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.
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.
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.
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.