Freedom Fighters

In May 1964, Temple Israel’s congregation hosted the Baptist Minister and Civil Rights Leader, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King came to Westport on the invitation of Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein and spoke to an audience of over 600 people noting that “It is possible to stand up to an unjust system without hate.”  Under Rabbi Rubenstein’s leadership during the 1960s, Temple Israel hosted other activists including writer James Baldwin, becoming a forum for aggressive social progress. 

Just a month after Dr. King visited Westport, the Mississippi Project began. This was a voter registration effort by civil rights groups including the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). During the next few months, which became known as ‘Freedom Summer,’ volunteers and activists were beaten and jailed. Two white students, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and an African American student, James Chaney, disappeared. Their beaten bodies were not found for six weeks. Westport artist Tracy Sugarman was in Mississippi bearing witness to the movement. He said later, “We knew immediately that they’d been killed.” 

That June, Dr. King went to St. Augustine, Florida in response to citywide violence following an attempt by student protestors to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter there. The civil rights leader was arrested on the steps of Mason Motor Lodge Restaurant and wrote a letter from jail to his friend Rabbi Israel Dresner of New Jersey, asking him to recruit others to aid the movement. 

Dresner arrived in St. Augustine with sixteen fellow rabbis including Westport’s Rabbi Rubenstein. All were arrested on June 18, 1964 and from jail they penned a three-page letter entitled “Why We Went” detailing what they had seen in St. Augustine and calling upon fellow Jews to support the civil rights movement: 

“These words were first written at 3:00 am, in the sweltering heat of a sleepless night, by the light of the one naked bulb hanging in the corridor outside our small cell…We do not underestimate what yet remains to be done…In the battle against racism what we have participated here is only a small skirmish. But the total effect of all such demonstrations has created a Revolution.” 

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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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The Adair Family

Originally hailing from Charleston, South Carolina, where he may have been an enslaved person, Benjamin Adair was one of just a few prominent Black landowners in Westport during the 19th century. While the exact circumstances of Adair’s previous life are unknown, the Freedman’s Bank Records in New York note that he was the son of Robert and Sarah, who were listed without surnames.  

By 1850 Benjamin Adair was working as a waiter in the New York City home of prominent banker Morris Ketchum who would later help finance the Union Army in the Civil War. Ketchum would eventually go on to own an 18th century Westport Estate called Hockanum, where Adair was listed as a coachman in 1860. Adair’s wife, Ursula Mingo, was African and Native descent with family ties to the Shinnecock Reservation near Southampton, Long Island.  

Ursula and Benjamin met in New York and married prior to coming to Connecticut. Ursula seems to have grown up on or near the Shinnecock Reservation. She was one of five children born to Horace Mingo and Eliza Cuff. Ursula and Benjamin would themselves have six children. They were Laura Pheobe, Ursula, Emily, twins Benjamin Robert and Eliza, and Samuel. The twins died young with Benjamin being just under one year old when he passed away and Eliza was about seven and a half. They would also lose their son Samuel at the age of twenty-five. 

Once the Adairs’ reached Westport their fortunes would dramatically change. Mr. Adair purchased his first property on Franklin Avenue in the Saugatuck area of the town in 1852 from Sydney Miller. The property was adjacent to a parcel owned by his boss, Morris Ketchum. A savvy businessperson, Mr. Adair later sold the property to the New York and New Haven Railroad, which was then expanding up the Connecticut shoreline for a massive profit. 

Continuing to build his wealth in real estate, Benjamin Adair then purchased about 9 acres of land from Morris Ketchum in 1877 across the road from the Hockanum property at what is today known as “Glynn’s Corner”–the intersection of Main Street, Route 136 and Route 57 (Weston Road).  

For the next 70 years, the Adair family made their homestead a working farm while patriarch Benjamin continued to work for Ketchum. The 1880 Agricultural census shows that their small farm produced 5 tons of Hay, 40 bushels of Indian corn, and 30 bushels of potatoes. They also had cows and used them to produce 300 pounds of butter and their chickens produced 50 dozen eggs. Benjamin’s son Samuel ran the family farm. 

A prosperous man during his lifetime, Benjamin Adair was able to leave a sizable estate to his wife and daughters, when he died in 1891, aged 65, due to “Intestinal Tuberculosis (contributing: Dropsey)” his son Samuel having tragically died of Tuberculosis just a few years before his father leaving a widow, Hester who was also his first cousin as well as their young daughter, Emily. 

For a while, the family of women continued to live at the homestead until, in the 1920s problems began to arise. The daughters and granddaughters of Benjamin and Ursula were struggling to pay the taxes on time. The elder daughter, Laura, responsible for making the payments no longer lived in Westport, she had moved to a home in Brooklyn, NY and continued her school teaching career. Tax liens were placed on the property but then were paid within a few months.  

That changed in 1937 when the land value of the estate inexplicably jumped from $4,644 in 1936 to $7,740 in 1937 while none of the Adairs’ neighbors saw this increase in land value or tax assessments. At the same time, the Merritt Parkway was nearing completion practically in the Adairs’ front yard—a circumstance which should have dropped their property values instead of increasing it.  

