Lec­ture high­lights hid­den his­tory of ru­ral Con­necti­cut

Pho­to­graph col­lec­tion sparks re­search into black fam­i­lies in small town of Lakeville

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By NF Am­bery

SAL­IS­BURY — When Peter McEach­ern bought a fixer-up­per home on Far­num Road in Lakeville, in 2016, he didn’t know its hid­den con­tents would prove to be the in­spi­ra­tion for an art ex­hibit and a lec­ture se­ries.

McEach­ern dis­cov­ered, hid­den in the at­tic of his house, a col­lec­tion of pho­tographs span­ning the years from the 1930s to the 1970s. The home and the pho­tos were pre­vi­ously owned by the Fowlkes fam­ily, one of sev­eral black fam­i­lies in the small town. McEach­ern said he rec­og­nized the his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance of the images and de­vel­oped a pro­posal to use the photo archives as a start­ing point to teach a course at Sal­is­bury School (where he teaches mu­sic) ti­tled “Black His­tory in Ru­ral Con­necti­cut.”

McEach­ern dis­cussed Sal­is­bury’s his­tor­i­cal black com­mu­nity’s friend­ships amid a pe­riod of na­tional se­gre­ga­tion on Jan. 5 at 4 p.m. at the Scov­ille Me­mo­rial Li­brary at 38 Main St. in Sal­is­bury. The lec­ture, pre­sented by the Sal­is­bury As­so­ci­a­tion His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, was en­ti­tled “A For­got­ten His­tory.”

McEach­ern showed slides, in­clud­ing that of the Far­num Road house he is still ren­o­vat­ing with his wife, Danielle Mailer. “This is where it all started,” he ex­plained to the peo­ple who at­tended the talk.

The house was once the home of the Fowlkes fam­ily, in­clud­ing Shag and Ray Fowlkes and an older sis­ter, Bertha.

When he dis­cov­ered the col­lec­tion, McEach­ern said, “I knew it had to be seen by the larger com­mu­nity.” When he in­volved his in­ter­ested stu­dents at the Sal­is­bury School, he said the project re­ally took off. “Not be­ing a pro­fes­sional his­to­rian, this was all new to me,” he added. “I be­gan to un­der­stand the black his­tory of the area.”

McEach­ern, who was

born and raised in Con­necti­cut, is a pro­fes­sional jazz trom­bon­ist with three CDs for Poly­gram un­der his belt. He is the chair­man of the Mu­sic Depart­ment at Sal­is­bury School and has also been a jazz teacher at the Litch­field Jazz Camp since 1998.

With as­sis­tance from the Sal­is­bury Town His­to­ri­ans, past and present, Kather­ine Chilcoat and Jean McMillen, as well as us­ing his­tor­i­cal U.S. Cen­sus data and help from McEach­ern’s own brother, Tor­ring­ton His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Mark McEach­ern, he as­sem­bled most of the names of the peo­ple in the pho­tographs.

In his hour­long Satur­day af­ter­noon talk, McEach­ern talked about the na­tional im­pact of slav­ery on later Con­necti­cut mi­gra­tion of black res­i­dents. In a slide show, he dis­cussed a photo (circa 1880) of James Mars, a fa­mous slave in the area. Mars wrote “Life of James Mars, A Slave Born and Sold in Con­necti­cut,” pub­lished in 1864. “Most slave own­ers had one to two slaves, and freed slaves worked as in­den­tured ser­vants,” he noted.

McEach­ern pointed out that Con­necti­cut abol­ished slav­ery in 1848. (Con­necti­cut had passed in 1784 the act of Grad­ual Abo­li­tion, stat­ing that chil­dren born into slav­ery af­ter March 1, 1784 would be freed by the time they turned 25). Mars’ par­ents fled from the South to Nor­folk, and in 1815 bought their free­dom.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Hu­man­i­ties Cen­ter’s web­site’s “Eman­ci­pa­tion” sec­tion, a rare op­tion for slaves to be­come free was “self­pur­chase” (re­veal­ing the ba­sic il­logic to slav­ery). In fact, in 1839, 42 per­cent of free blacks in Cincinnati, Ohio, had bought their free­dom and also pur­chased their own rel­a­tives.

Af­ter slav­ery ended, McEach­ern said an in­flux of black do­mes­tics and skilled work­ers came to the area. Sal­is­bury’s iron ore in­dus­try also brought peo­ple. “It was the Great Mi­gra­tion,” he said, adding that the Bar­ton Agency in Great Bar­ring­ton, Mass., re­cruited blacks for jobs from 1933 to 1965.

