Opening my eyes to history

In February there are a lot of festivities trying to grab your attention, from checking to see whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow to the two weeks of the Olympics in Sochi. But there is also the month-long celebration of Black History Month.

Greenwich Academy has always made an effort to increase awareness about the importance of diversity and of the civil rights movement during this month-long celebration and we often observe this month by learning more about important figures and movements like Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine and the March on Washington so that we can appreciate them better.

However, these national icons and events overshadow the local leaders and grassroots movements that played an equally important role in the civil rights movement in America. Last year, for a final U.S. History project, I was tasked with the job of writing a “local history” on any topic of my choosing. And at first I considered writing on topics that are unique to Greenwich like the importance of Tod’s Point or the evolution of Greenwich Avenue over the last several hundred years.

However, when I went to Greenwich Library to begin my research I was struck by the collection of interviews from local residents organized as a part of Greenwich Library’s Oral History project. I particularly noticed those interviews conducted with African Americans who grew up in Greenwich in the twentieth century.

What I ascertained through these oral history interviews and the supplementary research I found in other town archives was astounding. Despite the early outlawing of slavery and being in Connecticut (which was the first state to ratify the fourteenth amendment), Greenwich did have a movement toward equality of its own and that there are people who should be recognized for their efforts towards progress.

After all, the crux of the national Civil Rights Movement was local supporters pressuring their local governments for social change and equality.

In Greenwich, segregation arose in many forms. The de facto segregation was less evident than in other parts of the country. For example, black girls were not welcome to join the local Camp Fire Girls club. George Twine, a black Greenwich resident, recalled in an interview that when he was a kid in Greenwich in the 1930’s he could eat at his favorite restaurant in Greenwich, but only if he ate in the kitchen where he could not be seen. Even the Greenwich police force did not have a single black officer until 1950.

World War II was a stimulus that produced economic and social progress for African Americans in Greenwich, igniting the civil rights movement in town even before the Black Power movement in the 1960’s. George Twine noticed that in the 1930’s and 1940’s, African Americans found job opportunities in new work settings. Another Greenwich resident interviewed as a part of the Oral History project was Gertude Steadwell, who co-founded the Greenwich chapter of the NAACP in 1942.

While the African American community made significant strides toward equality and integration in the 1940’s because of the onset of World War II, the social change continued throughout the “Black Power” movement that swept the nation in the 1960s. Along with the NAACP’s continued strength, in 1969 Greenwich High School students formed the first clubs at their school dedicated to creating equality between blacks and whites within their community, including the Human Relations Club and the Organization of Black Students Club.

My local history assignment truly opened my eyes to how much there is to learn about Greenwich and how many unique ways there are to learn about its history through resources like the oral history project’s collection of interviews and archived newspapers.

Although it is interesting to reflect on our town’s progress, there is always opportunity for continued growth in acceptance in any community.

 

Maggie Carangelo is a senior at Greenwich Academy. 

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