Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Celebrating Black History Month

February is Black History Month, a time to reflect on African American residents of our town who have made a difference. The Oral History Project has, over the years, interviewed a number of African American Greenwich residents whose struggles and accomplishments benefited those who followed them. One such person is Gertrude Johnson Steadwell, interviewed at the age of 81 in 1990. Gertrude was a determined, strong, capable woman who was not afraid to do something about racial discrimination when she encountered it.  A proud woman, she broke the color barrier in a number of areas. Her story is an admirable one to highlight for Black History Month.

In her interview of 1990, Gertrude Johnson Steadwell, born in 1909, says she is happy for the opportunity to tell of the struggles she encountered in Greenwich as an early activist in the civil rights movement. “It was tough going,” she says, but it was worth it. It was really worth it.”

Gertrude Johnson Steadwell
Gertrude Johnson Steadwell, was by nature, a gregarious, open young girl, a joiner. She has warm memories of all the girls in their pretty dresses and the boys all dressed up for the annual Maypole activities, once a Greenwich schools tradition. She played basketball and field hockey, was interested in art and had her work exhibited and began to show an early talent for design. As involved as she was in high school, she also knew that in athletics she had crossed the color line, being generally the only “woman of color” on her teams.

Longing to become a member of the Camp Fire Girls, she was disheartened to learn that she could not. “Because of my color I couldn’t get in. I was really very disgusted about it,” she says. She was determined from that time on to do something about racial discrimination. She seems to have been born with a gene enabling her to recognize injustice when she saw it, igniting in her a desire to work toward change.
The Maypoles of Greenwich, a favorite memory

As an adult she seized the opportunity to make a difference. In the late 1930s, she and her husband, Orville Steadwell, joined The Action Committee on Jobs for Negroes, an organization that became a part of the Greenwich chapter of the NAACP, of which Gertrude and her husband were founding members. She also formed the Southwestern Connecticut Committee on Fair Employment Practices. Her work led to a bill being passed in the state legislature ensuring fair employment for blacks. “This was the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” she says of this period in her life.

In the midst of all her work to enhance workplace opportunities, Ms. Steadwell found time to raise a family of four, to break another color line becoming an interior decorator in Greenwich, being a member of many civic organizations, an active member of her church, and a recognized community leader.

Looking back over the years and the changes that have occurred, Ms. Steadwell concludes in her interview that much has changed for the better. She cites improved employment opportunities and improved choices, much as a result of affirmative action. Her own children were able to see the fruits of these changes having achieved good educations and jobs. 

“I’m really glad that I could tell you,” she tells our interviewer. “I figured one day it would come in good. Not for me, for my children, I was thinking.”

And “good” for the many others who followed after her, in the path she helped to clear.

Gertrude Johnson Steadwell died in Greenwich, August 15, 2007, at the age of ninety-eight.

The Oral History Project book, A Civil Rights Activist: Gertrude Steadwell, is available for $10 in the Oral History Project office of the Greenwich Library.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

For the Love of Scientific Inquiry

To begin the new year, our student blogger, Noor Rekhi of Greenwich Academy, offers the following highlights from a recent Greenwich Library Oral History Project interview, “Andrew Bramante,” conducted by project volunteer Sally McHale.

Jean P. Moore, OHP blog editor

Noor Rekhi, student blogger

This month we are dedicating our blog to Andrew Bramante, an inspiring and passionate teacher at Greenwich High School. Mr. Bramante has worked at Greenwich High School for fourteen years and is the subject of Heather Won Tesoriero’s book The Class: A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids, and the Most Inventive Classroom in America (2018)The book follows Mr. Bramante with the emphasis on the impact he has had on his students.

Prior to teaching, Mr. Bramante worked as a corporate scientist for firms among the likes of PerkinElmer and Hitachi. He came to Greenwich High School upon the suggestion of friend and fellow teacher Ray Hamilton. While he initially started teaching chemistry, he eventually took over Mr. Hamiliton’s science class, an elective often described as a research lab. The class, a standout by reputation over the years, has garnered its share of awards, but, as Mr. Bramante attests, the attention came largely as a result of the Google Science Fair, won by science class student Olivia Hallisey.

Through his research lab, Mr. Bramante has supported and encouraged the scientific curiosity of his students and has led them to great success. Under his guidance, students have gone on to pursue groundbreaking research in their fields, win the highest award at the Google Science Fairand receive an invitation to the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm. Students in Mr. Bramante’s class are chosen not for their grades, but for their genuine desire to pursue scientific knowledge. Mr. Bramante chooses students by having them submit project proposals. While students rarely continue with the projects they originally submit, it's the passion that shines through in the proposals that enables their entry to the class.