Among those re­cruited were Bertha Fowlkes, who came to Lakeville as a teenager from Alabama. “She didn’t want to pick cot­ton any­more and came up here,” McEach­ern said. “She was 94-years-old when we in­ter­viewed her. She lives back in Alabama and has fine mem­o­ries of the town. She is re­mem­bered with kind­ness by all.”

The slide show fea­tured pho­tos of res­i­dents Henry and Bill Palmer at Mount Riga in 1934 with a cap­tion read­ing “Two Water Rats.” A con­trib­uted photo in the show de­picted fe­male do­mes­tic work­ers at­tend­ing a matinee play dress re­hearsal at a lo­cal pri­vate school, Sal­is­bury School.

McEach­ern said al­though seven homes hous­ing black fam­i­lies orig­i­nally ex­isted in the Far­num Road area, only two houses re­main: McEach­ern’s, and the for­mer Branch fam­ily house.

Per­haps the heart and soul of the ex­hibit was the pho­to­graph of long­time res­i­dent Ray Fowlkes, press­man for The Lakeville Jour­nal when the news­pa­per was lo­cated on Bissell Street in Lakeville. Fowlkes is now de­ceased. “Ray was born in town and died there,” McEach­ern said of the home at 188 Far­num Road. “Fowlkes was mar­ried to Geral­dine, who was part Na­tive Amer­i­can.”

An­other photo promi­nently dis­played near McEach­ern’s podium was of the young chil­dren, Robin and Donny Fowlkes, dressed up for Easter Sun­day.

“There were many sto­ries of him (Ray) as an old man re­tired from The Lakeville Jour­nal,” he said. “The news­pa­per was still us­ing the print­ing press and when it would break down, they would bring Ray out of re­tire­ment to fix it. He would grum­ble but he would come in. They couldn’t work it with­out Ray.”

McEach­ern also dis­cussed Con­cern, an ac­tivist group or­ga­nized to im­prove race re­la­tions in the North­west Cor­ner of Con­necti­cut. He said sev­eral area res­i­dents who were mem­bers of Con­cern trav­eled to the fa­mous civil rights march in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. McEach­ern said that Dolores John­son, one of the par­tic­i­pants who now lives in Cal­i­for­nia, re­ported she and oth­ers pre­pared for the march by en­dur­ing at­tack dogs and mock beat­ings. “They had to drive at night with no head­lights,” he said. “A mem­ber of the demon­stra­tion had been shot and killed.”

On Dec. 26 in the late af­ter­noon, McEach­ern gave a pri­vate tour of the Tre­maine Gallery of the Sal­is­bury School lo­cated on the lower level of Cen­ten­nial Build­ing at 251 Canaan Road in Sal­is­bury. The gallery housed 40 mostly blackand-white pho­tos dat­ing from the 1930s to the 1970s in an ex­hibit en­ti­tled “Black His­tory in Ru­ral Con­necti­cut” (there were 314 pho­tos to­tal that were orig­i­nally found, he said). The show had run its sched­uled course from Oc­to­ber, and in a few days the ex­hibit would be dis­man­tled. The pho­tos were blown up from their orig­i­nal size and fea­tured over­all good com­po­si­tion.

The ex­hibit and the oral his­tory be­hind the pho­tos are not seen strictly through rose-colored glasses. McEach­ern said there was an­other woman who is now in her late 70s who said she had a less pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of the way she was treated in town. Also in­cluded in the photo col­lec­tion was a cringe-wor­thy pho­to­graph of a “black­face” min­strel show (also fea­tur­ing black par­tic­i­pants) held in the 1950s at the for­mer Housatonic School, which is now the site of the lower school of Sal­is­bury Cen­tral School at 45 Lincoln City Road in Sal­is­bury.

In­ter­spersed with the pho­tos were dis­played vinyl records in­cluded the early-1950s doo-wop group The Ravens’ 1948 “Send for Me If You Need Me” and tenor sax­o­phone player Chu Berry’s 1939 “Sweet­hearts on Pa­rade.” Other para­pher­na­lia, such as vin­tage ash­trays and a mem­ber­ship card to a “colored nurses union,” were also on ex­hibit.

“When we started this, we were liv­ing in Goshen and we didn’t know the his­tory of Sal­is­bury,” McEach­ern said. “At first we had no IDs. Now we know most of the peo­ple in the pho­tos. They were so help­ful.”

Some of those cap­tured in the pho­tos came to the ex­hibit’s open­ing re­cep­tion in Oc­to­ber. Oth­ers had passed away or were un­able to at­tend. “Marion Reed is still alive,” he said. “She is 100years-old and lives in a home in Mid­dle­town. We want to go and in­ter­view her.”

