Black History Month in Connecticut: Lessons About Race

The fight for equality of education—and for respect in the classroom for children and teachers of color—in Connecticut towns can be traced back nearly two hundred years. Entrenched social biases had long created de-facto segregation within the state’s education system. In 1831, the citizens of New Haven successfully fought the opening a mechanical college for Black men and in 1833 Prudence Crandall, a Quaker teacher was arrested in Canterbury, Connecticut for opening a school for young Black Girls. In 1868, in response to a state Educational Law requiring open enrollment in public schools despite students’ race or color, the Hartford School system voted for “separate but equal” schools for non-White children. 

By the twentieth century, negative attitudes toward Black students in largely White public schools—particularly in affluent neighborhoods—remained entrenched. While the active years of the Civil Rights Movement brought the legal fight against school segregation to the South, Northern communities were often overlooked for their de facto segregation of children of color from public schools.  

Project Concern

In July of 1970 a group called “Westporters for Equality in Schooling” sent a letter to Joan Schine, Westport Board of Education chair. The group asked for Project Concern, a national school integration plan which brought elementary age children of color from under-resourced areas of Bridgeport into Westport schools, to be placed on the board’s agenda. A bitter fight ensued. 

The program was overseen by Cliff Barton, a ground-breaking Black educator who was a former teacher and administrator with passion for looking after students with special needs—including those disenfranchised by racial inequality. Barton had joined the town school system in 1958—the same year former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt made public remarks about the need for human rights and human dignity to begin in “small spaces” including schools.  ”Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination,” she wrote.

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.

Eleanor Roosevelt, American political leader and activist

By December, the discussion to participate in Project Concern had moved to a vote. On the 7th the Board of Education passed the resolution to bus 25 African American students from grades 1 through 3 to Westport, with the final vote to pass being cast by chair Joan Schine herself.

The vote created community upheaval, and many protested the move, sparking the creation of the “Recall Committee”: a parent group formed to remove Mrs. Schine. On New Year’s Eve an article in the Bridgeport Post reported a petition with nearly 4,000 signatures was delivered to Town hall to request such a recall after Schine refused to hold a referendum. Local attitudes toward Project Concern can be viewed in the documentary film below. 

The City of Hartford had already opted into the program in 1966, with its own share of push back and criticism. Opponents of the vote feared that the program would lead to a “dangerous opening wedge in an undeclared campaign to bring more and more ghetto children into Westport with consequent dilution of the quality of education.”

Today in Westport, we are engaged in a situation in which the forces and agents with the most power reign temporarily in an eternal “king of the hill” struggle.

Joan Schine, Westport Board of Education Chair, 1971

Subsequently, the Westport Board of Selectman called for a special election to remove Ms. Schine. The case went to the Connecticut Superior Court and resulted in the dismissal of the proposed recall vote entirely. Schine continued in her role as Chair and remained active in the town government. In June of 1971 Joan was quoted saying, “Today in Westport, we are engaged in a situation in which the forces and agents with the most power reign temporarily in an eternal “king of the hill” struggle.”  

Where Are We Today?

Project Concern continued and expanded, evolving into Project Choice, and paved the way for programs like Open Choice and A Better Chance which continue today. Despite hard-won gains, the fight for true equity in schools continued leading one scholar to note in his article “Nineteenth Century De Jure School Segregation in Connecticut”: 

“It becomes increasingly evident that Connecticut’s response to the problem of racial isolation in its public schools has been in the past and is now characterized by flashes of decisiveness and statesmanship, interspersed with periods of anguished vacillation.” 

Today, Connecticut student body is almost equally divided between White and BIPOC students. Yet the state’s school districts remain highly segregated. White children largely attend schools with 75% other white children and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) children attend schools with 75% other BIPOC children. In 1996 the state Supreme Court ruled on Sheff Vs. O’Neill, finding that the Hartford School District was violating the state’s anti-segregation clauses. However, with little guidance or benchmarks toward achieving desegregation by 2003, little progress had been made.  

