Activists, Artists & Educators

Lessons About Race

Public education in Westport is open to under-served children from predominantly African American areas such as nearby Bridgeport through a legislative program called Open Choice to “reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation among students” in both communities. But in 1971, a national program called Project Concern bused students from predominantly black inner cities to white suburbs like Westport—and residents found themselves on opposing sides of the bitter debate. School Board President, Joan Schine, and Assistant Superintendent of Schools, Cliff Barton, spearheaded the program, which led to some residents prompting for Schine’s recall from the Board. 

Barton joined the Westport School System in 1958 after teaching in Norwalk, where he had been invited to apply based on a phone interview. Arriving in Norwalk he tried to stay at the YMCA but was denied because he was African American. After teaching at Norwalk High School and then in Westport, Barton became an administrator whose passion was looking after students with special needs, including those disenfranchised by racial inequality. 

The Art of Equality 

In Westport, social activism on behalf of the African American community often found its outlet among the artists for whom the town had become so well known. Illustrator and Westport native, Tracy Sugarman, traveled to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 to document the Civil Rights Movement. There, he met activist Fannie Lou Hamer, about whom he and filmmaker, Bill Buckley, made a biographical film at Buckley’s Westport home. 

African American artists of all disciplines have long found welcome in Westport’s creative community. In 1955, Trinidadian film star, Geoffrey Holder, married fellow dancer, Carmen De Lavallade, at Christ and Holy Trinity Church with a reception at Norwalk’s White Barn Theater. Holder is most known for his role as Baron Samedi in the James Bond film Live and Let Die. Acting legend and activist, Eartha Kitt, lived in nearby Weston while R&B greats Ashford and Simpson maintained an estate on the corner of Bayberry Lane and Cross Highway for over thirty years. 

Grammy winner guitarist and producer, Nile Rodgers, still makes Westport his home and has performed at benefits for the Levitt Pavilion and The Westport Library. The latter gave him a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to music. Award-winning playwright, Trey Ellis, is also a Westporter whose work includes the screenplay for The Tuskegee Airmen about the famed all-Black World War 2 Army Air Corps pilots, and the 2018 HBO film, King in the Wilderness, about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and for which he served as Executive Producer. 

Project Concern Documentary, C. 1970 
Digital Media 
Courtesy TEAM Westport 
The predecessor to Open Choice, Project Concern was a program implemented in Westport which bused black students from Bridgeport. Both Hartford and New Haven also participated with student from their inner cities. This Psychology Today film follows three black third-grade students in the projects first year in Westport while also tracking community attitudes from Westport and Great Neck, New York—who held a like-minded busing project. 

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