The African-American Experience in Easton – The Lost Years

When my executive editor requested an historical article for Black History Month, I was faced with the dilemma of coming up with a significant piece of African-American history that related to Easton. Not an easy task given that our little town has gone for long stretches of time with little or no resident population of color. The fact is that today we are likely more diverse than at any time since the Parish of North Fairfield was first established in 1762. So, the goal of today’s article to examine the reasons Easton and its surrounding towns became so exclusively white in the 20th century while America’s black population was growing in nearby cities.

Putting the systemic racial prejudices of our Connecticut ancestors aside, we need to understand the economics that led to a gradual decline and then an absence of African-Americans residing in towns such as Easton by the middle part of the 20th century.

Many, if not most, of the original population of African-Americans in Easton came here as slaves. Those numbers were never particularly large, and for the most part, only a few Easton residents were slave holders. As they were either emancipated or able to purchase their own freedom, most former slaves had nowhere to go. Some stayed and worked for the same families that had held them in slavery. A few managed to buy their own freedom by working in non-farm jobs during the winter months when they were not needed as laborers in agriculture. Most of those were required to split their outside wages with their “owners” and then save the rest in order to buy their freedom. Some of those men and women also stayed and worked for wages after gaining their freedom.

By 1810, there were no slaves listed in the United States Census as living in the old North Fairfield Parish section of Weston that makes up today’s Easton. Free Blacks residing in that part of town numbered in the low 30’s.

African-Americans in rural Fairfield County had a difficult time becoming landowners. That was not, as some might suggest, a product of restrictive covenants or simple racial hatred, but rather a result of being unable to save enough money to buy land or homes. Those few who were able, did buy property. However, most rented the places where they lived and some, if not many – as there are no written records available – worked out deals similar to the sharecropping arrangements that many former slaves made in the American South after the Civil War.

According to research done by Calista Cleary for her 1989 paper on Little Egypt, by the mid-1800’s, “…integration was the rule rather than the exception in 19th century Easton… Little Egypt was an integrated area. Besides living together, Blacks and Whites worked together, went to school and church together, and were buried together.”

While that doesn’t infer that racial prejudice in Easton was absent, it does indicate that the races managed to live and work together in relative harmony.

In addition to farming, the 1850 census listed the occupations of Easton’s African-Americans as: basket makers, boot makers, foundry workers, painters, carpenters, and blacksmiths. Most non-agricultural jobs were performed during farming’s off-season between late fall and early spring. The fact was that virtually every male resident of Easton was involved in farming during the summer months.

Easton’s schools afforded African-Americans the same education as the white children were receiving, but economics forced many children of color to leave school for the workforce before competing their education.

Fortunately, African-American children were afforded the same level of education their white counterparts received in Easton during those years. The problem for many was the necessity to cut that education short. The issue was again one of economics. Most white families lived on farms that they had inherited from their parents and grandparents – hence, no mortgage or rent payments. African-Americans didn’t share in that advantage. Struggling to survive, many African-American children were forced to work, sometimes as young as 10 or 11 years of age. They were generally hired out by their parents to serve as domestics, many times for aging white farmers who could no longer completely fend for themselves and who often had no adult children to take them in or otherwise care for them. Because of this, many African-American children had to cut their education short, some after only learning the basics of reading, writing, and simple mathematics. Again, this was simply a product of economics, not one of overt oppression.

By the end of the 19th century, farming in most area towns had become generally unprofitable. In addition, the few local non-agricultural jobs so many African-Americans had relied upon to make ends meet had dried up and disappeared. Many Connecticut farmers had pulled up stakes and moved west, with a good deal of them settling in Ohio where more fertile ground produced up to 4-times the per acre yield they had achieved in Connecticut. Easton farmers were then competing with agricultural products shipped by rail from the west that were often cheaper than what it cost local farmers to grow their lower yielding crops. By 1900, Easton had the lowest population since it had been first settled as a Parish in 1762. African-American farmers in Easton simply couldn’t pay the rent with the meager yield of crops they could produce on rocky ground that made up the small farms they rented.

Easton’s older Anglo-Saxon farmers either moved away or turned to dairy farming. That was not an option for most African-American farmers. Purchasing cattle took money, money they simply didn’t have. One by one, most African-American farmers in Easton simply gave up and moved to cities such as Bridgeport where employment in the growing factories was available. While racial prejudices still persisted, they weren’t the cause of the exodus from Easton and the migration to the cities and wage paying jobs.

By the beginning of WWII, Easton and many of its neighboring towns had no permanent African-American population living within their borders. It would take several decades before any significant progress would be made to bring racial diversification back to the town.

**********

So, if the original African-American population of Easton simply dwindled over time and the community’s residents of color left on their own and seemingly on good terms with their neighbors, what kept their future generations from settling in town as the suburbs grew after the war?

Zoning

Some would like to suggest it was at least partially Easton’s restrictive zoning laws that were enacted just prior to WW II.

