Black History Month offers a great opportunity to talk about equality and think about how our town has grown into the community we inherited (Kammen, 2014). What does it mean to live in a just society? Why do we recognize the importance of human dignity, and why is tolerance important? Try to have these conversations regularly, borrow a book by an African American author, and think about the lessons from our Civil Rights leaders, many of whom lived in Greenwich.
Olivia Luntz, a volunteer with the Greenwich Oral History Project, summarizes a 1975 Alver W. Napper interview and highlights efforts in the 1940s to establish “a recreational club for professional Blacks from the area surrounding Greenwich.” Napper was a Greenwich resident, and member of the Board of Directors of the Lee Haven Beach Club. He pointed to Shore Island, located off the coast of Byram, as a milestone in the continued aspirations of local Black community members.
Napper was also active in the local NAACP and served as Director of the Crispus Attucks Center in Greenwich, seeking to promote more spaces for Black community members. Initially, churches doubled as community activity centers, but there was a greater need. As Carl White, our recently retired Local History Librarian wrote in 2017, “The church had a ping-pong table and some programs, but little else. Space was a problem.” In the early 1940s, the Crispus Attucks Community Center expanded and moved into the vacated Boys Club on 33 Railroad Ave -seeking to support recreational activities, education and training, outreach and volunteerism, and scholastic achievement.
George Twine directed the Crispus Attucks Center from 1957-1959, and was later interviewed by the Oral History Project’s Portia Byrd. Twine moved to Greenwich with his family shortly after 1919 and lived here for over 50 years. He graduated from Greenwich schools, and made lifelong friends. For Twine, college helped to create a passion for discovering and sharing important contributions made by Black Americans. He remembers little discrimination growing up in town, but was rattled shortly after his WWII draft.
On the day of their departure from Greenwich, he and thirty-seven other young men from town met at the train station and were celebrated with a coffee and doughnut party to show appreciation for their service. However, after the train ride north, he was segregated from all his lifelong school friends and placed in an all-Black military barrack in Fort Devens, Massachusetts. The contrast in treatment, from leaving Greenwich to arriving at the Fort, troubled his consciousness. His interview offers a firsthand account of advancing the important cause for equality.
Jean Moore wrote a descriptive and eloquent summary of Gertrude Johnson Steadwell’s 1990 Oral History Project interview, exclaiming Steadwell helped clear a path for many that followed her. Moore wrote, “she seems to have been born with a gene enabling her to recognize injustice when she saw it, igniting in her a desire to work toward change.” In the late 1930s, Steadwell joined an action committee advocating for Black employment. She quickly became a community leader and a founding member of the NAACP’s Greenwich Chapter. Her work with the Southwestern Connecticut Committee on Fair Employment Practices led to corresponding state senate legislation, and served as one of the highlights of her life.
We may be accustomed to thinking of the past as static, but through discussions, we understand that history has right and wrong answers informed by the time in which we live (Kammen, 2014). Alver Napper, George Twine and Gertrude Steadwell formed committees to advance equality, led organizations to integrate all Americans, and offered interviews to preserve part of their legacies. These steps help preserve the memory of a place and broaden our outlook -all essential steps to uncover the time and place under our feet. Local history is discovering how these memories got there (Kammen, 2014).
Kammen, C. (2014). On Doing Local History. California: AltaMira Press, U.S.
Luntz, O. (2019, February 4). [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://glohistory.blogspot.com/2019/02/two-years-ago-we-ran-this-post-on.html
Moore, J. (2018, February 1). In Honor of Black History Month: Celebrating Black History Month. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://glohistory.blogspot.com/2018/02/
Twine, G. E. (1980). A Black’s View of Greenwich An Oral History Interview [Interview by P. Byrd]. Oral History Project. Friends of the Greenwich Library.