Article 9: Modern Age, Modern Racism

In the 20th century, the lands and peoples of Easton would be transformed as modernity took hold, but so too would racism, in modern form. This article will review this trajectory as the means for concluding this series, bringing our investigation of Christ Church and Easton’s histories of racism, white supremacy, and enslavement to an end, while recognizing that their living legacies and our failure to significantly confront the systemic racism in our midst beckons our continued response. 

trigger warning: this article discusses white supremacist violence, ideology and rhetoric.

Racial segregation would become the de facto norm of 20th century in the South and North alike, and Easton was no exception.

After the Civil War, rapid industrialization and urbanization in cities like Bridgeport caused individuals to leave Easton to pursue economic opportunities elsewhere. By 1900, Easton’s population reached its nadir. Still worshiping in the tiny chapel at 348 Westport Rd, Christ Church members fell from 39 (1888, reported in Nelson 2021) to 18 members in 1903.  They budgeted $316 annually to the church. Among members, large farms grew larger, while small farms were sold. The mills would be abandoned too, and in their wake the extensive reservoir system emerged with the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company at the helm (“Christ Church” 1903; “Christ Church” 1904; Reeve et al. 2009).

Waves of new immigrants helped to reverse the trend of population decline. By 1920, Italian, Slovakian, Irish, German, Hungarian, Polish, Swedish, and Portuguese and Russian of origin individuals all lived in Easton. Christ Church devoted a small portion of its annual budget to domestic and diocesan missions targeting such new immigrants. Though Easton would steadily increase its population through the world wars and grow by more than 60% during the 1950s, Easton’s Black population would sharply decline in the first decades and remain virtually nonexistent until the end of the 20th century (US Census 1900, 1920, 1930, 1940; “Christ Church” 1904; Population of Connecticut Towns; Nelson Feb. 2021; Reeve et al. 2009).

This disappearance, despite two waves of northern migration of Blacks from the south, cannot be accounted for by economic and migration shifts alone, like those observed in white counterparts, but must be understood though the lens of racism’s stranglehold. The census data illustrates:

37 Black individuals including the longstanding Baldwin family lived in Easton in 1900. Most were literate and worked as farmers. Three families owned their home, whereas seven individuals worked as servants to white families. By 1910, however, there were only 18 Black residents. Only 1 family owned their home, 2 rented, and the remaining worked as live-in servants including as a “helper” in the case of a thirteen year old boy named Willis Jett. By 1930, the remainder of the Baldwins had left Easton, and only 2 Black individuals lived in Easton, the Hemsleys, a father and son who had migrated from Maryland likely as a part of the Great Migration of African Americans fleeing Jim Crow south. At least for a little while, they made their home in Easton. Yet by 1940, only three Black individuals lived in Easton as “maid,” “servant,” and “hired man.” Both Edna Wilson from Virginia and Helen Riley from Bridgeport served white families as live-in servants, while the younger Hemsley continued to rent. A Filipino family, the Bautistas, had also moved to town, but were living as boarders. (US Census 1900; US Census 1910; US Census 1930; US Census 1940; Population of Connecticut Towns).

Racial segregation worked to entrench racial inequality. Though previously, Blacks and poor whites had lived near to one another in Easton, often worked beside each other, and their children attended school together (Nelson 2020), in the 20th century, their relationships would be limited to that of (white) employer and (Black) employee. As an example, Christ Church’s warden Burr Jennings who owned considerable land, with his sister Martha, funded much of the endowment that made the construction of the Westport Ave building possible and supplied much of annual budget of the tiny church, keeping it alive into the 20th century. In 1900, Jennings employed the Black 39-year-old Beverly Anderson as a live-in farm laborer, though by 1910, following Jennings’ death, Anderson had moved on to seek other opportunities. Black (and later, Latinx) domestic workers would continue to serve white upper and upper-middle class families throughout the 20th century, though in later periods as commuters rather than live-in servants. Such removal of proximity, but for that of service, helped reify racial prejudice among whites (“Burr Jennings” 1905; Jacobus 1930; Josefiak n.d.).

