Woog’s World: Westport’s ‘welcome’ mat: New test after centuries of change
Updated 7:52 am, Saturday, November 28, 2015
Say what you will about Dan Malloy: He’s not afraid to take controversial stances.
In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, 30 United States governors declared that their states would not accept Syrian refugees. The governors’ legal ability to do that is questionable. But that has not stopped them from stepping in front of television cameras and saying, “Stay out!”
Gov. Malloy, on the other hand, joined a smaller number of governors who welcome these refugees. He personally visited a family that relocated to New Haven, after Indiana refused to admit them.
Malloy is the governor of a state that has traditionally benefited from the contributions of immigrants. So, of course, are the other 49 governors.
Westport lacks a large population of Brazilians, like Danbury; Poles, as in New Britain, or Greeks, like Norwalk. But we’ve got a long history of folks coming from other places. They’ve come for a variety of reasons. And their arrivals have elicited a variety of reactions.
In fact, unless you trace your ancestry back to the Pequot tribe, you’re an immigrant. Native Americans were here first, centuries before Europeans came. This was their land. In a long series of sometimes bloody conflicts, we took it from them.
The reasons white folks came here — and to this part of North America — is similar to the reasons many refugees flee their homelands today: religious persecution. The first colonists landed in Massachusetts, but it did not take long for them to find reasons move on again. Protestant minister Thomas Hooker led 100 congregants to what is now the Hartford area in 1636; that marked the start of the Connecticut colony. Some spread southward.
Why did they leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony? They wanted “freedom of expression, and independence for themselves and their families.” Where have we heard that before?
People also move for material reasons. Adriaen Block was a Dutch trader, the first man to explore Long Island Sound. The Dutch influence was greater in New York than here, but the Bankside farmers who followed Block’s lead, settling in what is now Green’s Farms, were immigrants too. They came seeking a better life. They worked hard, and succeeded. Along the way, they disposed of the original inhabitants. Soon, they were the “natives.” Newcomers arrived. They were treated hospitably, and helped others in turn.
According to Woody Klein’s history of Westport, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the west side of town in 1923. (They were protesting the presence of Jews in nearby Norwalk.) In 1932, the KKK held services in the Little White Church on the Hill in Saugatuck. About 400 people attended; 100 wore white robes.
Westport always had black families. In the early 1800s, Henry Munroe, a free man, built a home at what is now 108 Cross Highway. The 1860 census showed 36 “Negroes” living here.
Ninety years later, a couple of dozen black families lived at 12½ Main St. Hidden in plain sight — down an alley, behind storefronts — the adults worked as chauffeurs, laborers and domestics. Their children went to school here. On weekends, they held church services behind the wall.
One day in 1950, a fire destroyed their small living quarters. No one ever knew what started it. Just a few years later, no one remembered they’d been here.
The first Jewish family — the Judahs — came to this area in 1742. However, in the early part of the 20th-century Westport was like many Fairfield County towns: Realtors would not sell or rent to Jews. Yet this was also one of the first places to change. From World War II on, Westport first accepted, then welcomed Jewish “immigrants” (often, from New York). By 1959, they had their own synagogue. Today, there are several.
Westport’s biggest immigrant group by far was Italians. Coming from southern Italy — primarily Calabria — they arrived by the boatload in the 1880s and ’90s. They settled in Saugatuck. It was well located — men worked on the railroad; women and men worked in factories. They sent for their families, back home. Multi-family homes and narrow streets helped create Westport’s most tightly knit neighborhood.
Saugatuck was lively, and thriving. Italians played a key role as the entire town grew. They became gardeners, florists, grocers, tradesmen, police officers, firefighters, priests. Their children grew up to be doctors, lawyers, businessmen, town officials, contractors — the men and women who made Westport what it is today.
Other groups have arrived over the years. In the past decade or two, for example, our Asian population has grown substantially. Yet few people notice. Like much of the rest of Westport, the new arrivals are well educated and well off. So they’re welcome.
Connecticut is one of the few states to roll out a welcome mat for Syrian refugees. In the months to come, I wonder what role Westport will play.