Exhibit on view through June 2019
Back in the 1700s, Westport’s Greens Farm Church was a hub of local life. Residents filled the pews each Sunday while their enslaved people stood in the gallery above. From 1742-1822 the church log book registered births, deaths, marriages and baptisms of nearly three hundred African American Westporters. More than 240 were enslaved, primarily of African descent, laboring daily to build prosperous farms and local shipping businesses.
With the Revolutionary War, many of the men from this slave community joined the ranks of soldiers on both sides. Some hoped for freedom in return for service, others enlisted with the British and departed with them at the war’s end. As our new nation was forged, Connecticut struggled with its place in the slave trade, banning the import of enslaved people and enacting laws to effect gradual abolition from 1784 to 1848.
In Westport, as in other towns, newly free African Americans often struggled to find a place in the community. Among them was Henry Munro, the first black landholder in Westport. Munro grew to be prosperous and his family lived in the house he built on Cross Highway in 1806 for nearly 100 years. That house still stands today. Others found work only a step above what they had endured during slavery–as laborers, domestic servants, and farmhands. The move forward was not always easy–the lack of equal protection under law brought tragedy to the community over and over again, from assault and false imprisonment, to murder and arson.
But these families persevered. Creating lives in Westport, they became educators, freedom fighters, artists, patriots and respected citizens. Although their stories may have largely been forgotten, African Americans have been integral to the founding and success of Westport from its very beginning.
WHS’s new exhibit, Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport, brings their history to public light.
“This exhibit is an opportunity to rectify the myths about our town, about our state, and even about New England at large,” says Westport Historical Society’s Executive Director, Ramin Ganeshram. “We believe that visitors to this exhibit will come away both enlightened and eager to learn more”.
Exhibit design team, Broadway set designer Jordan Janota and builder Alicia D’Anna along with graphic artist Christopher Knight from the Crown Heights Collective have lent their creative expertise to create an interactive installation that sheds light on the earliest African American stories in Westport, with objects and artifacts from the 18th century all the way through the Civil Rights Era.
Remembered is produced with community partner TEAM Westport, the town’s diversity action committee. TEAM stands for “Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism” and a special panel of experts from TEAM advised on appropriateness and sensitivity during the research, planning, and installation of the exhibit.
“The generally accepted narrative is that the history and legacy of African Americans in Westport span the range of little to none. This exhibit takes that narrative and turns it on its head. For the Town of Westport, it adds profound dimensions to where we’ve been, who we are and where we can go in the future,” says TEAM Westport Chairperson, Harold Bailey. “TEAM Westport is honored to have been a part of this well researched initiative. It is our sincere hope that, going forward, this history which has been so extensively absented from the general Westport narrative will be erased no more.”
A corollary exhibit, supported by a grant from Connecticut Humanities, and entitled Rights For All? explores the effect of the 1818 Connecticut Constitution on emancipation, enfranchisement and civil liberties for African Americans and other people of color.
Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport opened with a reception Friday, May 11th at Westport Historical Society with refreshments and music provided by the award-winning Bedford Middle School Chamber Orchestra.
This exhibit made possible in part by a grant from Connecticut Humanities. Special Thanks To: Black Bear Wine & Spirits, Alicia D’Anna, TEAM Westport and Christopher K Wright, Crown Heights Collective.