Racial segregation ensured that white supremacy would go unchallenged among whites in Easton and the surrounding areas. To the north of Newtown, the Bridgewater Grange held a fair in 1909 for the region. In addition to soap Bubble contests, sack races, and potato races, and a display of “old Indian relics,” the game of “Hit the n*gger in the head” was provided. Anti-black violence, this event reveals, served as the means for white entertainment, as mundane and accepted as sack races. Such depravity reflects white supremacy’s dominance, culturally and spiritually, in white congregations like that of our predecessors. The men of the Easton Methodist Society gave a minstrel show in their hall in May of 1912. Minstrel shows portrayed racist stereotypes of Black individuals as comedic relief for whites. In the Methodist society’s show, such white churchmen and churchwomen gave a ‘glad hand’ for the portrayal of the racist trope of the, so-called happy, ‘old slave’ Moses (“Grange” 1909; “Easton” 1912). Such cultural phenomena did two further things to infect white world views: they promoted the false idea of enslavement as a uniquely southern institution and romanticized the subjugation of Black people not only as normative but even ideal.

Anti-miscegenation fears also prevailed, strengthening insistence upon racial segregation. In a special topic discussion in the local Newtown Bee, while some could understand the benefit to the mixing of individuals of European descent (as in some of the newly arriving immigrants), the editor asserted vehemently that a union “of a Caucasion with an American Indian, a Mongolian or a Negro” would produce disharmony and poorly constituted offspring. With incendiary tone, they further evoked racialized fears and hatreds by denouncing a recent consensual interracial marriage, between a Black man Alfred Simmons and white woman Mary Britton, as an egregious violation of “moral code.” Such a white supremacist view asserted the inferiority of individuals of the Black race by ascribing to them “inherent characteristics” including “a mental and physical indolence and intellectual dullness approaching stupidity.” Mr. Simmons, the author concluded therefore, could only possess malice in seeking “to marry a white woman.” Nothing was made, on the other hand, of the long-standing relationship between the two and their apparent affection (Wright 1903). 

Such insinuations deliberate evoked the dangerous myth of the violent Black male that had been and would continue to be used by whites to justify pervasive anti-Black violence (see Article 8) and racial inequality. In December 1912, a drama entitled “The Ni**er: An American Play in Three Parts” which had opened on Broadway in 1909 aired in Bridgeport. The play dramatized this racist trope and the lynching it served to justify, among some of the inconsistencies of white supremacist myths of racial purity. To no avail, members of the local NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People founded in 1909) protested (“A New Theater Sensation” 2012; Wormser 2022). 

Advertisement for Sheldon’s “The Ni**er”: An American Play in Three Parts” (1912)

Such protests joined the larger movements of the NAACP to to force the country to realize the democratic promise of equality for Black Americans. More famously, this moved NAACP members to protest the Birth of the Nation (1915). Griffith’s movie, Birth of a Nation (1915), portrayed the birth of the Klan as a glorious restoration of morality and national pride disturbed by the equality seeking projects of Reconstruction. Birth of the Nation, too , celebrated the racist myth at the center of white violence. The movie swept the nation and was shown in a private screening in the White House. Afterwards, it is said that Woodward Wilson commented, “it is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” In contrast, Black audiences wept. After viewing the film, they lamented its promotion of anti-Black violence, racial inequality, and segregation that would realize its author Thomas Dixon’s intent “to revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform every [white] man into a Southern partisan.” (“A New Theater Sensation” 2012; Wormser 2022)

As a result of white supremacy’s popularization, in the 1920s, the Klu Klux Klan became a mainstream organization including in Fairfield County. The Klan re-emerged on the backbone not only of anti-Black racism, but also anti-Catholic and anti-Semetic agitation in response to the immigration of Jews and Catholics from eastern and southern Europe. In Fairfield County, the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups operated in large numbers. They sought to enforce so-called ‘moral codes’ to promote whiteness and Protestantism and demand the social segregation of Blacks and whites. In their open and widely attended demonstrations, they proclaimed the separation of races as their creed while claiming “a living Christ” as their criterion of character. According to one observer in October of 1924, nighttime demonstrations of the Klan in the burning of fiery crosses had “become a thing fairly common” to residents of Connecticut. The Klan participated in politics publicly and sought to institute a ban on intermarriage at the state capitol in 1927. Bravely, Black ministers from Bridgeport stated their opposition, and ultimately the endeavor failed. Yet, by June of 1927, the ranks of the Klan had swelled. Over 5,000 individuals attended a three-day Klu Klux Klan session on a farm on the border of Newtown and Redding. There, huge crosses were displayed, Klansmen donned their hoods and robes, and women’s auxiliary groups formed, with all partaking in a great feast recruiting over 150 new members. At its height, between 1 and 5% of Connecticut residents identified as Klansmen (“Klancave” 1924; “More than 400 people” 1928; “Fiery Cross Serves as Signal” 1924; “Measure attempted to pass,” 1927; “150 Join Klan at Redding Meeting” 1927; Hoffman 2021)

