Black Lives Mattered
The history of Northwest Connecticut stretches back deep into the annals of America. Although settlement of Northwest Connecticut—then called a “hideous howling wilderness”—lagged nearly a century behind eastern and southern portions of the Colony, pioneers of European descent were finding their way into the hills and valleys by early in the 18th century.
Suddenly, the history of the region became very white. Early Indian culture was subsumed and soon all that remained were anglicized names of Native origin. Completely unnoted were the blacks who lived out their lives locally—first as slaves and later as hardworking residents who lived in clusters of their own kind throughout the region.
A remembrance of the black presence in the mid-20th century was uncovered in 2016 when Peter McEachern and his wife, Danielle Mailer, purchased a small home on Farnum Road in Salisbury. As the couple began work on what will become their residence, they found a cache of photographs hidden in the attic—snapshots that range from the 1930s up to the 1970s.
The home and photographs were previously owned by the Fowlkes family, one of several black families who made a life here in the mostly white, rural Connecticut town. McEachern, head of the music department at Salisbury school, recognized the historical importance of the images and approached the school about using them as the nexus for a course on Black History in Rural Connecticut. This past September, McEachern and 10 students began to research the local history of the black experience.
The more they discovered, the more McEachern realized that the photographs should be viewed by a wider audience and partnered with the Salisbury Association to create an exhibit for the school’s Tremaine Gallery. The photographs, all evocative of mid-century America, are on view Monday-Friday, 8AM to 3PM now through November 21st, then again November 26th through December 14th.
McEachern said the purpose of the exhibit is two-fold. First, efforts continue to identify the individuals in the pictures, but perhaps more important is the opportunity to reflect on the nature of society today and where we have come from vis-à-vis race relations—personally, as a community and a nation.
What McEachern and the students uncovered was a largely forgotten story of black residency in the Northwest Connecticut. As in the South, the first black residents of the towns were slaves, owned by the elite of the border towns. While many area residents owned no more than one or two slaves, some of the wealthier people—such as iron magnate Samuel Forbes and his contemporary Isaac Lawrence in Canaan—owned many more people than the average farmer or minister. Lawrence was reported to have owned 20 people at one time, according to his family genealogy, placing him in the top 1 percent of Connecticut slaveowners.
Connecticut was slow to abolish slavery. The Gradual Abolition Act was passed in 1784 but it wasn’t until 1848 that slavery was finally abolished. Pockets of freed slaves live on in the region, often working for their former masters. But, as the recently discovered Fowlkes collection documents, a new wave of immigration began in the early decades of the 20th century as workers were recruited to fill positions as domestic and restaurant workers in the region.
“There was actually an agency, the Barton employment agency at 10 Railroad Street in Great Barrington, that brought blacks north to fill these positions,” McEachern said. The agency facilitated movement of blacks away from the violence and repression of the Jim Crow South in the latter decades of the Great Migration, operating from 1933 until 1965.
The students interviewed Lakeville resident Bertha Fowlkes who told them that she had been picking cotton in Alabama and saw a poster for jobs in the North. Not wanting to work in the fields anymore, the then-teenager pressured her mother to allow her to apply for a job.
Fowlkes was a survivor. “The experience these workers had here varied,” said McEachern. “Some, like Bertha Fowlkes seemed to do very well. Others didn’t have as good a time.”
McEachern said Bertha’s memory—now 95 she has long-since returned to Alabama—elicits positive responses and warm feelings among the residents who knew her.
The exhibit follows the growth of the black community in the town. As more blacks lived in the community, interactions increased and friendships were formed. It is perhaps telling that the vast majority of the Fowlkes collection documents the segregation of the times. Only three photos show interaction between whites and blacks—and one of those is “cringe-worthy,” according to McEachern.
“The Civil Rights movement seems to have been a motivating factor in altering expectations in the black population as well as the white population,” the exhibit literature explains. “We learned of a multiracial group called “Concern,” which was organized to find ways to foster better race relations in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut. Several area residents and members of Concern traveled to Selma (Alabama) to take part in the Civil Rights march in 1965 but had to return home before the event, after it was delayed. We heard a harrowing account from Delores Johnson, one of the participants.”
“Some of their segregation here may have been self-imposed and some by the larger community,” McEachern said. But he says he does not want the exhibit to focus on the negative. “Mostly, this is a story of people living their lives in a community, working, contributing, fitting in—or not. There is a more diverse history than one would expect when you look around town in 2018.”
Few of the people depicted in the pictures are alive today but their pictures give insight into the social life of a typical American family. Children are photographed standing in front of their home on Easter morning, ready for church. Young men and women are dapper in the fashions of the day—indeed, several photographs refer to the young men depicted as the “Sheik of Torrington” or the “Sheik of Ashville, NC.” “We think that was because of the craze created by Rudolph Valentino’s movie, The Sheik,” McEachern explained.
In the “cringe-worthy picture” a half-dozen blacks are amongst a much-larger group of white residents, some of whom are in black face for a minstrel show probably held in 1939. Another photo shows a group of black women attending a matinee performance of a play in the old Salisbury Town Hall.
Familiar among the faces captured in the photographs. Bertha Fowlkes, William (Shag) Fowlkes and Ray Fowlkes, for many years the pressman at the Lakeville Journal, figure large.
“You can see it was a vibrant community,” said McEachern, “and this was only part of it. There were several families here in town and you have to wonder how many pictures they have and how many may have been thrown away.”