Tag Archives: Fannie Lou Hamer

Census And Sensibility

The release this week of Westport’s census data — showing, among other things, that just 1.2% of our town identifies as “black or African American” — got me thinking.

While that percentage has long been paltry — it translates to 305 men, women and children, up just 13 from 2000 — Westport does have a history of involvement in the broad civil rights issues of the day.  Whenever that day was.

During the abolitionist movement, houses served as stops on the Underground Railroad.  At least one — on Weston Road, across from the present-day Methodist Church — still stands.  A once-hidden room — accessible from the outside — attests to its role in hiding runaway slaves.  (Though Connecticut was a free state, fugitives could still be captured and returned.)

Abraham Lincoln allegedly visited here during the Civil War.

That home was part of Morris Ketchum’s sprawling Hockanum Hill estate.  He frequently hosted Salmon P. Chase, as Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary sought funding for the Civil War.

Though no official record exists, Lincoln allegedly stayed at Hockanum Hill while president too.  The estate — on Cross Highway, near the foot of Roseville Road — offered an out-of-the-way respite on secret financing trips north.  The current deed refers to the “Lincoln room,” and a letter supposedly exists in which the president thanked Ketchum for his hospitality.

A century later, in the early days of the modern civil rights movement, Herman and Gladys Steinkraus lived on South Compo.  He was president of both Bridgeport Brass and the US Chamber of Commerce.  The couple were avid supporters of the United Nations, and often invited African ambassadors to Westport.  It was the 1st time some had ever been inside an American home.  Not all the Steinkraus’ neighbors were pleased.

Around that time, Ernestine White was a beloved music teacher at Bedford Junior High School.  A pupil invited her to his bar mitzvah.  A few tongues wagged — but the invitation was in keeping with the tenor of the times.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King definitely came to Westport.

Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron T. Rubenstein, was deeply involved in the civil rights struggle.  Rev. Martin Luther King spoke at the temple in 1964.  A month later, Rubenstein and King were both arrested in the south, at a nonviolent march.  Rubenstein and others were instrumental in organizing Freedom Rides from Westport, challenging laws that enforced segregation.

Tracy Sugarman was one of several Westporters to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Summer.  He knew the murdered civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, and developed deep friendships with leaders like Julian Bond and Fannie Lou Hamer.  Sugarman hosted them, and many others, in his Westport home.

The 1960s were a time of civil rights ferment, and many Westporters were active in the cause.  Both the Intercommunity Camp — bringing together youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport — and the school district’s Project Concern, serving dozens of Bridgeport elementary, junior high and high school students, were direct results of local activism.

The team that is TEAM Westport

For nearly a decade TEAM Westport — the first selectman’s committee charged with achieving and celebrating multiculturalism — has worked to make this a more welcoming place for all minorities.  African Americans have taken a leading role.  TEAM Westport has organized trips to the slave ship replica Amistad; led school panels, talkbacks at the Westport Country Playhouse, and community conversations; partnered with schools, religious organizations and the library, and worked in dozens of other ways, large and small, to reinforce awareness of diversity issues and concerns.

Of course there have been less visible, lower-key events too.  In 1960, Sammy Davis Jr. married Mia Britt.  At the time, 31 states outlawed interracial marriage.  Connecticut was not one of them — and, legend has it, the couple honeymooned at a home off Wilton Road.

These are just a few of the connections Westport has made, over many years, with civil rights issues.  We’re not a racial melting pot — but neither are we immune from the world outside our borders.  It was Westport’s involvement, in fact, that brought many families here in the 1950s and ’60s, when they could have chosen many other places to live.

Has Westport changed since then?  Are these issues still important, and are Westporters as involved?  If so, how?  If not, why — and what’s taken their place?  Click “Comments,” to share your diverse (and diversity) thoughts.

Tracy Sugarman’s Mississippi Summer

In the early 1960s Tracy Sugarman was a successful Westport artist.  With plenty of magazine and corporate work, he was happily illustrating “other people’s fantasies about America after the war.”

Tracy Sugarman

But different images — of police dogs, fire hoses and beatings — filtered up from the South, intruding on his sense of contentment.  He and his family wondered how they could help the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Tracy decided to go South, and draw what was happening.

In late spring of 1964 Tracy arrived in Ruleville, Mississippi.  Segregation and hatred were worse there than even Alabama or Georgia.

“Mississippi blew me away,” Tracy recalls.  “The only pool in town was closed, so blacks wouldn’t contaminate it.  Only 5% of blacks were registered to vote.  Convincing poor, illiterate people to let us stay in their homes was huge.”

But thanks to the young leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — who Tracy calls “the cutting edge against the worst apartheid in America” — college students, and a few older folks like Tracy, arrived for “Freedom Summer.”

On his 2nd day there, 3 young volunteers disappeared.  Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney had been in the same training program as Tracy.

Andrew Goodman's grave

“We immediately knew they’d been killed,” Tracy says.  It took weeks for the FBI to open a field office to investigate the triple murder that galvanized America.

“It was a crazy summer,” Tracy says.  “I was more scared in Mississippi than I had been on D-Day.”

In World War II he’d been backed up by thousands of ships, planes and soldiers.  Down South, he says, “We couldn’t call the press, the clergy, the mayor or the police for help.”

So he called home whenever bail money was needed.  That summer, Westport raised $10,000.

Tracy developed strong bonds with the college students — black and white — he befriended.  “They were terrified every day, but they went out and did their job,” he says.  “American kids, when challenged, do remarkable things.”

The following summer, Tracy returned.  He worked with Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper’s daughter who was the voice and symbol of SNCC’s Mississippi work.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Their friendship — which lasted until her death in 1977 — included visits to the Sugarmans’ Westport home.  “She was one of the smartest, most Christian women I’ve known,” he says.  “She was beaten, and people fired on her house.  But she said, ‘If I hate them, I’ll be just like them.'”

Tracy has carried Mississippi with him ever since those days.  Earlier this year — when he heard that SNCC was planning a celebration of the 50th anniversary of its founding — he knew he had to attend.

This past weekend, Tracy traveled South again — this time to Shaw University in Raleigh.  Organizers expected 300 people.  900 came.

There were — like 4 decades earlier — plenty of workshops and speeches.  Attorney General Eric Holder was there; so was SNCC benefactor Harry Belafonte.  The real stars, Tracy says, were unsung heroes like Charles Cobb, Hollis Watkins, and longtime friend Charles McLaurin.

But this was not a nostalgic look back at a watershed moment in American history.  The weekend, Tracy says, was “much more about tomorrow than yesterday.”

The crowd included many young social studies teachers and professors.  They discussed ideas like economic empowerment, and how to keep America moving forward.

“They’re very enthusiastic,” Tracy — now well into his 80s — says.  “The bit is in their mouth.  They asked good questions of those who came before them, like how do you organize a movement?

“It’s tough to pass on.  There was no rulebook.  SNCC’s strength was working things out as we went along.  I guess the legacy was:  Have faith in people.  Inspire them by your example, that you can make a difference.”

Back in Westport, Tracy says:  “It was a very affirmative weekend.  The baton is being passed.  I wanted to be there for that.

“You know,” he continues, “I never stayed in touch with anyone I served with in the Navy.  But the people from that summer — when we see each other across a crowded room, we rush to embrace.

“I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything else in the world.”