Way Back When ... A black community thrived in downtown Westport
This Black History Month, the museum remembers the history of the African American community in Westport, the first of whom were enslaved people, with a few free people of color who made their way in a world where there was little, if any, protection under the law.
After slavery ended, many left Westport for more hospitable towns with larger black populations. But some remained, stretching their roots deeper into the soil, quietly keeping purchase on the land that bound them, this time in new iterations — as landowners, as journeymen, as survivors.
Some families, like the Munros of Cross Highway, called Westport home for nearly 100 years, paving the way for waves of African Americans arriving with the Great Migrations of the 20th century. Much of the town’s black community lived in a neighborhood of back alleys between Elm and Main streets in buildings numbered by halves. In particular, 22 ½ Main St. was a boarding house almost exclusively serving African Americans hailing from the South and largely working on the docks, on estates, shops and farms.
In December 1949, the residents of 22 ½ Main St., (considered “slum” housing), appealed to the Representative Town Meeting to be considered for new affordable housing being built in Hales Court, writing “We the undersigned residents of 22 ½ Main Street respectfully petition the town government to help us secure decent, low-rent housing for ourselves and our families.”
As reported in the Westport Town Crier, RTM members contentiously advised these Westporters that they would be considered only after the needs of all other individuals were met. A January 1950 op-ed in the same paper mused about the possibility of fire at 22 ½ Main St. “while all the occupants were asleep,” pondering “we wonder how many would escape alive?”
Eight nights later, the building went up in flames. One resident awoke and alerted his neighbors. As everyone escaped, he attempted to douse the flames with a garden hose. By the time firefighters arrived, 22 ½ Main St. was lost.
Residents were forced to move to other towns, prompting former tenant Sheila Johnson to say, “I guess Westport finally succeeded in getting rid of us. ... I hate to leave the town, but maybe it’s for the best. There’s no use in staying where you’re not wanted.”
Today, the site of Westport’s former African American community is a town parking lot on Elm Street serving Bedford Square. Since 2018, the museum has been advocating for a plaque commemorating this community. If you agree, let the town’s Wayfinding Steering Committee know at their next meeting.
Read more about 22 ½ Main St. at westporthistory.org/blog-post/housing/