Examining Wilton’s History: Racial Inequality, Justice, and Activism–Part 2: Civil Rights, Jazz and Pioneers

America is erupting into discussion, protests, and action in response to racism, police brutality, and injustice nationwide. Our action now raises a question–have we been here before?

In our pledge to tell more diverse stories and better reflect all of Wilton, GOOD Morning Wilton has committed to look deeper at who we are as a community and where we’ve come from.

Reporter Lily Kepner took on a project to start delving into Wilton’s history–the good, bad, and truthful. Her research encompasses documents from the Wilton Library History Room, archived Wilton Bulletin articles sent to us by Julie Hughes, the History Room Archivist for Wilton, and resources from the Wilton Historical Society sent by associate curator Nick Foster. GMW also reached out to Robert Russell, author of Wilton, Connecticut:  Three Centuries of People, Places, and Progress, and other long-time residents of the community for their perspective as well.

Though we recognize our limitations with available resources and documents, we’ve done our best to begin to present an unvarnished look at Wilton’s history. It’s an ongoing project, and we encourage people to share their own memories of Wilton and experiences too.

Examining our own town shows us Wilton is no exception to our country’s complicated past. From violent pro-slavery bombings in the early 1800s and minstrel shows to a barber denying service to a Black child in the 1950s to microaggressions in our schools and town today, it’s clear that Wilton is far from perfect.

We’re publishing a multi-part series, looking at “Racial Inequality, Justice, and Activism in Wilton.” Yesterday, in the first of many articles we plan to do on the subject of race in Wilton, Part 1 of the series traced the town’s complicated involvement in slavery and the abolitionist movement, as well as more recent theatrical bigotry in the form of regular minstrel shows–even sponsored by civic and government groups.

Today, Part 2 of the series picks up on the cusp on the Civil Rights Movement. Wilton found advocates for change in many places as well as new neighbors changing the face of Wilton. But not everyone was welcoming or pushed as hard for equality. 


Keeping Up with the Joneses

During the first part of the 20th century, minstrel shows had become an occasional part of Wilton’s culture, both for entertainment and fundraising. In some cases, they were even held to benefit local churches, including Our Lady of Fatima in Wilton and Georgetown’s Sacred Heart Church. The OLF show’s Men’s Club put on an annual minstrel show starting in the early 1950s; a Bulletin article reported that, by its second year, the cast numbered 70 people. It’s unclear when it was discontinued.

In 1954, Wilton was a very White town, though that would soon change.

That same year, Eugene “Doug” Jones, then a 29-year-old engineer, found an ad for a ranch-style country home tucked in the small town of Wilton, CT in the New York paper. Upon seeing the house in-person, Jones made a deposit with the $25 he had with him on the spot, with his late wife, Betty, at his side.

The Joneses were one of the first Black families to move to Wilton at that time and, like many Wiltonians, the newlyweds moved here seeking a place to raise a family and escape the city. Unbeknownst to the happy pair, however, the house was owned by a Jewish man who had not liked his experience in Wilton and wanted to sell to a black family to “get back” at the town. In Betty’s book, The Music in My Life, she recounts the man being very willing to sell it to them, telling them, “‘Maybe Wilton will learn something by doing so.‘”

The Joneses had activism in their blood. Doug’s father was one of the original founders of the Urban League and Betty’s uncle was once the executive director of the NAACP, both prominent civil rights organizations.

“I was on my first picket line when I was about four or five years old,” Doug recalled. “We had just moved to Jersey, and they hadn’t hooked up the stove…and so we went to this restaurant, and they wouldn’t serve us, and we kept on waiting and waiting and my father finally went over and they said, ‘we don’t serve colored here.'”

Over time, Wilton would become the place where their family was born, where Betty began an unexpected career as an internationally acclaimed Opera singer, and where they’d find a community they’d belong to for next 66 years–a community Doug said he has watched “grow” over the years. But though Doug, now 95 and retired, loves Wilton, he and Betty didn’t always find it to be a haven from discrimination.

In the fourth chapter of her book, Betty wrote that, though most people they encountered in their early years in Wilton were friendly and welcoming, she and Doug both experienced discrimination. She recalls one time when a clerk at a local market asked Doug who he was working for when he came to buy groceries. Upon hearing his answer that he just moved here, the clerk “nervously smiled and nodded saying, ‘Oh, I see.'”