“1926 ad for a Klan rally in Woodstock.” (Hoffman 2021)

Though ultimately state leaders and the protest of Catholic, Jewish, and Black Christian religious leaders would drive the Klan underground in Connecticut in the 1930s, threats of anti-Black racism, white supremacist worldviews, and commitments to racial segregation and inequality remained mainstream vantagepoints (Hoffman 2021). 

Prevailing white supremacist ideologies and segregationist commitments drove both unwritten social practices and written policies alike that further instituted racial inequality. In the 1930s in cities like Bridgeport, the practice of redlining, which rated risks for mortgages based on race, ethnicity and class, codified racial segregation in northern cities and ghettoized Black people in urban areas labeling them “hazardous,” even in areas with relative wealth. In towns like Easton, racial segregation was achieved by other means. When the Supreme Court granted local municipalities zoning power with Euclid v. Ambler Reality Co. in 1926, towns began using this power to block multifamily development and to keep zones segregated by use. Easton’s current 3 acre and 1 acre zoning went into effect in 1941. Though not explicit in racially restrictive aim, accompanying practices of racial discrimination assured that zoning would in effect uphold racial segregation. (Boggs 2019, Reeve et al. 2009). 

Racial segregation in towns like Easton were enforced socially. Whites only “sundown towns,” scattered across Connecticut and Fairfield County, upheld unwritten codes of racial segregation that implied the threat of violence to Black or Jewish people who would seek to be there after dark, ensuring that interracial socialization would stay taboo. Sometimes explicit signs advertising these codes, like “Not one Negro and Not one Jew” and “No Negroes after Dark,” could be found posted at town borders (Loewen 2008; Loewen 2006).

“A town in Connecticut posted this sign at its limits, probably around 1950” from Tubman African American Museum in Georgia (in Loewen 2006).

Sundown towns and their implied threats of violence, however, were commonplace in Fairfield county, with or without signage. If out-of-town Blacks traveling through Fairfield County wished to stop overnight, they often consulted the “Negro Motorist Green Book” to ensure their safety. In 1948, only private homes in Bridgeport and the YWCA were provided as safe options in the area. Darien was featured in the movie Gentleman’s Agreement for its exclusionary attitudes towards Jews. Further, Black residents in largely white neighborhoods reported various tactics to discourage Black neighbors by their white counterparts including building fences, discouraging children from playing with one another, making insulting remarks, and harassing with anonymous phone calls. When a home was intended to be sold to a Black family in 1963 in Redding, it was burned to the ground. As late as 1978, the Browns, a biracial couple living in Ridgefield, were disturbed from baking Christmas cookies with their children by a burning cross lit outside their window. Ultimately, 5 men from Ridgefield, Bethel, Danbury and New Fairfield were arrested, but despite the leader having admitted to their hate crime, “I hate blacks,” they were initially only charged with criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. (Historical Database; Loewen 2008; Loewen 2006; Negro Motorist Green Book 1948; Sanders 2020; Kepner 2020). 

In the post-WWII housing boom in Easton, therefore, zoning barring multi-family homes prevented poorer families from moving there, unwritten sundown codes regulated the mere presence of Jewish and Black individuals, and real estate practices by developers and sellers alike would ensure that only white families dwelled there. Racially restrictive covenants written into new housing deeds guaranteed that new homes built in the housing boom would not be sold to Black people or Jews. For example, the developer Edward Hammel advertised his “fine homes” in Fairfield and Hartford counties in 1940, asserting that, “No persons of any race except the white race shall use or occupy any lot except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy of domestic servants of a different race employed by an owner or tenant.” Donald Douglass, an architect, sold more than a dozen homes in the nearby Wilton area, and in each he wrote a racially restrictive covenant that such properties were “to be sold to members of the Caucasian race.” With remorse, Douglass confessed his complicity after the aforementioned Redding home had been burned. A much needed study of town deeds to uncover this history of restrictive covenants in Easton is needed and was beyond the scope of this study. Though a 1948 Supreme Court ruling would rule such covenants illegal, by the second half of the 20th century, real estate practices (and even their codes of “ethics”) would continue to bar Blacks from living in Easton (Reeve et al. 2009; Land Records 1940; Kepner 2020; Historical Database Sundown Towns).