To learn more about artists, activists, and educators who impacted Westport and our African American community visit our Remembered exhibition with the button below.

Fighting for Freedom: Black Soldiers in the Civil War and Connecticut’s 29th Colored Regiment

Contributing Writer: Talia Moskowitz

The Emancipation Proclamation, signed in January 1863, freed enslaved people in the rebelling Southern states and allowed for the enlistment of African American soldiers into the Union military. On May 22nd of the same year, the United States Department of War issued General Order No. 143 which established the Bureau of Colored Troops. On November 13th, 1863, Colonel Dexter R. Wright and Colonel Benjamin S. Pardee proposed a bill authorizing Connecticut Governor William A. Buckingham to organize regiments of “colored” infantry. Connecticut Democrats, including Westport’s representative John Wheeler, denounced the bill. They argued that it would unleash “a horde of African barbarians” onto the South. They believed that the North would lose if Black soldiers were allowed to fight, alleging that Black soldiers were cowardly and disgraceful.

Nonetheless, Governor Buckingham authorized the bill, calling volunteers to make up the 29th Regiment Colored Volunteers. The response from the community of color in Connecticut was immediate and enthusiastic. In 1860, according to the census, less than 1.2% of Westport’s population was Black. While Black men made up .4% of the Westport population—only 14 individuals—13 enlisted. The 29th Connecticut Colored Infantry Regiment was organized at Fair Haven, Connecticut, under the command of Colonel William B. Wooster and mustered into service on 8 March 8th, 1864. In a state where 1.8% of the population was Black, the 1,600 Black men who enlisted made up 94% of the African American community who were eligible to volunteer.

Photos of Connecticut’s 29th Regiment, taken in Beaufort, South Carolina, 1864. (Library of Congress)

By January 1864, more than 1,200 Black men volunteered to join the 29th regiment. 400 of those joined the overflow colored regiment, the 30th, in January 1864. The 30th was later folded into the 31st Colored Infantry Regiment, which was mustered into service April 29th, 1864, on Hart Island in New York City.  

On January 29th, 1864, the soldiers of the 29th and 30th regiments listened to an address at the mouth of the Mill River in Fair Haven, Connecticut by the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who told them: 

You are pioneers of the liberty of your race. With the United States cap on your head, the United States eagle on your belt, the United States musket on your shoulder, not all the powers of darkness can prevent you from becoming American citizens. And not for yourselves alone are you marshaled—you are pioneers—on you depends the destiny of four millions of the colored race in this country. If you rise and flourish, we shall rise and flourish. If you win freedom and citizenship, we shall share your freedom and citizenship.

— Frederick Douglass, 1864

The 29th Regiment was present and took part in the last attacks against the Confederate capital city of Richmond, Virginia, in April 1865 and were among the first to triumphantly march through Richmond’s streets. The 29th Regiment continued to fight after the war was “over” and reported for duty in Texas alongside their Connecticut brethren in the 31st. They aided in the efforts to enforce the emancipation of enslaved people in Galveston and oversee the peaceful transition of power, heading to Texas on June 10th and remaining until they were ordered to muster out of service on October 14th, 1865. 

There are fourteen members of the 29th Regiment listed as Westport residents. They are: Private (Pvt.) Samuel Benson, Pvt. Thomas Benson, Pvt. James Burns, Pvt. John Frye, Pvt. Thomas Gregory, Musician Frank Jackson, Pvt. Joseph H. Jackson, Pvt. William H. Jackson, Pvt. William H. Johnson (1st), Pvt. William H. Johnson (2nd), 1st Lieutenant Louis R. McDonough, Pvt. John Thompson, Pvt. Charles C. Williams, and Pvt. Charles Yan Tross. (Note: You may notice a discrepancy between our previous claim that 13 Black Westport residents enlisted, yet 14 names are listed here. That is because Louis R. McDonough was White.) 

Visit Our Exhibit

Interested in learning more about the Civil War in Westport? Visit our student-curated exhibit, “Reluctant Liberators: Westport in the Civil War.” The exhibit is free to view in our programs gallery and on display until November 11th, 2023.