In another early event, a Wilton Center barber refused to cut her son’s hair when they entered his barbershop. When Betty asked why, he told her he refused not because he didn’t know how, but because he was afraid of losing business if people knew he served them.

But according to Betty, Wilton had their back. After she recounted the snub to a minister at the Wilton Congregational Church, where she and Doug both sang in the choir, the minister reported it to the Connecticut Civil Rights Commission, which investigated the incident. The barber apologized and eventually cut their son’s hair, though Betty said in the book that after that one time she never wanted to repeat the experience and thereafter cut her son’s hair on her own.

Civil Rights Movement–Wilton’s Voices and Frustrations

As a small, predominantly white town, Wilton did not host a large riot or march when the Civil Rights Movement began. Instead, the town participated in a myriad of little ways, with one desire at the forefront–to ask, How can we learn and be better?

Doug Jones recounts that back during the movement, Wilton residents passed around a document called the “Civil Rights, Pledge of Tolerance,” which over 250 people in town signed. Although he couldn’t find a date on the document, Jones’ son estimates it was assembled in the sixties because of the names listed.

Copy of Document Provided by Doug Jones, Year Unknown

Churches in particular played a large role in supporting the movement and in using their platforms to support and demand attention to the Civil Rights initiatives at large, getting involved on a local and national level.

Nationally, according to the Bulletin issue, Rev. Chester E. Miller of Wilton Congregational Church and Rev. Kenneth R. Robinson of St. Matthew’s Church both traveled down to McComb, Mississippi in September 1964, to be chaplain-counselors in the extended Mississippi Summer Project, a civil rights project to register Black voters in the state. While they were in McComb, a bomb went off in the home of civil rights worker Aylene Quinn–only 40 minutes after Miller left the house.

Wilton’s Rev. Arthur E. Huggins represented the town at the National Interreligious Convocation on Civil Rights, which was held in Washington D.C. on April 28, 1964. The goal of the convocation was not just to talk, the article said, but to demand federal action in Congress to demand civil rights legislation in daily afternoon trips to the Senate for as long as necessary. The event was quoted in the Bulletin article as being one of the largest gatherings of interfaith leaders “ever” assembled to talk about racial justice at the time. On the same date, Wilton faith leaders held their own convocation at what then was the Our Lady of Fatima School auditorium.

Locally, the Bulletin archives also state that Wilton Congregational Church hosted civil rights activist James Van Dyke to speak at a Wilton Committee on Human Relations meeting in June of 1961. The meeting was advertised by the WCHR as “an opportunity for all interested people in the area to get a firsthand report from an active participant in the civil rights movement.

Despite the actions, trips, and meetings presented above, Wilton activists expressed their frustration with the town in newspaper Op-Eds and other commentary.

Rev. Robinson of St. Matthews Parish, who had gone on the trip to Mississippi, published an editorial in the early 1960s in the church’s newsletter, which was later reprinted by the Wilton Bulletin. The editorial, entitled “He Has Waited So Long,” encourages Wilton citizens to try “to see and to feel things” from a Black man’s perspective, and reflects Robinson’s frustration with the town for being naive to their role in injustice. The piece also reflects the barriers against Black Americans, and how white people cannot begin to understand their struggles.

A 19-year-old Negro college student on a recent television program kept talking in a calm but deliberate manner about the fences put up by white people that are constantly around him, and of his desire to kick and to tear these fences down. White people are sometimes disturbed by what appears to be a growing militancy of a people who are beginning to express impatience at the rate by which equal opportunities are afforded them, when the intent of the law and the position of the church is that all people should and must have an equal opportunity.”

He critiqued the assumption that the North was different or better than other places where segregation was less known.

If I sit in a train, enter a restaurant, apply for a job, stop at a motel, do I do so with fear, or even apprehension that I will be rebuffed because of my race? The most sympathetic person, the most understanding person, cannot know what the indignities Negroes bear because of their color. We in the North are much too glib about the supposed difference between conditions in the South and conditions in the North… I have the feeling that if we could live just 24 hours as a colored person the truth of this would be apparent in a rather sickening kind of way.

