Tag Archives: Westport Historical Society

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.

Westport Historical Society Mystery Object #5

Once again, the Westport Historical Society stumped its visitors. No one identified this object:

It was part of their “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. The featured item changes every 2 weeks. If you stop in and identify it, you win something from the gift shop.

So what was it?

Known variously as a sap, slapper or blackjack, the heavy leather pouch is 8 12 inches long, and filled with lead (sometimes a flexible steel rod too). Unlike a baton, a sap’s size and shape allows it to be concealed inside an officer’s pocket.

Saps may not look as intimidating as a gun or a baton, but they sure are dangerous. A sap is dense enough to break bones, and the leather edge is rough enough to cause a dull, ripping laceration to the face when jabbed. Slappers are ideal in tight quarters, like a fight on the ground against a large suspect.

Slappers are rare these days, forbidden by many jurisdictions across the country. Even so, some uniforms still come with a sap pocket.

Westport’s Watery, Wondrous Bohemia

Westporters are used to seeing our town pop up in stories about things to do and see in the tri-state area.

But WCVB-TV — a Boston station whose viewers usually head to places like Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Lake Winnipesaukee — featured us in its recent “A Tank Away” series on cool spots to see.

Like a teenager, we’re always concerned with what other people think of us. Here’s how we look on Boston TV.

Westport, it seems, is a place with “celebrity status, elegant neighborhoods and an expensive [or ‘expansive’] public beach, the arts, and an immaculately groomed town center lined with restaurants and shops.”

Our “immaculately groomed town center.”

Our history is “very bohemian,” says interviewee (and Westport Historical Society director) Ramin Ganeshram.

Compo Beach and marina are a 29-acre “park.” Historical properties are “a-plenty.” The Historical Society itself is “a gathering place for the public.”

The Westport Country Playhouse gets a shout-out. So does Earthplace (with a tangent about chinchillas) and DownUnder (especially its “Paddle With Your Dog” program).

“Nature has a starring role” in Westport, Bostonians learn.

And — oh yes — we have “watery wonders.”

You can catch the entire 5 minute-plus feature on WCVB’s website.

Where the subhead is: “Paul Newman was a fan – how much more motivation do we need. We’re off to Westport, Connecticut, a mix of beach town and bohemia that’s worth a trip.”

WCVB’s perky anchors tell Boston viewers to “head west on I-84 for the shores of Connecticut.” At some point they’ll have to head south, too.

(Hat tip: Bob Mitchell)

Remembering Barbara Van Orden

Many Westporters may not recognize the name Barbara Van Orden.

But without her, the Westport Historical Society might not be what — or where — it is today.

Barbara Van Orden

Barbara — who died on Sunday, age 88 — was a museum docent in several places where she and her husband Paul lived. After moving to Westport in 1977, she spent 26 years as a very knowledgeable and much-loved docent at the Yale Art Gallery.

She was also active in the Westport Garden Club and Saugatuck Congregational Church. But it was at the Historical Society that she made her most impressive local mark.

Barbara worked with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to raise money to purchase Wheeler House, the handsome 1795 home in the heart of downtown.

Then, attending countless auctions, she led the drive to furnish the period parlor, kitchen and bedroom, to look as they did in 1865-70 when Morris and Mary Bradley lived there.

She was also the longtime head of WHS volunteers and collections.

Thanks in large part to Barbara’s untiring, loving work, the Westport Historical Society moved — literally as well as figuratively — into the modern era, while honoring the town’s rich heritage.

Thanks in large part to Barbara Van Orden, the Westport Historical Society owns this handsome home on Avery Place.

Barbara was born in Ohio, and graduated from Bowling Green State University. In addition to history and art, she loved traveling, gardening and her summer home on Nantucket.

Her family says, “throughout her life, Barbara provided a constant example of the value of personal strength, discipline and perseverance, even in the face of challenges. Her daughters and grandchildren have inherited her tenacity, openness to new ideas, a keen perspective on what is really important, and an appreciation for all the good things life has to offer.

She is survived by her husband of 67 years, Paul; her daughters Sharon Alexander and Lisa Berger, 4 grandchildren and 1 nephew.

A funeral service is set for this Sunday (July 8, 1 p.m., Saugatuck Congregational Church), followed by a reception at the church.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Westport Historical Society, Westport Garden Club or Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Westport Historical Society Mystery Item #4

Do you know what a glass insect trap is?

I didn’t. Nor did anyone else in Westport.

Glass insect trap

The circa-1880 hand blown glass piece was the latest in the Westport Historical Society’s mystery contest. It’s part of their “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. The featured item changes every 2 weeks. If you stop in and identify it, you win something from the gift shop.

This week, no one did.

