Woog’s World / The most popular show WHS has ever mounted
Published 12:00 am, Friday, May 18, 2018
“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” may be the most powerful show the Westport Historical Society ever mounted.
The Sheffer Gallery is filled with artifacts and text documenting the long — and long-overlooked — legacy of blacks in Westport. Bills of sale prove that some of our most famous citizens owned fellow human beings, some with no names at all. A school photo shows a young African American girl, standing far apart from her white classmates. Artwork by Roe Halper commemorates Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1964 visit to Temple Israel.
There is mention too of 22 ½ Main St.. That’s one more now-forgotten piece of Westport’s past.
A quarter century ago, I wrote about that place. Back then it was the location of Onion Alley — the restaurant at the end of an actual alley. Later, it became Bobby Q’s. Today, it’s undergoing renovation.
Once, 22 ½ Main St. was a large wooden apartment building. Renters were men and women who worked in Westport home and businesses. Longtime white Westporters, I wrote, “remember the residents as keeping very much to themselves, causing no controversy.”
William “Billy” Dew, a black house cleaner and maintenance man, owned the property, and lived there with his invalid wife. His hard-working tenants included women who worked at the Open Door Inn, where police headquarters is now on Jesup Road. Because the Open Door had accommodations for guests’ maids and chauffeurs, it was a popular after-work spot for the residents of 22 ½ Main Street.
James Burch, who for decades owned and lied over the Commuter Shoe Repair Shop near the train station, also began his Westport life on Main Street.
Herman Smith came to Westport from Orangeburg (S.C.) State College in the early 1920s. He too lived at 22 ½ Main St. for a while, working two jobs as a waiter and sanitation man. He married a college woman. Eventually they bought a home on Crescent Road, and became established Westporters. The town was good to them. “The only trouble we had was making the down payment,” she told the Westport Oral History project.
But the Smiths’ long stay in Westport, and their involvement in civic affairs, seems unusual. Most residents of 22 ½ Main St. kept deliberately low profiles. They left early for work, returned late, and remained apart from town life as much as possible.
I interviewed long-time Westporters for my story. Most had few recollections of the downtown blacks. Eleanor Street — who worked as a librarian for many years across Main Street from the apartments — barely recalled the tenants. She did note that the boys and girls came up to her second floor children’s library while their parents worked.
Others had similar vague recollections of their one or two black classmates. All say they were treated well, with no apparent rancor.
But one veteran Westporter had a much clearer vision of 22 ½ Main St.. Dan Bradley was a retired attorney who had just completed his 50th year with the Fire Department. He remembered fighting a fierce blaze there “sometime around 1950.”
There was a church in the basement of the apartment building, with a piano and chairs. One cold winter night, the place burned. “The scuttlebutt was that someone dropped a firebomb through a basement window,” Bradley said.
Though the insinuation on was arson, nothing was ever proved.
“The fire got off to a heavy start. The place was all in flames by the time we got there,” Bradley continued. “It burned everyone right out.” Firefighters rescued the invalid Mrs. Dew, and there were no casualties.
When the fire was controlled, Bradley entered the building. He searched every room. “I’ve been under a number of beds in Westport,” he said. “Those rooms were the cleanest I’ve ever seen. They were immaculate.”
The apartments were never rebuilt. Bradley did not know what became of the 20 or so tenants. “I guess they relocated to Norwalk or somewhere,” he said. “They were a good bunch of people. There was very little trouble there.”
No photographic evidence seems to exist of 22 and a half Main Street, or of the black men, women and children who lived there for at least three decades. I called the Westport Historical Society back then; they had nothing. A search of the Westport Library’s newspaper, photo and memorabilia files proved similarly fruitless.
I did not even find anything in Westport: A Special Place, Eve Potts and Howard Munce’s lovingly compiled, exhaustively researched photographic history of town. In fact, the book’s 200 illustrations showed just one black face: that school picture of the girl, separated from all her peers.
But photographs don’t always tell the full story. Now — thanks to the Westport Historical Society — we are invited to see and think about all those stories we’ve missed.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.