Tag Archives: 22 1/2 Main Street

Westport’s African American History: Long Overlooked, At Last Remembered

The history of Westport was written by white men and women. This was — and continues to be — a predominantly white town.

But African Americans have a long history here.

From 1742 to 1822 the logbook of Greens Farms Congregational Church recorded the births, deaths, marriages and baptisms of nearly 300 black Westporters.

More than 240 were slaves. Their forced labor helped build our town’s prosperous farms and shipping businesses.

They fought in the Revolutionary War — on both sides. Some hoped for freedom in return for their service. Others departed with the British at war’s end.

Connecticut struggled with its place in the slave trade. It banned the importation of enslaved people, and very gradually — from 1784 to 1848 — abolished slavery.

Newly freed African Americans searched for a place in the community. Henry Munro — the first black landholder in Westport — built a house on Cross Highway in 1806. His family lived there for nearly 100 years — and the dwelling still stands.

The Munro house at 108 Cross Highway, today.

Others found work only a step above what they endured as slaves. They were laborers, domestic servants and farmhands. Some suffered from assault, false imprisonment, arson and murder.

But they persevered. They became educators, freedom fighters, artists, patriots and respected citizens.

Their stories are not well known. Later this month, the Westport Historical Society finally shines a light on the lives and contributions of these overlooked Westporters.

“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opens May 11. It’s an opportunity to rectify the myths about our town, state and New England, says WHS executive director Ramin Ganeshram. She hopes visitors will leave enlightened, and eager to learn more.

The interactive exhibit — created by Broadway set designer Jordan Janota — includes objects and artifacts from the 1700s through the civil rights era. There are slave documents; details about 22 1/2 Main Street, the alley boardinghouse for black families that mysteriously burned to the ground around 1950; material relating to Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1964 visit to Westport, and original artwork by Tracy Sugarman, an important figure during the Freedom Summer.

This newspaper clipping from 1964 — part of the Westport Historical Society exhibit — shows Rev. Martin Luther King at Temple Israel. He’s flanked by Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (left) and congregation president Dan Rodgers.

TEAM Westport — the town’s multicultural commission — partnered with WHS throughout the research, planning and installation of the exhibit.

“The generally accepted narrative is that the history and legacy of African Americans in Westport span the range of little to none,” says TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey.

“This exhibit turns that narrative on its head. For the town of Westport, it adds profound dimensions to where we’ve been, who we are, and where we can go in the future.”

A corollary exhibit — entitled “Rights for All?” — explores the effect of Connecticut’s 1818 constitution on emancipation, enfranchisement and civil liberties.

Judson’s store stood near today’s Beachside Avenue. This 1801 ledger entry — part of the WHS exhibit — gives credit to a free African American man. Many African Americans in the area were still slaves.

National attention has focused recently on important new institutions, like the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the just-opened memorial in Montgomery, Alabama dedicated to thousands of lynching victims.

Soon — in our own way — Westport joins those efforts. It’s an exhibit that everyone in town should  — no, must — see.

(“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opens with a free reception on Friday, May 11, from 5 to 7 p.m.)

Downtown Fire Disaster Averted

Quick work by the Westport Fire Department — with help from Wilton and Norwalk — averted a major disaster last night.

Flames poured from rooftop HVAC equipment atop the building housing Starbucks and HSBC Bank (the original Westport Library), on the Post Road  between Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza.

The Post Road was closed while firefighters battled the blaze, reported shortly after 10 p.m. Damage was limited to the roof.

Many units responded to last night's fire at Starbucks and HSBC Bank. (Photo/Westport Fire Department)

Many units responded to last night’s fire at Starbucks and HSBC Bank. (Photo/Westport Fire Department)

Downtown has been the scene of several major fires — to a furniture store, the Townly restaurant and Sconset Square — though none in recent decades.

Main Street was also the scene of a fire in 1950 that wiped out housing where a number of black men and women, who worked in Westport homes and businesses — lived. That area is now Bobby Q’s restaurant. Click here for that fascinating — and lost — piece of Westport history.

Flames shoot up from the downtown building's HVAC unit. (Photo/Westport Fire Department)

Flames shoot up from the downtown building’s HVAC unit. (Photo/Westport Fire Department)

(Hat tip: Daniel Brill)

22 ½ Main Street: The Sequel

This morning’s post on 22 ½ Main Street unleashed a torrent of interesting comments on the undocumented history of blacks in Westport.

It also brought this painting:

An accompanying note from alert “06880” reader Carole Erger-Fass says:

This painting by J. Clinton Shepherd is in the Westport Schools Permanent Arts Collection.

According to Mollie Donovan it was painted during the time he lived in Westport with his family, from the mid 1920s to the late ’30s. In our catalog it is called “The Waffle Shop,” but in the Westport Historical Society post in 2004 for Black History Month it was called “Main Street.”

Maybe your readers will remember the place?

The painting actually spells it “Waffle Shoppe.”