A Brief Glimpse into the History and Fashions of Gay Weddings

For centuries, people in the gay community were unable to legally marry their chosen same-sex partners. Connecticut set a precedent by becoming one of the first of the American states to legalize gay marriage in 2008, but the fight for marriage equality in the United States continued. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage as a matter of law. The result was a boom in formal marriage ceremonies among the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ+) community. 

Choosing Their Own Path 

Ellen DeGeneres and her wife, Portia de Rossi, at their 2008 wedding. Ellen is wearing a white suit while Portia wears a dress. Photo by Lara Porzak Photography. 

Even before legal recognition, queer weddings were not new. Photographs and accounts of historic LGBTQ+ weddings were often carefully hidden away to ensure the safety of the couples and those in attendance. The few surviving photos provide intriguing glimpses into how LGBTQ+ couples chose to dress on their special day. While heterosexual tradition dictated that women wear gowns and men wear tuxedos, but no such formal precedent existed for LGBTQ+ couples. 

Queer couples…began to transform gender roles surrounding marriage to fit their unique needs… With each wedding, couples continue to personalize the traditionally heteronormative fashions of marriage.

Many LGBTQ+ couples did not conform to traditional gender roles. Surviving photos show some LGBTQ+ couples opting for conventional, gender-normative wedding garb, while others selected outfits that flouted tradition.

This wedding between a cisgender woman (Alyona Fursova, left) and transgender woman (Irina Shumilova, right) took place in Russia in 2014. While same-sex marriage was (and is) illegal in Russia, Irina was legally male at the time of the wedding. Both women opted to wear traditional white gowns. Photo by Roman Melnik. 

Queer couples — especially those composed of two women — began to transform gender roles surrounding marriage to fit their unique needs, with some women wearing tuxedos while others donned traditional wedding gowns. With each wedding, couples continue to personalize the traditionally heteronormative fashions of marriage.

What the Photos Tell Us 

Images that depict historical LGBTQ+ weddings can be seen on the internet. Unfortunately, we are unable to show most of them because they can’t be verifiably sourced. As a result, we are only able to describe these photos here. In one photo (circa 1930) showing the marriage of two women, one of the participants wears a wedding gown while the other wears a man’s military uniform complete with a sword. In three photos (circa 1928) of two women in wedding attire, one woman wears a white dress while the other sports a man’s suit and top hat.

Overall, there is a sad deficit in our knowledge about what LGBTQ+ couples wore when celebrating their weddings in decades and centuries prior. However, the photos and accounts that have survived give us some insight into the traditions and fashions of same-sex marriage. The trend continues today as modern couples celebrate their hard-won freedom to openly participate in an institution which historically denied them access. 

Want to learn more about the history of wedding fashions? Visit our exhibit I Thee Wed: Bridal Fashion from the Collection to see some of the Museum’s stunning wedding gowns and learn their stories.

Learning the Language

  • Heteronormativity is the assumption that heterosexuality – attraction to the opposite sex – is “normal” and “natural.” It assumes people are heterosexual by default and can be used to construe homosexuality – attraction to the same sex – as “unnatural.”  
  • LGBT is an initialism of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. Sometimes a Q+ is added to include Queer and other sexual identities (LGBTQ+).  
  • Queer is an umbrella term used for those who do not identify as heterosexual and/or cisgender. 
  • Cisgender refers to a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.  
  • Transgender refers to a person who identifies with a gender different than the one assigned at birth. 

I Thee Wed: Bridal fashion from the Collection

As rice showers down, the happy couple runs to a car donning cans and ribbons along with the words “Just Married” sprawled across the back window. Smiling ear to ear, the groom disappears into the cab followed closely by the bride pulling her long white skirts around her. 

This classic scene is what many of us picture when we think of a wedding. The white wedding dress is probably the most significant part of the scene but has this always been the case? White wedding gowns in a variety of materials and styles are held in countless museum collections across the globe including Westport Museum. But these ideals of bridal wear, along with the social definition of marriage, have been constantly changing throughout time. 