McEach­ern no­ticed that many young men iden­ti­fied in the pho­tos had called them­selves in cap­tions “The Mill­brook Sheik” and “The Miller­ton Sheik.” McEach­ern said the “sheik” moniker de­noted a ladies man af­ter silent-screen movie heart­throb Ru­dolph Valentino’s 1921 film “The Sheik.”

“Some came to the area for the iron ore in­dus­try,” he said. “There was also a big in­flux of do­mes­tics.”

Part of the legacy from the photo col­lec­tion in­cluded McEach­ern teach­ing a lo­cal black his­tory course at Sal­is­bury School, a pri­vate board­ing school for boys, where he is chair­man of the mu­sic depart­ment. In the course, he noted, “The stu­dents from other coun­tries and not of this town take longer than the stu­dents in town to get the con­nec­tions. Even­tu­ally ev­ery­one comes to it.” When the pho­tographs’ sub­jects at­tended the Oc­to­ber 2018 ex­hibit open­ing, he said the stu­dents def­i­nitely got more en­gaged. Of the sub­jects in the pho­tos be­ing in­ter­viewed, McEach­ern said, “Their mem­o­ries shined a light on a part of town. Ev­ery­one has been very in­ter­ested in it.”

McEach­ern added, “The Fowlkes fam­ily was one of sev­eral black fam­i­lies who made a life here in this small mostly white ru­ral Con­necti­cut town. In the course, we worked to iden­tify peo­ple and places in the pho­tos and to learn their sto­ries as well as the broader his­tory of the area’s black res­i­dents.”

McEach­ern’s course also re­sulted in two ex­hi­bi­tions. The first ex­hibit de­rived from the photo col­lec­tion, “Black His­tory in Ru­ral Con­necti­cut,” ran April through June 2, 2018, at the lo­cal his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety Sal­is­bury As­so­ci­a­tion’s Academy Build­ing at 24 Main Street. Be­gin­ning Oct. 26, the Sal­is­bury School Art Depart­ment pre­sented the 40im­age ex­hibit “Sal­is­bury in Black and White” at the school’s Tre­maine Gallery at the cam­pus. The ex­hibit closed in late De­cem­ber.

“Find­ing the col­lec­tion was like find­ing gold,” McEach­ern said. “The col­lec­tion has a life of its own.”

The pho­tos de­pict ev­ery­day events like wed­dings and hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions. But they are made all the more poignant due to the preva­lent racism and se­gre­ga­tion found na­tion­wide.

Ac­cord­ing to the his­tory web­site www.Con­necti­cutHis­tory.org’s so­cial move­ments page: “Through­out state his­tory ev­ery­day peo­ple have banded to­gether on lo­cal and na­tional is­sues to defy the sta­tus quo and call for change.” The causes ranged from anti-slav­ery, tem­per­ance, and uni­ver­sal suf­frage to the Good Roads Move­ment cham­pi­oned by Hart­ford bi­cy­cle in­no­va­tor Al­bert Pope in the late 1870s. Noted Con­necti­cut re­form­ers in­clude abo­li­tion­ist Roger Sher­man Bald­win, who de­fended the Amis­tad slave ship re­bel­lion pris­on­ers, and Estelle Gris­wold, who chal­lenged the state’s ban on birth con­trol in the 1960s.

A 2016 Con­necti­cut Post ar­ti­cle men­tioned a study at the time by 24/7 Wall St., a fi­nan­cial news com­pany that ex­am­ined which U.S. states had the most and least in­equal­ity be­tween the races. The firm mea­sured sta­tis­tics on me­dian house­hold in­come, poverty, high school and col­lege ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment rates, home own­er­ship rates, and in­car­cer­a­tion rates. The Nut­meg State landed in the mid­dle of the rank­ing at num­ber 23, the state’s large wealth be­ing one fac­tor that low­ered the state’s equal­ity rank­ing.

NF Am­bery / For Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Lakeville res­i­dent and Sal­is­bury School Chair­man of the Mu­sic Depart­ment Peter McEach­ern re­cently showed an ex­hibit (now closed) of his­tor­i­cal pho­tographs de­pict­ing area black fam­i­lies at the Sal­is­bury School at 251 Canaan Road in Sal­is­bury.

Wal­ter (Ju­nie) Palmer with a late 1950s or early 1960s VW Beetle.

NF Am­bery /For Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

A few of the pho­tos from Peter McEach­ern’s lec­ture ti­tled “A For­got­ten His­tory.”

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