From that point forward, the heirs of Benjamin Adair would struggle mightily to pay the taxes. In 1946, with five years of back taxes owed (a total of $828.60), the Town of Westport seized the property and auctioned it off to the highest bidder.  

Benjamin and Ursula’s daughters still went on to have interesting and successful lives, but as black women in the early 20th century they faced obstacles to their success. The eldest Adair daughter, Laura, became a schoolteacher at public schools in Connecticut as well as in Brooklyn, New York. She never married, and when she passed away in 1933, she bequeathed a home in Fairfield to her youngest sister, her share of the family homestead to two of her nieces, and land on the Shinnecock Reservation to her niece Alice Burbridge. 

The second daughter of Benjamin and Ursula, also named Ursula, married William Dorsey and they built a home in Saugatuck on Davenport Avenue. They had two daughters, Cynthia (a schoolteacher) and Edith (an interior designer). Edith also had two daughters, Marian, and Cynthia. 

 The Adairs’ third daughter, Emily, married John Vincent and they made their home at the family farm. They had two daughters who survived to adulthood, also losing two daughters and a son in infancy. Their daughters Ruth Cordelia and Alice Viola/Violet each became teachers. Alice married Edwin Burbridge. Their only child, daughter Marguerite Doris Burbridge, would go on to become an internationally renowned dancer who went by the stage name of Mika Mingo. 

While the Adair family home still stands on part of its original property it has been massively renovated and added over the years to be unrecognizable today. After the property was sold at auction, the son of the next owner subdivided and sold off all but approximately one acre of the original nine that comprised the farm. There are several housing developments on the land currently. 

Today, Mika Mingo’s daughter Annette T. Thomas who is also a dancer, lives in Florida with her husband Timothy. J. Thomas. She teaches classical ballet technique as applies to figure skaters. Thomas has three children who comprise the 5th generation of the Adair Family. Thomas’ daughter Heather Thomas Flores is an anthropologist working to identify and understand the power dynamics of systemic racism. Daughter Rachel Davis (nee Thomas) is an artist and interior designer with two young children—the 6th generation of Benjamin Adair’s Family and son Brendon Thomas, lives in California where he is an executive at Paramount Pictures. 

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The Monroe’s of Westport

Henry Monroe was the first African American landholder in Westport. He built his Cross Highway home on land he purchased from John Burr in 1802. His farm appears in the town tax rolls in 1805. The house still stands today and there is evidence that it was built on a West African 12-foot measurement convention, rather than the English/American measure based on a “rod” which is just about 16 ½-feet. The home of Cato Freedom, an emancipated African American man who was born in Newtown in 1748 is also representative of this style. 

Henry’s wife was Lyzette Hide Monroe. She is buried in the Lower Greens Farms Church Cemetery and may be the same Lysette, daughter of Sill, listed in the Greens Farms Church logbook. 

Henry and Lyzette Monroe had two sons – Henry Jr. and Alexander – and a daughter Amelia. In 1827, Alexander passed his interest in his father’s estate to Henry Jr. who lived there with his wife Phoebe. When Henry Jr. died in 1881 he owned over 14 acres of property which was then divided among his wife Phoebe, sister Amelia, niece, and grandniece. 

Just down the road at 93 Cross Highway, Amelia Monroe worked as Peter Sturges’ housekeeper. Sturges outlived Amelia but, prior to her death, he had written a will leaving a life tenancy to his house to “my faithful friend and housekeeper, Amelia Monroe”. 

When Amelia died in 1884, she owned, among other things, ten dresses, four shoes, and a Phaeton carriage – the equivalent of a horse-drawn sports car. The Monroes are listed on various census documents as “mulatto” as well as “black”. The family’s longevity at Cross Highway is remarkable by any standard, but more so given their race and lack of equal protection under the law. After 1818, African Americans could not vote or hold office even if they owned property, a primary qualification for voting rights at the time. This lack of representation made it hard for black families to pursue opportunities and maintain multi-generational assets let alone thrive as the Monroes did. 

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Beyond This Life

Even in death, African Americans could not count on being shown consideration or dignity. It was not uncommon for African Americans not to have grave markers at all, even if no longer enslaved. 

The African American burial ground of Greens Farms Church lower cemetery is a field of unmarked graves. Two notable exceptions are stone graves, now felled including one for Dorcas Hyde, enslaved by John Hyde (Hide) the church deacon and Lynette (Lyzette) Monroe, wife of Henry Monroe, the first black landowner in Westport. 

In the upper cemetery, close to the church, another exception is Lucy Rowe who died in 1859. Born enslaved, as was her husband, Charles, Mrs. Rowe has a solid gravestone upon which the writing is still clear, if weathered. Mr. Rowe, who does not have a headstone, remained enslaved until 1848 when Emancipation was fully adopted in Connecticut. He was the Greens Farms Church sexton. The Rowes lived in Westport’s Hyde Lane, near what is today Long Lots Elementary School.

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