In 1964 — at the height of the civil rights movement — Westporter Tracy Sugarman traveled to Mississippi. He was part of the brutal Freedom Summer.
Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were in his training class. On his 2nd day there, they disappeared. They were never seen alive again.
An artist and writer, Sugarman wove that experience — and many more in the South — into his works. Fannie Lou Hamer, and many other civil rights leaders, visit him often, at his Owenoke home.
Dennis Jackson attended Staples High School during that era. He now lives in Wilton. The other day, on a tour of he new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, he spotted this tribute to Tracy Sugarman.
As the world honors the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Westport should not forget Tracy Sugarman, and his role in that historic event.
We often think of the artist, writer and longtime Westporter — who died in 2013, age 91 — for his civil rights activism. He published 3 non-fiction books and 1 of fiction about his experiences as a Freedom Rider during the 1960s.
But he also served as an officer with the Navy’s Amphibious Corps during World War II. On D-Day, he stormed the French beach.
In 2011 — a few days before he spoke as Memorial Day grand marshal — I wrote about Tracy’s experiences.
As a junior at Syracuse University’s College of Fine Arts, Tracy Sugarman had a great time. He was on the lacrosse team, was dating a wonderful woman named June — “it was all Joe College,” he says.
Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The next day, Tracy and a fraternity brother took a bus to Buffalo. When they returned to campus, they were in the Navy Reserve.
Tracy Sugarman and June, during World War II.
He was allowed to finish school. But 2 days after graduation — May 13, 1943 — Tracy headed to midshipman’s training at Notre Dame.
“We kept ‘invading’ England,’” Tracy recalls. “Then one day, it was time to invade France.”
June 6, 1944 was “extraordinary,” says Tracy. “There were 3,000 planes, and 3,000 ships — as far as the eye could see.”
The day was sunny, but the seas rough. They circled until 3 p.m. Everyone was seasick. As an officer, Tracy had to pretend he was fine.
“Finally we hit the beach,” he says. “It was just awful.
“It was noisy. It was smoky. Ships were blowing up. There were bodies in the water.”
Tracy made his way through the maze of iron. He kissed the ground, then returned to the assembly area.
World War II watercolor, by Tracy Sugarman.
He spent the next 6 months unloading ships, working with troops, ammunition and hospitals.
Finally — with the ports secured — he helped 2 other officers close up Utah Beach. He went back to England.
On April 12, 1945 he had to announce to his ship that Franklin Roosevelt had died. Most of the sailors had never known another president.
“I was 23,” Tracy says. “I took 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds to the D-Day beach. They looked at me — the ‘old man’ — to take care of them.”
Among Tracy’s many works is “My War.” In 2000 he published a collection of over 400 letters, drawings and watercolors he sent to his young wife, during the harrowing days of World War II.
“06880” reader Douglas Davidoff reminds us that the Library of Congress has an online portfolio of Tracy Sugarman’s drawings of D-Day. They’re available here.
There’s much more on Tracy Sugarman and World War II too, Doug notes. For a treasure trove of material via the Veterans History Project, click here.
Tracy Sugarman was grand marshal at Westport’s 2011 Memorial Day ceremony.
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.)
Bill Buckley — a pioneering, award-winning filmmaker with a lifelong commitment to social justice and activism — died Friday. The longtime Westporter was 89.
Buckley’s “day job” was making legal videos for a company he owned, B&B Productions. But he was best known for his more than half century of collaboration with fellow Westporter Tracy Sugarman. Their civil rights documentaries are regarded as classics — and national treasures.
Bill Buckley, in a typical pose.
In 1969, the duo — with their wives, June Sugarman and Ellie Buckley — formed Rediscovery. The mission was to honor the contributions of black men and women to American society, in areas like medicine, science, politics and the arts.
It was an “integrated” company. The films they produced with African American artists were groundbreaking, and staples of public television for many years.
A charter member of the Director’s Guild of America, Buckley helped create campaign films for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He also worked with Harry Truman on the award-winning television series “Years of Decision.”
I wish had more details of Buckley’s remarkable life. He was a humble man who has not left an internet trail worthy of his work. Suffice it to say that — with Sugarman — his work has affected countless Americans, and motivated many to work for human rights of all kinds.
Buckley’s wife Judy Hamer and family will receive visitors at their home — 2325 Meadow Ridge in Redding — today and tomorrow (Sunday and Monday, January 22 and 23), from 2 to 5 p.m.
A memorial service — filled with jazz music — will be planned in the future.
(To see a sample from Buckley’s video “The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer: Never Turn Back,” click here.)
PBS’ “American Experience” is honoring the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer with a wonderful show. It showcases the thousands of student volunteers, organizers and local blacks who encouraged voter registration, created schools and challenged the segregationist state Democratic Party at the national convention in Atlantic City. That summer saw the murders of 3 civil rights workers, countless beatings, the burning of 35 churches, and the bombing of 70 homes and Freedom Houses.
Westport artist and writer Tracy Sugarman — who died in 2013 — played an important role in that effort. His words and drawings are featured prominently in the broadcast.
Channel 13 aired “Freedom Summer” last night. It will be repeated early tomorrow morning (Thursday, June 26, 2 a.m.) and Saturday (June 28, 2 p.m.). If you can’t see it live, this one is definitely worth recording.
Tracy Sugarman (above left, with his family), and some of his sketches, on the “American Experience” website.
Because the my baby boom generation is so obnoxiously self-important — and because we still cling to control of much of the media — throughout this decade we will insist on foisting 50-year anniversary stories about a mind-numbing number of 1960s events on the rest of the country.
We’ve remembered John Glenn’s orbit of the earth and John Kennedy’s assassination. Next month is the Beatles’ 1st trip to America. On the horizon: the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Soupy Sales’ “The Mouse.”
