A few dozen Westporters celebrated Good Friday yesterday through a marking of the Stations of the Cross. The walk was a call to dismantle racism, and pursue racial justice.
“Give us eyes to see how the past has shaped the complex present,” said Rev. John Betit of Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.
Participants stopped at several sites related to Black history in Westport. Christ & Holy Trinity, Saugatuck Congregational Church and the Westport Museum of History & Culture collaborated for the event.
After an initial prayer in the Christ & Holy Trinity courtyard, the group headed to the entrance of the church parking lot on Elm Street.
They looked across at Bedford Square. In the 1940s, it was the back of a boarding house — accessible through an alley at 22 1/2 Main Street (later the entrance to Bobby Q’s) — that was the hub of a thriving Black community.
By 1949 though, it was considered a slum. The town would not grant permits for improvements. In December, residents asked the RTM to be considered for the affordable housing being built at Hales Court. They were denied.
In January 1950 — 8 days after a newspaper wondered what would happen if a fire broke out there — that is exactly what happened. Unable to obtain housing anywhere else in town, the Black community scattered — and disappeared forever.
The next station was the site of the former Ebenezer Coley general store, at the Main Street entrance to Parker Harding Plaza. The original outline of that saltbox building remains; it’s the former Remarkable Book Shop and (later) Talbots.
The river came up to the back of the store. Enslaved people loaded grain grown at the Coley farm onto ships bound for New York. There it was loaded onto larger ships, which sailed to the West Indies where it fed other enslaved Blacks.
The group then walked a few steps to the Museum of History & Culture. Ebenezer Coley’s son Michael owned the home at the corner of Avery Place and Myrtle Avenue. He managed the Coley store, and oversaw the enslaved people.
Bricks bear the names of over 240 enslaved and 20 free people of color, part of the parish of Greens Farms Congregational Church. They appear in the church log book as births, baptisms, marriages and deaths.
Owners brought their enslaved people into church for services, though they — and freemen — had to stand in the balcony above the sanctuary.
A short walk up Evergreen Avenue brought the group to the Saugatuck Church cemetery. Cyrus Brown — who, like many others affecte by racism and legal bias, went from being a landowner and farmer to a servant of the Gorham family — is buried there.
Brown’s relationship with the Gorhams was evidently strong. He is buried in the family’s plot, with a high quality headstone of his own.
After that final station, worshipers walked through the woods to the Saugatuck Church property. The labyrinth on the lawn provided space and time for final Good Friday reflections.
(Historical background provided by the Westport Museum for History & Culture.)