Dave Brubeck, a Wilton nationally renowned Jazz musician, was also active in tearing down injustice–even when it wasn’t the norm. Jones said he and Brubeck both served in New Orleans during World War II, at a time when he recalled the army was “highly segregated.” Even though all the soldiers were craving to hear music, at the time black soldiers and white soldiers weren’t permitted to listen together. Brubeck refused to accept the rule.

“Dave was part of the group that said ‘No we only will do one [concert],” Jones explained. “He was in the army…and they got some other musicians to play and so that was a first integrated concert in New Orleans.”

According to Wilton Historical Society associate curator Nick Foster, this racially integrated music group Brubeck organized was called the “Wolf Pack,” and was just the start of Brubeck’s activism throughout his career. He insisted that he would only play if his quartet member Eugene Wright, an African-American bassist, was also allowed to play, and he would not play for segregated audiences.

Moreover, in 1964–the year the Civil Rights Act went into effect–Brubeck decided to host a benefit concert in Wilton to support the building of a Community Center for Civil Rights workers in McComb, Mississippi after he met with two activists from the region. As reported in the Dec. 2, 1964 issue of the Wilton Bulletin, Brubeck said, “‘If Wilton wants to fight the same battle I’ve been fighting for years, it can count me in.'” The benefit concert took place in the Wilton High School auditorium and was sponsored by the Wilton Council on Human Rights. They set out to raise $10,000.

According to Foster, Brubeck’s commitment to racial equality was at the forefront of his career, and a value he never let falter. He relayed a quote from Brubeck that summed up the sentiment:

“One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born–or before you’re born.” 

What has happened since then? Tomorrow, we’ll explore more in Part 3.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for your most interesting and timely series on Wilton’s history of “racial inequality, justice, and activism”…I grew up in Wilton in the 50’s and 60’s, was very close with a number of featured Wiltonites in your Part 2 article during that time, recall the town coming together during the 60’s to becoming more welcoming of those of different races – at least on the surface, but always was aware of the economic barriers, (housing costs), that made it harder for the “average” non-white to afford to live there…(or the average white for that matter).
    Relative housing costs haven’t changed in the past 50 years but at least the development of affirmative action programs and passage of civil rights bills in education and housing in the ’70’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s has made it more realistic for persons of color to overcome past barriers of discrimination to attend good colleges and enter into careers that can allow them the opportunity to grow professionally and to earn the incomes necessary to afford those prices.
    We are still talking only perhaps 1% black in the town based on recent population estimates, 35 overall non-white, so still a long way to go.

  2. That’s 15% overall non-white today – a major improvement over the past from that standpoint…

  3. I grew up in Wilton. I started 2nd grade there, and graduated Wilton high school in 1973. I experienced a wonderful childhood and life. We played out side just about every day. We explored the woods in summer. And swam in community gardens.
    I am quite embarrassed to admit that I did not feel like I was aware of race and religious prejudices throughout my childhood. We had one “non white” child in our class for as long as I can remember. My father’s best friend was Jewish. I don’t recall any discussion in our household about society’s racist injustice. I often think back on my Wilton days and wondered if young Jeff Jones who seemed amazingly well adjusted suffered at all. I hope not. I remember him to be very bright and artistically talented. After my graduation from high school I moved to New Jersey. Needless to say I learned about the horrors of racist behavior.

  4. Thank you so much for mentioning my father Chester E. Miller in your article, I grew up hearing stories about the infamous visit to Mississippi. After my father moved to California he continued to call out racism when ever he saw it and even preached about unity for all many years after the Mississippi incident.

  5. I graduated from Wilton High School in 1973, too. I was only there from the 2nd half of 10th grade until graduation from 12th grade. My experience of observing religious and racial predudices only surfaced while attending college at the University of Maryland. Prior to this, I was highly sheltered. I do remember hearing that Wilton had been a highly antisemitic town. My family is Jewish, but we didn’t affiliate with a synogogue nor did we keep many Jewish traditions or practices. Therefore, I don’t believe that our being of the Jewish faith had much of an effect on our experience while living there. I also don’t remember many Jewish families living in our town. Far more were residing in Westport.
    I do remember the Jones family due to the fact that Jeff Jones graduated in our year. He was the lead in our senior show and was part of a highly talented and intellectual family.
    I have often reflected on how “lily white” was my experience of growing up in Wilton and also in Westchester, New York.
    Sadly, it turns out that I was quite naive about the experience of racism in our country.

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