protest. (Photo/Darcy Hicks)

“King In The Wilderness” Comes Home

It’s been 50 years since Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis. He was just 39 years old.

King was part of a generation of courageous, determined and energetic civil rights leaders. Some are gone. Others are alive — and still fighting for social justice.

But they’re in their 70s, 80s and 90s. They won’t be here forever. It’s fallen to a new generation to pass along their stories — and keep their hopes and dreams alive.

Trey Ellis is one of those storytellers. The Westporter is a leading voice of the African American experience.

Trey Ellis

He’s written movies, books, TV shows and a play about the Tuskegee Airmen. He’s been a political pundit, social critic and Huffington Post contributor; won a Peabody and been nominated for an Emmy.

He teaches at Columbia University, was a non-resident fellow at Harvard, and taught or lectured at Yale, NYU, and in Brazil and France.

But his most recent project was extra-special. He served as executive producer for “King in the Wilderness.” The 2-hour documentary showed a side of the civil rights icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner that’s seldom discussed today: a conflicted leader who at the time of his death was assailed by critics on both the left and right.

Ellis spent a year crisscrossing the country, interviewing 17 men and women who lived, breathed and molded the civil rights movement.

John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman, Joan Baez — all spoke with candor and insight about Martin Luther King. Ellis also interviewed unsung heroes of the movement, like Diane Nash.

This Wednesday (June 13, 7 p.m., Bowtie Cinema, 542 Westport Avenue, Norwalk), the Westport Library and TEAM Westport host a free screening of the film. It premiered in January at Sundance, then was shown at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and New York’s Riverside Church, before airing on HBO in April.

Making the film was “the experience of a lifetime,” Ellis says. He held intimate conversations with men and women who shaped our nation’s history. He worked with rare archival footage, some of it never before seen by the public.

He helped bring nuance — and human frailty — to a man who has become shrouded in myth.

In the final years of his life, which the documentary focuses on, King was “more radical, and more disregarded” than most of us remember, or realize, says Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times and NPR.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow notes, “I consider myself kind of a King fanatic, King-ophile … And I was just shocked by  how much I leaned, how much new footage I had never seen.”

Wednesday’s Bowtie screening will be followed by a Q-and-A with Ellis.

The executive producer is proud of his film. And — because he’s a professor too — he’s eager to put his work in a larger context.

“With the state of the nation so fractured,” Ellis says, “‘King in the Wilderness’ seems ripped from today’s headlines.”

(The June 13 screening of “King in the Wilderness” is free. However, pre-registration is required. Click here for a free ticket; click here for more information.)

Jim Crow And Compo

With the hubbub of a holiday weekend, you may have missed  the NewYork Times opinion piece, “The North’s Jim Crow.”

It’s by Andrew W. Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia. He recently wrote a book about Ned Coll, the 1960s and ’70s activist who sought access to Connecticut’s shoreline for all.

Citing 2 recent examples — the Starbucks manager who called the police when 2 black men asked to use the restroom while waiting for a friend, and the woman who called police to report a black family grilling at a picnic — Kahrl says that “the selective enforcement of minor ordinances … performs the same work today that segregation laws did in the past.”

Take public beaches, for example. He notes that while Southern officials “literally drew color lines in the sands,” towns in the Northeast “devised elaborate, and ostensibly colorblind, procedures for determining who could access public shores, and what they could bring and do inside, and then proceeded to enforce them for black and brown people only.”

In 1975, members of Ned Coll’s Revitalization Corps demonstrated in Old Saybrook, for access to the beach. (Photo courtesy of Bob Adelman)

Kahrl zeroes in on “wealthy, all-white towns along the Connecticut Gold Coast, where blacks were effectively excluded from living by racist housing policies.”

He says, “While nearby urban black populations swelled and the demand for access to public places of recreation spiked, towns like Greenwich, Westport and Fairfield restricted their beaches to residents. It was obvious whom these laws were meant to exclude.”

This winter — in response to last summer’s crowds, who came from throughout Connecticut and nearby New York, and sometimes filled the parking lot to capacity — Westport restricted the number of daily passes (sold to anyone without a season sticker).

Yet I don’t know that Westport ever “restricted (our) beaches to residents.” That’s a pretty strong charge for Professor Kahrl to make, and for the New York Times to print.

If any “06880” readers have recollections of Westport’s beach policies in the 1960s and ’70s, click “Comments” below.

(For the full New York Times opinion piece, click hereHat tip: Fred Cantor)