African American life in Westport—and neighboring towns—represented a wide diversity of experience. We can piece together details of their daily existence through the records of local churches and the account ledgers of local stores such as Judson’s which stood somewhere on Beachside Avenue Westport and Southport. The earliest free people—and enslaved people as well—were given purchasing credit for goods paid for by cash, barter, or labor. In some cases, the labor of enslaved people was used to pay the accounts of their owners. 

From landholders like Henry Monroe to Mary and Eliza Freeman, who were born and raised in Derby built homes in the prosperous free black community in Bridgeport called Little Liberia, 19th- century African American families spanned the social spectrum. 

Others came to towns like Westport from the South during the Great Migration of the 1930s to find work in the local farms, and as domestic servants in lavish estates like Hockanum and the Laurence Estate (Longshore). Many people lived in the downtown area on Bay Street, Wright Street, State Street (the Post Road), and East Main Street. Most of the residents there are listed on the 1940 census as working in service professions. 

In 1950, a suspicious fire razed 22 1/2 Main Street, a boarding house exclusively catering to African American Westporters. Townspeople speculated that the fire was caused by a firebombing specifically designed to drive black residents away. Just a few months earlier in December of 1949, an RTM hearing about low-cost housing in Hales Court drew interest because of the attendance of “a delegation of Negro residents.” The front-page photo in The Westport Town Crier ran with the spurious caption “For the first time in Westport history, a Negro attended one of this community’s town meetings.” African American Westporters had come to the meeting to ask if they were eligible for town housing, describing their home at 22 1/2 Main Street as “slum quarters”. The Westport Housing Authority Chairman said they were eligible “after veterans with proven needs and any others whose needs proved more pressing than theirs.” 

The fire at 22 1/2 Main Street coupled with discriminatory real estate practices effectively heralded the end of an established African American community in Westport. 

Dr. Judith Hamer, who moved to Westport in 1971 with her husband and daughters, specifically recalls only being shown homes listed with realtors who were willing to work with African Americans. In the 1980s, her husband Martin Hamer, a writer for IBM, wrote a column entitled “Trying to Love America” for the Westport News, and often explored issues of race relations and life as a black man in suburban Connecticut. 

Like the Hamers, other African American Westporters, such as doctors Albert and Jean Beasley, beloved pediatricians who worked for many years at Willows Pediatric, and local business owners, Venora and Leroy Ellis, were successful and prominent. Mrs. Ellis was a dressmaker and house couturier while Mr. Ellis was a successful performer who served in World War II in the USO in the South Pacific, performing as a singer with the DePaur Infantry Chorus. 

The Ellises remained in Westport for more than sixty years overcoming racial prejudice in a community that had come to forget the role of the black community in the very founding of the town. Venora Ellis and Dr. Albert Beasley were recipients of Trailblazer Awards in 2009 and 2010 respectively given by TEAM Westport, the Town of Westport’s diversity action committee. 

Continue to Next Exhibit Stop

Select the button to proceed to the next stop on the Remembered virtual exhibit.

Captain Smalls

These letters were written by Westporter Benjamin Toquet while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. They were written aboard Planter, a former Confederate sea mining ship commandeered by its enslaved crew and sailed north where the crew was emancipated. Toquet’s letters from aboard Planter, and while stationed at a New Orleans plantation, offer a first-hand account of slavery in the South, and his own state of mind regarding relations between White and African Americans. 

Continue to Next Exhibit Stop

Select the button to proceed to the next stop on the Remembered virtual exhibit.

Soldiers and Sailors

African Americans have served the American military with distinction, even in the time when they themselves were not free. In the Revolutionary War, many of the African American men from this community joined the ranks of soldiers on both sides.

At first African Americans were barred from enlistment in the Continental Army, while the British admitted them into the ranks. Some African Americans hoped for freedom in return for service, others threw in their lot with the British regulars. Often, patriots who did not want to fight sent their enslaved people to fight in their stead or to work for the Continental Army in some capacity including as spies and double agents like enslaved Virginian, James Armistead Lafyette, who served under the Marquis de Lafayette.

Jack Rowland of Fairfield earned his emancipation in return for his service in the Colonel Bradley’s Connecticut regiment, serving at the battles of Ridgefield and Germantown. Cato Treadwell also of Fairfield joined as a free man in New York. Both soldiers petitioned Congress to receive their pension for time served in the War for Independence. Their counterparts Ishmael Coley, enslaved by Ebenezer Coley of Westport and Tom Hide, enslaved by John Hide of Westport both escaped to enlist with British forces, departing with them at the war’s end.

African American soldiers from Westport and Connecticut at large served on both land and sea in all the wars that followed, usually in segregated units. This was despite the fact that The First Rhode Island regiment accepted black soldiers in 1778 following poor enlistment among able-bodied white men. It was the first integrated regiment in American history.

Continue to Next Exhibit Stop 

Select the button to proceed to the next stop on the Remembered virtual exhibit.

Land and Sea

The Saugatuck River was lined with merchants and docks in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both white, enslaved, and free black Westporters worked loading local farm goods onto ships heading up the coast to New Haven or Boston, or south toNew York. From New York the goods went on to the British West Indies and the American South to provide food, linens, and other supplies for the enslaved people who worked large plantations.

During the mid to late 1700s, John Hide Sr., who lived in the area of Long Lots Road, owned a store where his enslaved people likely worked. Ebenezer Coley, a prominent farmer with vast acreage in the area of Westport now known as Coleytown, owned at least five enslaved people. It is probable that some of them worked at his downtown store and dock at the building that still stands on the southwest corner of Main Street and Avery Place.

In the mid 19th century, black sailors found work on whaling vessels. Well into the 20th century, African Americans remained employed in maritime professions, particularly in the oystering trade. On land, African Americans shucked oysters for canning at large firms like Tallmadge Brothers Oyster Company, the largest commercial oystering operation of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Continue to Next Exhibit Stop 

Select the button to proceed to the next stop on the Remembered virtual exhibit.

Rights for All?

The State of Connecticut didn’t adopt its first state constitution until 1818 – more than thirty years after most of the other twelve original colonies had adopted theirs. Instead, Connecticut had chosen to continue to abide by the charter it had received from King Charles II of England in 1662.   

Even before the charter, slavery as an institution had been legally recognized by Connecticut in 1650.    

Connecticut’s constitution, drafted well after the end of the Revolutionary War and establishment of a strong Federal government, had the unique opportunity to clarify and address issues faced by its residents of color – but did it? 

Although Hartford native Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal work Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought attention to the abolitionist cause, it also helped create the persistent fantasy that Connecticut was an emancipation state. In fact, 19th century Connecticut—and Fairfield County in particular— remained the most reluctant of the New England states to abolish slavery.

In 1781 Massachusetts had already abolished slavery via its constitution, which was legislatively affirmed with the case Brom and Bett v. John Ashley. Vermont ended the practice in 1777 with the adoption of its own constitution. Connecticut would not free its last enslaved people until 1848. 

Continue to Next Exhibit Stop

Select the button to proceed to the next stop on the Remembered virtual exhibit.