So what is a glass insect trap? According to the WHS:

Insect  traps, or insect catchers, such as this captured pests lingering in kitchens and gardens. Sugar water was poured into the trap, and a cork placed over the narrow opening.

Attracted by the sugar, insects such as flies and wasps would be caught in the trap’s belly. In Europe, these traps were used primarily to combat fruit flies at the end of the 19th and first quarter of the 20th centuries.

As utilitarian items, most were blown in a clear glass. Some came in color, created by adding elements such as manganese or selenium to the molten glass.

(For more information on the “100 Objects” exhibit, click here.)

 

Westport Historical Society Mystery Item #3

The Westport Historical Society’s most recent mystery object — part of a “Westport in 100 Objects”  exhibit that changes every 2 weeks — is a foot warmer.

Leiliani Fleming identified the circa-1850 item. She wins something from the gift shop.

The most common use of a foot warmer (aka foot stove) came during the 4- hour services held every Sunday in local churches, during the 17th and 18th centuries. At midday — when parishioners broke for lunch — they put fresh embers in their foot stoves, before heading back for more prayers and sermons.

Foot warmers were also used in unheated carriages or sleighs in the 18th and early 19th centuries. With the advent of rail travel, foot warmers migrated to trains.

When the ceramic hot water bottle came into use in the mid-19th century, and heating improved in homes and churches, the foot warmer was relegated to an antique reminder of earlier times.

(For more information on the “100 Objects” exhibit, click here.)

Back To Bohemia On Hidden Garden Tour

Day by day, bit by bit, wrecking ball by wrecker ball, Westport’s artistic and “bohemian” past is disappearing.

Fortunately, pockets remain. You just have to know where to look.

This Sunday (June 10, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), a secret gem takes the spotlight. The Blau Home and Gardens is one of 4 properties featured in the Westport Historical Society’s 27th annual Hidden Garden Tour.

One view of the Blau garden …

Designed by Broadway theater designer Ralph Alswang, the home is rustic and glamorous. From salvaged exposed heavy barn timber beams — uncommon in modern homes of the mid-20th century — to a Romeo and Juliet bedroom balcony window opening to the living room, and a dramatic main staircase, the house off Bayberry Lane was owned by advertising mogul Barry Blau.

Both he and Alswang journeyed from poor, urban roots to the then-freewheeling arts colony of Westport.

The garden — like its owner and designer — is informal and unconventional. It features massive rhododendron groves, towering oaks, antique sculptures, paths, benches, ornamental gates and stunning stone walls.

Blau’s widow is almost 90. The WHS says she and her family want to preserve the home and property. Welcoming Hidden Garden Tour visitors is one way to see it.

… and another.

The tour also includes an English rose garden with Italian fountain; a meticulously restored 1820s onion barn with post-and-beam construction, original stone foundations and antique farm equipment, surrounded by woodland gardens, and a 225-year-old colonial farmhouse in Weston, with 30 varieties of peonies and exotic specimen trees.

In addition to Sunday’s tour, unique items for gardeners and garden lovers from local artisans and businesses are available for sale on the Historical Society’s front lawn (25 Avery Place, 9 a.m.  to 4 p.m.).

That front lawn is well-known, and very visible. To see those 4 hidden gardens though, you need a ticket.

(Click here for tickets: $50 for Westport Historical Society members, $60 for non-members, $75 the day of the tour. Click here for more information.) 

Westport Historical Society Mystery Item #2

Over the next year, the Westport Historical Society is presenting “The History of Westport in 100 Objects.”

The exhibit changes every 2 weeks. Each time, there’s a new “mystery” item. The winner — chosen from all correct guesses — gets an item from the gift shop.

The 2nd object was this:

If you guessed “grain flail” — you’re right!

I’m not sure how many people did. But Eric Davré is the winner.

And if you’re wondering, a grain flail is

an agricultural tool used to separate grains from their husk. A flail is made from 2 or more large sticks attached by a short chain or strip of leather so it may swing down onto grain piles to thrash or beat out grain from the husk. Flails fell into disuse when the original combine harvester, pulled by horses, was invented. But flails have survived the test of time. In Minnesota, wild rice of the Ojibwe people can only be legally harvested from canoes using this method.

(For more information on the “100 Objects” exhibit, click here.)

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.)

Westport Historical Society Mystery Item #1

For the next year, the Westport Historical Society is presenting “The History of Westport in 100 Objects.”

The exhibit changes every 2 weeks. Each time, there’s a new “mystery” item. The winner — chosen from all correct guesses — gets an item from the gift shop.

The first object was this:

If you guessed “ice shaver” — which I did not — you might have won.

It looks a bit different than today’s ice shavers. But that’s why it’s at the Westport Historical Society, not your kitchen.

(For more information on the “100 Objects” exhibit, click here.)