At This Crossroad of History, Which Path Will You Follow?

As modern historians, we try to examine history in a holistic way, looking at all sides, examining all perspectives. To do this, we use primary source information for fact-based story telling. Unlike in the past, where history was the story of the victors, we strive to present history in neutral terms presenting artifacts from an earlier time to objectively inform our decisions in the future.  

The recent protests over the murder of George Floyd–an unarmed Black father—by Minneapolis police has made it clear that in order to gain a truly holistic picture of the past we must now put neutrality aside.  

We must examine our failures in achieving a just and fair society both as a nation and in each and every town within that nation.  We must admit to these failures and to the fact that they have informed the times in which we live today—times that are too often unjust and inequitable especially for communities of color. 

Black Americans continue to have dramatically fewer educational, economic, housing and healthcare opportunities than their white counterparts.  According to the NAACP, although African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the US population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015. The New York Times reports that data from Minneapolis indicates that the police force used brutality against Black people seven times more than it did for whites. It is a pattern that exists nationwide. 

In 1968, following a year of dramatic protest and unrest in the demand for Civil Rights, The Kerner Commission, empaneled by President Lyndon Johnson, noted the failure of the American system in its treatment of its Black Citizens.  The report clearly and unequivocally stated: 

 “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal… What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” 

These are not facts of a murky past. They continue to be rules of a playbook outlining the systemic and institutionalized racism that is an indelible stain upon the American Republic. 

We often invoke the lessons of history as a way to understand the present and future.  But as we work to engage the community we’ve learned a specific truth: It is the myth of “over there” and “back then” that provides covert shelter to the tree of injustice and sustenance to its poisoned fruit. 

It is not enough to simply present the facts that, in 1939, a health survey commissioned by the town of Westport said “housing of Negroes” was a disgrace contributing to “insanitary conditions” in the town.  It is more accurate to explain that this kind of pernicious bias is but one example of how institutionalized racism in the healthcare system has today resulted in Black Americans being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 health crisis. 

It is not enough to tell you that, in the 1940s,  Westport’s RTM considered “Negro Housing” at 22 ½ Main Street an embarrassment to the town that was conveniently set ablaze by an arsonist in a conflagration to which the Westport Fire Department did not rapidly respond. The building was completely destroyed and its residents largely left Westport thereafter. It is more accurate to say this appalling history is the forefather of today’s ongoing battle in Westport to block fair, affordable housing opportunities for those considered “lower income”—a population that is disproportionately represented by people of color. 

It is not enough to provide evidence that programs like Project Concern and the Intercommunity Camp—1970s programs to offer the benefits of the Westport school system and town amenities to children of color from under-resourced neighboring towns—were bitterly fought by some Westport residents. Ultimately, the programs proceeded for several years because of the work of dedicated volunteers—many of whom where teenagers. But, it’s more historically accurate to identify the spirit behind the opposition as one of the many reasons why Black children in Westport Schools continue to face micro and overt aggression that prove psychological barriers of entry to the benefits of this “superior” educational system.  

The time has come to not just reveal these facts with the dispassion of an objective observer from many decades hence but to condemn them as unacceptable and incorrect. It is one way we may stand with those who protest injustice against the Black community and communities of color in America today. 

America is a nation born from civil disobedience. Protestors against unjust acts are the standard-bearers of this republic.  History proves this to be true. Colonial governors considered the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party to be uncivil riots. Yet, we know and teach them as the first steps to freedom.  

More than the early actors of the American Revolution or the protestors of the 1960s, the justice warriors of 2020 represent a broad coalition of multi-ethnic Americans, including scholars, journalists, educators and historians. We understand that the events of our shameful collective history must be named in order to change.  This is true in every town and every state across the nation–including Westport.  

As historians, it is our obligation to use our considerable skill and knowledge for the side of right–in order to help rebuild this Republic into what it should have been from the start. We hope you will join us in this commitment by tuning in, and participating in our programming and sharing your own stories via our Oral History platform: Westport In Focus.  

We are at the crossroads of history and we are staring at the signposts above us. One points backwards down a horrible and untenable road. The other points to a better future down a path that is not smooth: It is  a path with twists and hairpin turns. It will, at times, double back and slow our progress.  Still, we must take that path, using the truth of history, fully, as a roadmap for the difficulties behind but also those ahead as we find a way forward. 

We hope you will join us on the journey.

Ramin Ganeshram, Executive Director 

Alicia D’Anna, Operations Director 

Nicole Carpenter, Director of Programs & Education 

Mariet Griffiths, Marketing Manager 

Kathy Nixon, Guest Services 

Catherine Graham, Museum Associate 

Cheryl Bliss, Chairperson 

Char Lukacs, Secretary 

Dannell Lyne, Treasurer 

Sara Krasne, Director 

Greg Porretta, Director 

Kimberly Wilson, Director 

Focus On The Greely Family: Sending Encouragement to Those on the Front Lines

Jen Greely with her family

My husband David and I are both self-employed. I’m an artist; primarily a printmaker and painter. All of my art shows have been canceled – along with summer plans for a printmaking residency. The Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk, where I regularly worked using the printing presses and darkroom, has also closed. After working with the kids schooling during the day, I’m now trying to maintain a home-studio practice in the late afternoons and evenings. David is an economist and has been working the last several months on launching his own company – the future of which is now quite uncertain. So, we will both be looking at how to pivot our work and hopefully find a way forward. 