The Iconic White Gown 

White can symbolize virtue, purity and innocence in Western countries such as the United States in the 21st century, but in the past the color white specifically symbolized one thing: wealth. 

Until synthetic dyes and electric washing machines became widely available in the 20th century, keeping clothing clean was a laborious task. Fine white textiles, especially with fragile lace, silk, and satin used only for one occasion would have been unfeasible for most. To marry, women of middle and lower classes would wear their “best dress,” usually in a shade of brown. Colors such as grey or light purple could be multifunctional as both wedding and funeral gowns.

Queen Victoria's wedding gown on display

White as the ideal wedding gown color spread in the 1840s with the publication of Godey’s Ladies Book. Although white was a wedding dress color among royals and the wealthy prior, Queen Victoria’s white wedding gown worn in 1840, became the ideal because of widely distributed media coverage of the nuptials of the young British Queen. Today Victoria is still credited with the “creation” of the white wedding dress.

Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom wed Price Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on February 10th of 1840. Her white gown was made with materials manufactured in Britain to bolster the country’s silk and lace trades. (The Royal Collection Trust)

Changing Definitions 

Just as the use and symbolism of white in weddings has evolved so has the social understanding of a marriage contract. Marriage as a legal agreement has existed for millennia, usually as an agreement between the father of the bride and the groom—with the father literally handing off his daughter to her husband. These marriage contracts, and their subsequent wedding ceremonies, were legally a transfer of assets—the woman—from one man to another. 

In Westport in the 18th century a White woman could not own property, make contracts, or vote—women of color and immigrant women held even fewer legal protections. Legal contracts such as marriage did little to safeguard women through the 19th and 20th centuries; Women entering a marriage contract were free to do so under their own legal power in the mid-20th century. Throughout history “concubine marriage” allowed couples to engage in intimate relations and co-habitation when differences of religion or race did not allow for legal matrimony. Concubine marriages were formed by contract, meant to financially protect women, and sometimes her children, in the event of separation. 

Two guests at Westport Museum's Build a Bride exhibit

Opening Reception

Visitors explored several examples of wedding gowns—both white and the less traditional—in the Museum’s exhibition opening on March 10, 2023. Not only did our community get to admire these gowns in detail but also discovered how these iconic dresses relate to wealth, class, gender, and women’s rights.

Visitors enjoy the interactivity of the exhibit as well as the gowns themselves.

Our textile collection contains over 1200 individual pieces; these gowns are fine examples but represent such a small part of our holdings. These gowns not only exemplify the changing silhouettes of bridal fashion but also the changing nature of women, and those presenting as female, in our society.” 

– Nicole Carpenter, Programs and Collections Director

Many enjoyed creating their own wedding dress through the exhibit’s interactive magnet wall, highlighting wedding fashions from around the globe and how individualism is encouraged in multicultural ceremonies today. Explore our exhibit yourself through November 11, 2023.

Bittersweet: Chocolate in the American Colonies

With its turquoise waters and sunny skies, today the Caribbean is thought of primarily as a vacation destination. The Caribbean is integral to the idea of American wealth and almost always has been—not just as a leisure spot for those of means but in more nefarious ways as well. 

A crucial leg of the Atlantic Slave Trade, also called the Triangular Trade, it was sugar colonies in the Caribbean that first brought captive Africans to the Western hemisphere. They harvested and processed sugar cane into white gold in brutal conditions.

Man scraping chocolate, c. 1680-1780, Unknown Artist Spanish, Photo by JR P

The first Caribbean sugar plantations began in Barbados in the 1640s. This highly profitable and inhuman farming system became the prototype for the plantations elsewhere in the West Indies and in the American South. By the end of the 17th century, trade between European-Caribbean and European-North American colonies was brisk, with goods moving back and forth and across the seas to Europe and Africa, the latter in trade for human beings to keep the system going. 

In addition to sugar, Caribbean plantations produced spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper transplanted from the Eastern hemisphere. Native foods like pineapple, allspice and cocoa became precious commodities arriving to ports like Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston destined for the homes of the wealthy. 