Brazen racial discrimination persisted despite legal reform. Until 1950, the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Real Estate Boards demanded that a realtor should never “be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood …occupancy of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence will be clearly detrimental to property values in the neighborhood [italics added].” After discrimination was banned the latter phrasing was removed, yet the racially discriminatory practices persisted through what is now known as “steering.” In a 1957 study in Connecticut, 75% of black respondents looking for housing reported various forms of noncooperation from realtors. Such steering practices included outright refusal to serve, only showing run-down houses, offering inflated prices, cautioning that the neighbors didn’t want “Negroes” from realtors, and lying about availability in “white” neighborhoods (Stetler 1957). Blacks were also virtually excluded from obtaining favorable mortgages. The G.I. Bill that sought to provide veterans with benefits including low-cost housing opportunities did not on paper preclude Black veterans, yet in practice it did. In the suburbs of New York City, for example, the VA granted fewer than 100 of its 67,000 mortgages to non-whites (Nelson Feb. 2021). Though Connecticut had banned racial segregation in public housing in 1949, in practice, Blacks were disproportionately restricted to poor quality units. A CT Commission on Civil Rights report concluded that it was “virtually impossible for a Negro family to rent a home from a white landlord in non-segregated” areas and “virtually impossible purchase homes in new housing developments” (Stetler 1957). 

Residential segregation produced profound intergenerational inequality that would outlast the reforms of the Civil Rights era. Black families, migrating yet again in the 1940s and 50s in large numbers from the South were relegated to poor and racially segregated neighborhoods in urban clusters regardless of their income. Despite discrimination in housing being made illegal by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, steering and inequality persisted (and still persist today: in 2015 in Connecticut, 55% African-Americans were treated less favorably during rental tests than their white counterparts and, in sales of homes tests, 75% of African-Americans were treated less favorably). Public health disparities, due to poor residential conditions and environmental hazards pervaded and still pervade. These deliberately segregated urban environments lacked and still lack economic opportunity. That public education was tied to local funding meant and still means that segregation and inequality in housing equate to segregation and inequality in education (Connecticut Fair Housing 2015).

Though the first African American student graduated from Joel Barlow High School in 1966, this did not reflect a reversal of residential segregation; rather he was an exchange student living in Redding (Nelson 2020). A 1978 study by the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities found that zoning, indeed, whether intended or not, had the effect of requiring “relatively high income” of its residents and discriminating “against minorities unjustly.” Easton, in 1970, had among the eight most restrictive zoning policies in the state and therefore permitted among the smallest percentage of affordable units in the state. None of the above even begins to addresses the inequalities rampant in criminal processing systems and policing then and now (1978).   

Yet, during all this, Christ Church Easton flourished. The suburbanization of the town benefited the church and its members. In fewer than 20 years, the church had grown from 16 members to 375 members and would continue to thrive through much of the 20th century. So, in 1947, members left their second church home and began worshiping in what had been the Baptist society, as its new (and extant) building and rectory were constructed to accommodate the larger numbers. Worshippers began attending Christ Church at 59 Church Road in 1959. Our church and its members, likely with little awareness, would have benefited from the racially exclusive policies and practices detailed above.

More research is needed on the modern era, yet as this article and its larger series has shown, our contemporary lands and peoples who take their place in the long lineage of faithful worshippers also take their place in a long line of those those subject to the collective sins of white supremacy, racism, and enslavement (“Christ Church” 1957). This awareness is an opportunity for self-reflection and transformation, and so, in our conclusion, we will seek to wrestle with what this all means for the people and lands of Christ Church, today.  

A word on citations: Our historical investigation draws widely from over eighty secondary and primary sources (see here for a full bibliography).

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