As an artist, I am used to working alone and having stretches of quiet time to think and create. Having three kids at home 24/7 who are distance-learning through school, means very little time for my work. Even when I manage time in the studio, it is hard to quiet the mind and escape anxiety about what the future looks like in a post-pandemic world. I know that my artwork will change – but in what way remains unclear. I mean, all artwork is influenced by time, place, and events of the day. I will just keep showing up in the studio, doing the work, and trusting the process.  

We are spending loads of time with the kids (Xavier, 14, 8th grade; Nathaniel, 12, 6th grade; Maeve, 8, 3rd grade). In addition to their schoolwork, we’ve worked on family art projects (right now we are painting rocks to hide around town), lots of games (favorites seem to be Apples to Apples, Kids Against Humanity, Exploding Kittens, and my oldest has created a new Dungeons and Dragons campaign for us to do as a family – I am now a Sorcerer named Hazel Mylove). The kids are all trying something new, but each week this seems to change. This week our youngest is learning to code via Khan Academy, our 6th grader is learning to cook with online Gordon Ramsey videos through Masterclass, and our 8th grader is fiddling around with music on a keyboard. I’m also spending an inordinate amount of time in the backyard with my daughter’s flock of chickens. It’s easy to escape the daily stream of bad news while watching chickens be chickens.  

Westport has been incredibly quick-acting and responsive to this crisis. I am immensely grateful for the daily town communications via emails and texts. Truly admirable as well are the school district’s administrators and teachers who have been trying to provide our kids with a sense of community and stability in learning during enormous upheaval. 

I fervently hope that we, as a collective humanity, start to truly view ourselves as part of an intricately entwined global community. This virus has infected nearly every country in the world within the span of a single season, regardless of borders. Countries are needing to partner with one another, share information and data freely in order to learn how best to prevent and treat infections. In our country we have been so divided, and remain divided across different states and across our physical borders. After this plays out, and the tragedy and loss of life is largely in the past, I hope that there is a renewed sense that we have all been in this together. We are sending healthy thoughts to friends who are sick, and strong encouragement to those who are in the hospitals fighting on the front lines. Be well, be strong, all. 

I fervently hope that we, as a collective humanity, start to truly view ourselves as part of an intricately entwined global community.

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On the Kaplan Family: An Ordinary Family Living Thru an Extraordinary Time.

Amy Kaplan is an artist, an event planner and an elected RTM member. She, her husband and two kids have lived in Westport for 20 years.

My son was supposed to study abroad in Shanghai China, leaving February 8. So we became aware of Corona Virus early, as the virus began to sweep Wuhan and China enacted quarantines. Initially, he was offered a spot in Australia as an alternative, but he decided to take the semester off instead and get a job. After working on Amy Klobuchar’s campaign in Tennessee, he took a job as a campaign consultant for a candidate in North Carolina. That’s when the virus hit Westport. Under the threat of some kind of national shelter in place rule, his new boss sent everyone home to work remotely. He joins my husband working from home for now. My husband’s company manufactures in China, so again, we’ve been watching this unfold with dread since January. At first, he was on the phone with Chinese co-workers expressing our concern for them. Now the shoe is on the other foot.  

At first, [my husband] was on the phone with Chinese co-workers expressing our concern for them. Now the shoe is on the other foot.

My events are canceled or postponed, and my RTM work has been on hold as we try to adapt to a new process of holding public meetings. As an artist, it’s been a bit of a bright spot because with fewer “important” errands and meetings canceled, I have more guilt-free time in my studio. I’m finding I need that time more than ever, just to lose that ever-present anxiety for a time. 

The biggest challenge for me is to keep my high school senior connected to these last few weeks of her Westport Public School career. After a crazy few days, she had finally worked out a schedule that worked for her- sleeping till noon, but then doing all the work required during the afternoon and evening hours, taking breaks on her own time. Then, school sent an email requiring them to all sign in at 8:30 am and work from 8:30-12:15. Apparently the lack of schedule was difficult for some…but I can say with certainty that adhering to this rigid schedule in the midst of this crazy time is not going to go well in this house. 

We are just an ordinary family living thru an extraordinary time. This is a time when I was mentally preparing to be an empty nester, but as it turns out, both our children are here with us, and I’m grateful that we are together. In a way it reminds me of when they were young, with lots of noise and laundry! But it’s also a privilege to be with them as “almost adults”, when we can relate to each other as family members and friends, and share our solutions and work-arounds with each other. Hopefully we’ll share some laughs as well, even in these trying times. Mostly, we are ok. We’ll all get through this in our own way, so don’t be afraid to chart your own way behind your closed front door. But come out and wave sometimes! 