Cacao tree with ripened pods
Cacao tree

Cocoa became a must-have beverage at breakfast. Martha Washington was a fan while her husband, George, preferred a light tisane made from cocoa shells. In the most affluent homes, like Stratford Hall, the home of the Lees of Virginia, enslaved cooks ground chocolate using the same methods of the indigenous people of central America where Cacao originated. This stone called a matate was wide, and slightly cupped, resting on short legs and was heated. The cocoa beans were ground with a heavy stone that resembled a squat rolling pin.

I would take the liberty of requesting you’ll be so good as to procure and send me 2 or 3 bushels of the Chocolate Shells such as we frequently drink Chocolate of at Mt. Vernon, as my Wife thinks it agreed with her better than any other Breakfast.

– George Washington, 1794
La Prima Colazione (The Early Breakfast), 1754, Jean-Étienne Liotard, National Museum in Warsaw

By the early 1700s cocoa beans were being shipped to North American cities to be processed with spices into blocks for drinking chocolate and other uses. It may be surprising, for example, but chocolate cream pie, or chocolate tart was a common dessert in the 18th century. 

The chocolate of this era was far different from what we know today—it was a grittier product and usually flavored with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice in a recipe like traditional Central American and Mexican preparations. The smooth, creamy chocolate we know today was not available until later in the 19th century when machinery was invented to grind the pure cocoa paste more finely and add back cocoa butter and sugar during the refining process. 

Chocolate Pot, 1879, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017.156a

Despite not being the melt-in-your-mouth product, we know today, chocolate was trendy enough in the colonial period to warrant its own sense of accoutrements including chocolate preparing pots, serving pots and drinking services. These remained popular into the later 19th century. Some examples of finer cocoa pots included swizzle sticks to reagitate the chocolate that naturally sunk to the bottom of the vessel before serving. 

Chocolate Tart recipes are quite common in cookbooks of the period such as Englishwoman Hannah Glasse’s 1747 book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Modern readers might be surprised that Glasse’s recipe (and most others of the time) calls for rice flour which is used as a thickening agent. Rice and rice flour were commonly used since rice came to England and later America, via the robust British trade with the East and West Indies. Later, rice was grown in the southern American colonies as well. This recipe we share below uses cornstarch as a more effective thickener, however you can harken back to yore and substitute rice flour instead. 

Traditionally this tart would have been served with a sugar crust on top like a crème brulee but we prefer to serve it with Chantilly cream (sweetened whip cream). 

Chocolate Tart Recipe

Makes 1, nine-inch pie 


  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch or rice flour 
  • ¼ cup sugar (or to taste) 
  • 4 large egg yolks 
  • 2 cups heavy cream 
  • 1 tablespoon whole milk 
  • 6 ounces semisweet chocolate chunks or chips 
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 9-inch pie shell, frozen or use our recipe here 


  1. In a medium bowl, mix cornstarch or rice flour, sugar and egg yolks and set aside. 
  2. Mix the cream and chocolate in a medium saucepan over medium heat and bring it to a boil, stirring constantly until the chocolate melts. Do not allow the mixture to boil. 
  3. Add the milk and pinch of salt. Stir well. 
  4. Using a ladle, pour 1/2 cup of the chocolate mixture in a very thin stream into the egg mixture, whisking vigorously the whole time. You may also do this in the bowl of a stand mixer.
  5. Add the egg and cream mixture back to the pot with the remaining chocolate cream mixture and whisk well. Heat over medium heat, whisking well until thickened, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.
  6. Preheat the oven to 350F. If using homemade pie crust, line a 9-inch pie plate with rolled out crust. Pour the cooled chocolate mixture into the pie crust and bake until firm—about 40 to 45 minutes.
  7. Remove from oven and cool completely. Wrap in plastic and cool at least 8 hours but preferably overnight. Serve with Chantilly Cream. 

Explore our exhibit yourself through November 11, 2023.