Westport updates historical markers, makes them more inclusive

WESTPORT — Ramin Ganeshram knew that most people walked by the historical marker outside Westport Town Hall without giving it any thought. After all, she said, historical markers largely exist to be ignored.

“Frankly the old plaque, I don’t know if anyone read it,” said Ganeshram, executive director of the Westport Museum for Culture and History. “It was one of those things that just become part of the property. But we happened to notice it and thought it was very lacking.”

The marker started by mentioning the “first white settlement here in 1648,” and doesn’t mention the contributions — or exploitation — of indigenous people or enslaved Africans. “It was very Eurocentric,” Ganeshram said. “What was missing was the fact that there was a native settlement here for 7,500 years and that the white settlement was predicated on the destruction of that native community.”

She said it also omitted that the town was built largely through the forced labor of indigenous and African slaves. “The story is not whole in the way it is told” in that plaque, Ganeshram said.

A few years ago, Ganeshram and others had an informal discussion with the town leaders about the plaque and how it could be more inclusive. But, she said, nothing really changed until the past year, when the museum was contacted by the First Selectman’s Office about providing information for a new, more inclusive marker.

In July, the town replaced the historical marker at Town Hall with one acknowledging that, among other things, the area was once home to native Paugussets who were driven away after the Great Swamp Fight between the Pequot tribe and European colonizers.

The town also added a marker at 22 ½ Main St. to remember the tragedy that befell upon the Black community there in 1949 when a fire broke out in the section of the building used as a church. All of the building’s (primarily Black) residents escaped, but most of the structure and nearly all of the residents’ possessions were destroyed. Arson was suspected, but there was no investigation.

A third marker with Westport’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity statement is planned and currently underway.

The new markers are a collaboration between the Westport Museum for Culture and History, the First Selectman’s Office and TEAM Westport, which stands for Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism.

TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey Jr. said adding historical markers and changing existing ones is an idea that had been discussed at several TEAM meetings. “It’s one of those things that had been floated around for a while,” he said.

The idea behind the markers is to acknowledge the sacrifices and contributions of early Black and indigenous residents of Westport, Bailey said, adding that the town is far from the only one where non-White residents where exploited and mistreated.

“This was something whole country did,” Bailey said. “The problem Westport had was the same problem all of Connecticut had and it was the same problem the whole country had.”

In addition to acknowledging Westport’s difficult racial history, the new Town Hall marker also discusses the influx of writers, artists and actors into Westport before World War I, and the growth of a thriving Jewish community in town.

“This wasn’t about erasing anyone’s story, but about including the story of everyone who was there at the time,” Ganeshram said of the new markers.

In a statement, First Selectman Jim Marpe said the town has a commitment to depict the full picture of its history.

“Today we realize that each day, we learn more about our history and new facts come to light,” he said. “These markers are customizable and can be modified, so that we can continue to tell an exhaustive and inclusive representation of Westport’s history, from the Indigenous to current times.”