I do love that people are finding virtual and alternative ways to connect and support each other but I’m not so thrilled at the selfishness displayed by hoarding and refusal to social distance properly. I think our town leaders are doing the best they can in a difficult situation, but I wish they had been more forthcoming originally about the level of exposure here in town. To be fair, I’m not sure they got accurate info themselves right away. I just feel people might have taken quarantine more seriously if we understood that it wasn’t just people at the infamous party that were exposed. Those exposed people attended many other events that weekend and into the following week before school closed. There was a concern about people being blamed, but, honestly, I’ve not heard one person online or in real life, express that. Mostly people just wanted info to try to retrace their steps or to understand their own potential for exposure. Many of us live with or love vulnerable high-risk people, and just want to keep them safe. I sincerely hope our town officials are advocating vociferously for us behind the scenes with the state and federal agencies. 

I’m worried we are going to lose a lot of amazing people who still have so much to offer the world. I’m worried that my husband’s business will collapse, that my son will not graduate from college and still have student loans to pay. I’m worried that my daughter will not set off across the country next year, to claim her own future. I’m worried that Trump will seize this to declare elections unsafe or invalid to solidify his power and not leave office. I’m worried companies will find they only need half the staff they previously employed, and that this will not be a pause in the American economy, but the beginning of a free fall. 

I’m spending a lot of time calling, emailing, face-timing and offering to get food or necessities for neighbors. I’ve set up a virtual cocktail hour on Zoom with a friend for our artists group. 

 I’m jumping in on this oral history project to stay connected and to build something from this time that we can look back on. 

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On Quincy Cuthbertson & Family: The College Perspective

Quincy Cuthbert has spent all of her 18 years in Westport, having been born and raised in the town. She is a college student who has come home to Westport after school closed due to Corona Virus. According to her profile at the school, Quincy is a Drexel University student majoring in Civil Engineering and Business with ambitions to design and build roller coasters, for which she has already placed in competitions at well-known theme parks. 

The most striking change in all this is that I now have to live at home and still be a full-time student. It is strange being back in town yet not being able to spend time with my friends, or go out and enjoy everything Westport has to offer.  

Everything happened so fast, and each day a new precaution is introduced but Westport is adapting at a rate I didn’t even think was possible. Even though we are all self-isolating in our houses we are really working together. There is a joke that if you grew up in Westport, you’re used to living in a bubble, this definitely brings new meaning to that.  

My family is incredibly close, and in this moment, I wouldn’t want to be with anyone else. I am thankful we could all be under the same roof, but we still have moments. Sometimes we have to self-isolate from one another, not because of the virus but because we are all fantastic at pushing each other’s buttons.  

My family is incredibly close, and in this moment, I wouldn’t want to be with anyone else.

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On The Griffiths Family: Facing Challenges Head On

The Griffiths family found their home in Westport 5 years ago, having immigrated to Connecticut from Cape Town, South Africa, 11 years ago. Dad, Warren, is a Global Media Investment President at Publicis Media, a road warrior who spends a lot of his work time traveling globally. His wife Mariet is the Marketing Director at Westport Museum and mom to second grader Sadie and Staples sophomore Sydney.  

“We have faced much adversity, and challenges in our nomadic lives,” says Warren. “and we have always faced them head on. There is no doubt that this is one of the biggest challenges we have ever faced as a family, however we are an extremely positive family, pragmatists at heart, and lean into headwinds. Mariet has been incredible, as she marshals our homelife, home schooling the kids, work and keeping everything on track. The mothers are the real family superheroes during these challenging times! 

All of our direct family are based overseas in South Africa and the UK, and being so far from loved ones can be very scary at times, especially now with all travel restrictions.  

We remind ourselves constantly that we are fortunate to live in a first world country where information, medical support, and leadership structures are strong, to effectively fight these kinds of threats.  

Like everyone we have fully integrated our working and school lives into home school and virtual work. No longer spending time at airports, planes and boardrooms in different corners of the planet, and 100% of the time at home now. Video conferencing and virtual tools have become the new normal. I tend to be putting many more productive hours into my day since I have no commute times, but there is a challenge in that the work-life barrier has become a bit fuzzy.  

A positive side effect is that we are spending so much more wonderful time, video-chatting and reconnecting with friends, family and loved ones across the globe. 

We are spending so much more quality time with the family over (full attendance) meals, long put off chores around the house finally being checked off, evening walks and bike rides around the neighborhood (keeping safe distances) and teaching our 8-year-old how to ride a bike, while our 16-year-old learns to skateboard. 

What I see around us on a town level has been a mix of fear and responsible community actions. There is a definite underlying stress and apprehension around “what happens next?”, and “how bad is it going to get?”, but also a wonderful coming together and comradeship, as neighbors offer to help neighbors, and sharing of information and experiences is everywhere. 

My hope is that this disease will be short lived, and will not negatively impact our community too dramatically, that we learn positive new life skills through these challenges, and that we learn to value time and loved ones more.   

The silver lining in this pandemic is that it has slowed down the manic minute-by-minute nature of modern life, allowing us to appreciate each other more, and take a deep breath. My fear is that the disease continues long enough to leave a deep permanent scar on our lives and community or that someone we know and love might get very ill. 

The silver lining … is that it has slowed down the manic minute-by-minute nature of modern life, allowing us to appreciate each other more, and take a deep breath.

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.