And J. Clinton Shepherd was more than a talented painter in Westport’s artists’ colony.

He also sculpted the doughboy statue that was dedicated on November 11, 1930. It stands now on Veterans Green, opposite Town Hall — just a few yards from long-forgotten 22 ½ Main Street.

22 ½ Main Street

The recent “06880” post about the circa 1950s House of Morgan store on Main Street drew plenty of comments. One reader wondered about a “tenement” downtown, around that time. A few others chimed in with similar vague recollections.

I told the story years ago, in my Westport News “Woog’s World” column. Here it is again — slightly updated, for modern references.

The address for Bobby Q’s restaurant is now 42 Main Street, but for many years part of the property was numbered 22 ½. Accessible off the alley that leads now to the popular restaurant, 22 ½ Main Street was a large wooden apartment building filled with black men and women who worked in Westport homes and businesses.

Longtime white Westporters remember the residents as keeping very much to themselves, causing no controversy. One man called the rooms “immaculate.”

This is a Main Street photo from the 1970s or ’80s. The tenants of 22 1/2 Main Street lived behind where these buildings are now.

William “Billy” Dew, a black man who worked as a house cleaner and maintenance man, owned the property, and lived there with his invalid wife. He was a hard worker, and so were his tenants. They included Beulah Casey, her sister, and a Mrs. Wallace who worked at the Open Door Inn, located near where police headquarters now sit. Because the Open Door had accommodations for guests’ maids and chauffeurs, it was a popular after-work spot for the residents of 22 ½ Main Street.

James Burch, who for several decades owned and lived over the Commuter Shoe Repair Shop near the train station, also began his Westport life on Main Street.

Herman Smith came to Westport from Orangeburg (SC) State College in the early 1920s. He too lived at 22 ½ Main Street for a while, working 2 jobs as a waiter and sanitation man.

Herman married a college woman. Eventually they bought a home on Crescent Road, and became established Westporters. Mrs. Smith told the Westport Oral History Project that her family never felt any discrimination here. “The only trouble we had was making the down payment,” she laughed.

Another view, this one further north. The alley entrance to 22 1/2 Main Street, was just to the right of Klein’s. The Townly Restaurant is next to Klein’s.

But the Smiths’ long stay in Westport, and their involvement in civic affairs, seems unusual. Many residents of 22 ½ Main Street appear to have kept deliberately low profiles. They left early for work, returned late, and remained apart from town life as much as possible.

Many old-timers interviewed for this piece had few memories of the downtown blacks. Eleanor Street worked as a librarian for many years across the street from 22 ½ Main, but could barely recall the tenants. She did note that the boys and girls came upstairs to her 2nd floor children’s library while their parents worked.

Other longtime residents had similar vague recollections of their 1 or 2 black classmates. All say they were treated well, with no apparent rancor.

But one veteran Westporter had a much clearer vision of 22 ½ Main Street. Dan Bradley, a retired attorney with over 50 years of Fire Department service, fought a fierce blaze there “sometime around 1950.”

There was a church in the basement of the apartment building, Bradley recalled, with a piano and chairs. One cold winter night the place burned.

“The scuttlebutt was that someone dropped a firebomb through a basement window,” he said. Nothing was ever proved.

“The fire got off to a heavy start, and the place was all in flames by the time we got there,” he said. “It burned everyone right out.”

Firefighters rescued the invalid Mrs. Dew, and there were no casualties.

When the fire was out Bradley entered the building, and searched every room. “I’ve been under a number of beds in Westport,” he said, “and those rooms were the cleanest I’ve ever seen. They were immaculate.”

A view across Main Street, from the pedestrian walkway to Onion Alley (now Bobby Q’s). That “alley” once served as an entryway to 22 1/2 Main Street.

The apartments were never rebuilt, and Bradley does not know what became of the 20 or so tenants. “I guess they relocated to Norwalk or somewhere,” he said.

“They were a good bunch of people. There was very little trouble there.”

The Townly Restaurant took over the site; a bar was built in the old alleyway. “People sat there and talked about the fire,” Bradley said.

The Townly Restaurant was later destroyed in a fire too. Henry Klein bought the property, and expanded his small shop into a department store. Decades later it closed; Banana Republic moved in.

No photographic evidence seems to exist of 22 ½ Main Street, or of the black men, women and children who lived there for at least 3 decades. A call to the Westport Historical Society turned up nothing, and a search of the Westport Public Library newspaper, photo and memorabilia files proved equally fruitless.

You won’t even find anything in Westport: A Special Place, Eve Potts and Howard Munce’s lovingly compiled, exhaustively researched photographic history of town. In fact, an examination of the book’s 200 illustrations turns up just 1 black face: a school picture of a girl in a mutton-sleeves coat, standing far apart from her classmates.

The only black child in this undated Westport school photo stands apart from her classmates, on the far right.

But photographs don’t always tell the full story. And perhaps their invisibility says more about the relationship between the residents of 22 ½ Main Street and Westport than any picture ever could.