So — as Martin Luther King Day nears — this is a good time to remember another 50th anniversary: the night Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern played together for the 1st time in public.
According to the New York Times of August 31, 1964, the concert’s genesis came from Tracy Sugarman. The Westport artist and civil rights activist — who died a year ago, the day before Martin Luther King Day — described his recent “Mississippi Summer” work in Ruleville, Mississippi to Frank Brieff, conductor of the New Haven Symphony.
Brieff called Bernstein, who called Stern. The 2 had played piano and violin together for pleasure, but had never performed in public together.
They were joined by 4 other Fairfield county musicians. The concert sold out, at prices from $3 to $35. That raised $8,250 bringing Westport’s 1964 contributions to the Mississippi Project to $29,000. Previous fundraisers for the NAACP and National Council of Churches included a townwide solicitation, and a small gathering at the home of attorney Alan Nevas. He had just returned from Mississippi where, the Times said, he provided “legal counsel to Negroes.”
Nevas’ son Bernard — age 20 — was one of 6 “freedom workers” honored at the Bernstein/Stern concert. Five were from Westport: Nevas; John Friedland, 22; Martha Honey, 19; Deborah Rand, 20, and John Suter, 19.
…and Isaac Stern.
Another guest introduced at the concert was Charles McLaurin. Just a few days earlier, he was a member of the controversial Mississippi Freedom Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
Also at the concert, Sugarman displayed 43 pen-and-ink drawings of Mississippi, and 6 photos used by SNCC. He called the involvement of youths like the ones from Westport courageous.
“They went there afraid, lived there afraid and worked there afraid,” Sugarman said.
But, the Times noted, “the experience has affected some so deeply…they are torn between resuming their college careers and going back to Mississippi.”
A memorial service for Tracy Sugarman — the Westport illustrator, social justice activist, D-Day veteran and all-around good guy who died in January at 91, a month after publishing his 1st novel — is set for this Sunday (May 26), 2 p.m. at the Unitarian Church.
Tracy will be remembered as an artist, author, civil rights activist, documentary filmmaker, and brother, father and grandfather. Among the speakers: Charles McLaurin, the Mississippi civil rights leader who was a close friend.
Two days earlier — on Friday, May 24 (5-7 p.m.), the Westport Historical Society opens a summer-long exhibit. It explores Tracy Sugarman’s life and work, as a “citizen-artist.”
It’s appropriate that both events take place on Memorial Day weekend. Two years ago, Tracy — as proud of his military service as he was of his social activism — served as grand marshal of our parade.
You may hear that old adage “You’re never too old to try something new,” and scoff. Or shuffle off to play shuffleboard.
Tracy Sugarman takes it to heart.
The Westport icon — a famous illustrator for 40 years, who published 3 non-fiction books about his experiences as a Freedom Rider during the civil rights movement, and 1 based on his service as an officer in World War II (including storming the beach on D-Day) — has just written his 1st novel.
He’s 91 years old.
Nobody Said Amen is the fictionalized tale of 2 families — one white, one black — as they navigate the challenges of social change in the Mississippi Delta.
It’s a story of fighting for the right to vote, the Ku Klux Klan, and love. They’re not easy topics to write about — but Tracy Sugarman was there.
He was already in his 40s when he traveled to Ruleville, Mississippi in 1964 and ’65. His training group included 3 young men named Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. On Tracy’s 2nd day in Mississippi, they disappeared.
He’d headed south as an artist, intending to draw the scenes he saw. “I was an observer for about 2 hours,” he says. “Then I become a participant. This was way too important to be a voyeur.”
Tracy’s involvement in the civil rights era changed his life. He developed a deep friendship with Fannie Lou Hamer. She and many other movement leaders visited his Westport home.
Tracy Sugarman was grand marshal at Westport’s 2011 Memorial Day ceremony.
Two of Tracy’s books — Stranger at the Gates and We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns — chronicled the civil rights era. My War was a collection of letters and drawings he’d sent to his young wife, June, during the harrowing days of World War II. Drawing Conclusions was his rendition, in words and pictures, of the biggest historical, societal and cultural stories of his time.
For nearly 90 years, he never imagined writing fiction.
But as he worked on Drawing Conclusions — it was published 5 years ago, when he was “just” 86 — he figured it might be fun to try a novel.
It took 2 years (though, he points out, “I did other things too”).
“I was charmed by this world I was inventing,” Tracy says of the writing process. “People just showed up, and insisted on being in it. They were characters I’d never met!”
He had no idea how the story would end. But — as with everything he’s done — Tracy made it all work out.
His publisher — Syracuse University Press — liked Amen. But after a change of editors, they decided fiction was not right for an academic publisher.
Tracy asked Maxine Bleiweis about self-publishing. The Westport Library director put Tracy in touch with David Wilk, a Westonite and expert in the field.
That’s how Nobody Said Amen became a book. (Officially, it’s “a Morris Jesup book, in association with the Westport Library.”)
More importantly, it’s on Amazon — in paperback and Kindle.
If it’s surprising to learn that a 91-year-old has self-published a book available on e-readers, you don’t know Tracy Sugarman. He looks, sounds — and thinks — like the young people he so admires.
“All these young kids put themselves in harm’s way,” he says of the Freedom Riders. “They thrived, survived, and changed Mississippi.”
That experienced reinforced an idea he’d had since World War II, 2 decades earlier: “Only young people can change the country. They’re wonderfully inspiring. They certainly changed my life.”
So, as he closes in on a century of living, what’s next?
“Everyone says you’re very old to write a novel,” Tracy says. “Well, I don’t feel it!” He’s ready for plenty of new challenges.
“You’re as young as you feel” is one adage Tracy Sugarman proves true.
Here’s another: “You’re never too old to try something new.”
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