When Easton adopted its first zoning regulations in 1941, the town was divided into two distinct residential zones. Zone RA set a minimum lot size going forward of 40,000 square feet – approximately .91 Acre with a minimum buildable area of 37,000 square feet to be located within the boundaries of that lot. That zone began at the Fairfield town line and extended 1,000 feet beyond Flat Rock & Beers Roads as a northern boundary. The western boundary was Morehouse Road, and the eastern boundary was South Park Avenue. The remainder of the town, Zone RB, was zoned for minimum 3-acre lots with 2 acres of buildable space on each lot.

Zone RA was already supplied by municipal water lines, but individual septic systems were required for waste removal. 40,000 square feet was considered large enough to safely filter wastewater discharge without causing polluted ground waters to enter the nearby reservoirs of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company. This area was below any streambeds that fed those reservoirs, so smaller lots were acceptable.

Zone RB was mostly within the vast upstream watershed area that fed the local reservoirs. Easton’s land is generally quite rocky and the need to drill individual wells and install individual septic systems required larger parcels to assure clean ground water. While certainly an arbitrary figure, 3 acres was still within the normal range (2 to 3 acres) that most surrounding rural communities were then requiring for building lots where neither city water nor city sewers were available or in the planning stages.

Additionally, the majority of the town’s residents favored little or no further commercial development. Without the tax revenue generated by adding additional commercial zones, allowing much smaller residential building lots would have overtaxed the town’s coffers when it came to building schools, providing police & fire protection, and building & maintaining roads. In 1941, the only fully paved roads in Easton were Sport Hill to Union Cemetery, the Black Rock Turnpike, Westport Road, Center Road, and the Monroe Turnpike (Stepney Road). These were all maintained by the state at that time. The town maintained no paved roads. Fire protection was a 100% volunteer operation with no guaranteed town funding. The department had only one fire truck, built in 1928, to fight any and all fires. The only fire hydrants were south of Flat Rock Road. Police protection consisted of one full-time paid officer. The only operating school in town was Samuel Staples Elementary that serviced K-8. High School education was provided by the town paying tuition to the City of Bridgeport for its high-school aged students as well as hiring a bus to transport them from Easton to Bridgeport. With little in the way of existing commercial ventures contributing to the tax base, zoning the town for 3, 4 or even 5 times as many residences would have made Easton’s taxes explode as the infrastructure would have needed to grow to meet the needs of that many families.

Zoning was a matter of sound economic policy and likely had nothing to do with an attempt to make the town exclusionary to any group or groups of people. The town simply chose to remain small. But the ultimate consequence of these zoning policies effectively excluded people with limited incomes, both white and black alike, and while it is doubtful that race would have played any part in the town’s decision to limit residential housing, it ultimately restricted certain segments of society from moving here.

 Xenophobia

Xenophobia: The intense or irrational dislike or fear of strangers.

In the early 20th century, only the wealthiest Americans were able to travel and many of the ones who could not afford that luxury had begun to fear the consequences of easy immigration. Lack of exposure to different peoples and cultures fueled fears that outsiders might change the way Americans lived and worshipped. Xenophobia was becoming rampant in America and small, relatively isolated communities such as Easton were at its forefront.

Lack of knowledge and understanding led to growing fears among white Americans who saw outsiders as a threat to their way of life.

Perhaps Redding resident, Samuel Clemens, had said it best: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

In 1917, just before the United States entered the First World War, Congress passed a strict immigration act that established English language literacy requirements for immigrants and banned virtually all immigration from Asian countries.

Further legislation followed in May of 1924. It was by far the most draconian immigration policy the United States ever enacted. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed into the United States yearly through nationality quotas. Under the new quota system, the United States issued immigration visas to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States at the 1890 census. The law favored immigration from Northern and Western European countries. Just three countries, Great Britain, Ireland and Germany accounted for 70 percent of all available visas. Immigration from Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe was limited. The Act completely excluded immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, all areas with a primary population that was racially different from most of North America. Suddenly, all Asians, Middle Easterners, and Africans were considered undesirable and unworthy of pursuing the American dream, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed anywhere in America.

With increasing levels of xenophobia fueled by such legislation, the Ku Klux Klan, once only viable in the south, began making inroads into the north. While the Klan’s main target had always been blacks, in the north, its popularity also gained traction because of its rants against Jews and Catholics. Those who were different were defined by the Klan as the enemy of the American way of life. The Klan played on people’s fears, and while mostly unfounded, those fears were real.

A large Klan rally was held in Hattertown near the Redding/Newtown/Easton town line in June of 1927. The Bridgeport Telegram reported it attracted 5,000 people and it was claimed that 150 people joined. The numbers mentioned are likely inflated, but the mere fact that the Klan was operating in rural Fairfield County was cause for concern for all minorities considering a move into the area.

By the time the last of the original African-American population had departed Easton, many locals were hoping for a new status quo – life without outsiders.

The G.I. Bill

On June 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. More commonly referred to as the G.I. Bill, it ushered into law sweeping benefits for veterans, including college tuition, low-cost home loans, and unemployment insurance. It was meant to serve all returning servicemen and women after the end of the Second World War. It was not exclusionary to the over one million African-Americans serving their nation, but the bill’s uneven administration would further widen the gap in wealth and opportunity between the races.

When the law was being drafted, the chairman of the House Veterans Committee, Representative John Rankin of Mississippi, insisted that the program be administered by individual states instead of the federal government. He was successful in his efforts. As was common amongst southern Democrats of that era, Rankin was an avowed racist: he vigorously defended segregation, opposed interracial marriage, and even went so far as to propose legislation that would imprison and then deport, every person of Japanese heritage during the Second World War. Allowing the states to administer the provisions of the bill effectively prevented the federal government from regulating its discriminatory implantation.

African-American veterans were entitled to the same benefits as their white counterparts, but they seldom received them.

Returning veterans of color soon discovered that the promises made by the federal government were not as readily available to them as they were to their white counterparts.

During the years leading up to the war, African-American males had begun to graduate high school in more significant numbers than ever before. Many could have gone on to college had the money to attend been available to them. The G.I. Bill had been intended to provide those funds to all returning veterans, but men and women of color found it difficult to enroll. Northern universities remained discriminatory in their admittance policies, while most universities in the South simply banned enrollment of Blacks.

The University of Pennsylvania was likely the most racially egalitarian institution in the Northeast in the 1940’s. However, out of a total enrollment of over 9,000 students in 1946, fewer than 100 were African-Americans. According to the Jim Crow Encyclopedia: Greenwood Milestones in African American History, only about 5,000 African-Americans attended an institution of higher learning in the northern and western states during all of the 1940’s. Immediately after the war in 1947, over twenty thousand fully eligible African-Americans could find no academic institution willing to admit them. As many as fifty thousand might have sought admission had there not been such wide-spread discrimination.

The Veteran’s Administration openly suggested that African-Americans attend vocational schools rather than enrolling in universities, but even there, many communities, even in the North, refused to allow African-Americans to enroll in courses that taught plumbing, electrical, or printing. Meanwhile, thousands of white veterans were able to attend colleges and universities, and then take advantage of the higher paying jobs waiting for them upon graduation.

Returning white veterans looking to rejoin the civilian workforce were given preference over African-Americans in almost every instance. Business owners and personnel managers were almost 100% white males, and given a choice, they preferred to hire white male employees. Many capable women who had been employed throughout the war were simply let go and replaced with white male veterans. In 1946, both gender and racial discrimination were not only widely practiced nationwide but entirely legal.

The G.I. Bill provided for low-cost government subsidized mortgages for veterans. As far as the federal government was concerned there was no distinction between races when applying, but all applications were handled and processed by local banks. The issue there was that most loaning institutions didn’t loan money to people of color as a matter of policy. The white veterans were given loans and were able to buy low-cost homes as quickly as builders could put them up. African-American buyers could only look on and continue to rent. During 1947, in the suburbs of New York City and northern New Jersey, fewer than 100 out of a total of 67,000 mortgages guaranteed by the Veteran’s Administration went to homes purchases by non-whites according to historian Ira Katznelson in his book, When Affirmative Action was White.

In the end, the G.I. Bill not only helped returning white veterans, but it effectively held back veterans of color, creating an ever-widening gap in pay and wealth accumulation between the races. While the federal government had never intended that to happen, allowing states, individual banks, and institutions of higher learning to determine who received those government benefits, and who did not, proved to be a failure of colossal proportions for the African-American community.

The Gentleman’s Agreement

For anyone who has not seen Elia Kazan’s 1947 motion picture Gentleman’s Agreement, I highly recommend it. It caused quite a stir in nearby Darien where the movie was set. While it dealt almost exclusively with the discrimination of Jews in the wealthy Connecticut suburb near New York City, it could very well apply to any minority in a mostly white community of that era.

1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement deals with the unwritten practices that promoted discrimination in the mid-twentieth century.

A gentleman’s agreement is usually an oral but non-binding agreement between two parties. It can be used in a variety of situations, but in the mid-20th century, it often was used in place of written restrictive covenants put into real estate contracts that would limit future owners’ ability to enter into transactions with people of a certain race or religion. They became extremely popular after the 1948 Supreme Court decision, Shelley v. Kraemer that struck down the written covenant in a deed that had prevented “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race” from occupying the property in question. The court ruled that the covenant in question was in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.

To circumvent that ruling, it became common practice for real estate agents to enter into clandestine gentleman’s agreements with clients who didn’t want to sell to people of color. Such agreements were not enforceable, nor were they any longer legal, but they certainly kept African-Americans from renting or purchasing homes in all-white neighborhoods.

To what extent each of the scenarios listed above kept African-Americans from buying homes in Easton will never be known for certain, but there is absolutely no doubt that they each played a role in keeping Connecticut towns such as Easton white for a much longer period of time than would have otherwise been the case.

image_pdfimage_print