Mr. Bramante with his science students
The research lab’s open curriculum enables these young scientists to pursue any of their interests, no matter how seemingly complex. Mr. Bramante helps aid their scientific process by offering guidance, researching topics along with them, and securing necessary materials for their work. However, the lessons given in class go beyond science and school; Mr. Bramante fosters a genuine desire for learning within his students, while teaching them necessary life skills and habits of the mind. When describing the elective, Mr. Bramante said of his students that they would “learn how to imagine, create, articulate, all the things that transcend even a science career. Kids that leave this class do all kinds of things, and I’d like to think that they learn how to be a positive force within our society.”

While students in the class have achieved many honors, Mr. Bramante recognizes that their success will be measured not only by accruing accolades, but also by honing a strong work ethic, scientific curiosity, and an aspiration to better the world through their discoveries. He recognizes that learning opportunities arise in all places, in and outside the classroom, and that even failing gives students an opportunity to reflect and aspire to do better. Mr. Bramante’s edifying approach to teaching not only has every student in his class benefitting, but also society, as his creative methods encourage a next generation of scientists to flourish.

Call the Oral History Project office at (203) 622-7945 for more information regarding the interview, “Andrew Bramante” (#2958, March 29, 2019). 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

James M. MacKay, Greenwich Resident and WWII Veteran

Continuing to honor our veterans, guest blogger Joseph Campbell contributes this post on WW II veteran James M. Mackay.
During an Honor Flight to Washington D.C., James M. MacKay with Lt. Joshua Albright [Contributed photo] 
Greenwich resident James M. Mackay (born January 19, 1921) was interviewed for the Oral History Project on September 8, 2008, by volunteer Harriet Feldman. His interview offers a fascinating glimpse into his life growing up and living in Greenwich, amid the hardships of the depression, foreclosures, and then life on a working farm. He describes it as a “self-sustaining” farm where the family “grew corn, potatoes, raised chickens, rabbits, cows, horses, pigs.” They also had a root cellar for carrots and potatoes.Mr.MacKay says it was “a great life. Oh, it was just a fabulous life when I think back on it now.”

His idyllic boyhood would be cut short not long after graduating from Greenwich High School. He notes that there was no money for college, and World War II would begin shortly after his graduation. Mr. MacKay worked briefly at a local bank before being drafted into the Army in 1942.

Inducted at Camp Devens in Massachusetts, he then was sent to Fort McCullen in Alabama for infantry training. He arrived there, he tells us, having no particular specialized skillset that the Army needed at the time. Following his stint at Fort McCullen in Alabama, he was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for more training and then to the California Desert, Yuma Arizona, and California along the Colorado River. He explains that they were training for combat in North Africa, but the North African campaign had ended by the time they were finished with training. As a result, they were sent to New Jersey and then to Ireland to prepare for the liberation of Europe, D-Day. 

Photo: “Into the Jaws of Death,” Public Domain 

And thus, James M. MacKay became part of the historic Normandy invasion. Just prior to the invasion, he was transferred from the Eighth Division to Army Signal Corps and placed in an intelligence unit. Mr. MacKay describes his job as locating where the enemy tanks and units were. He was assigned to General Patton’s Third Army. He fought across Normandy and past Paris, eventually crossing into Germany and meeting up with the Russians at Salzburg. 

As if the horrors of warfare itself were not enough, Mr. MacKay also tells of the liberation of Dachau, the infamous German concentration camp.  He relays what it was like to enter the camp and see the horrors of the German “Final Solution” and to live with the impact of that experience.

Mr. MacKay also speaks of his friends from Greenwich who died during the war: “One of my buddies I went to school with, Joe Bowowiec, went in the same Eighth Infantry Division that I went into, and he, unfortunately, was killed going over a hedgerow in Normandy. Several of the boys died. Adrian Atwood, who lived on Riversville Road, too, was on an aircraft carrier, and a Japanese kamikaze hit his aircraft carrier, and he was killed there. So we lost quite a few of them in this area. We lost Joe Balco; he was another one that got killed. I was lucky.”

James Mackay is part of what is known as the “Greatest Generation,” those who came through the Great Depression to fight Nazism and Japanese imperialism around the world. They fought the largest war in history, one that affected the entire planet. When the war was over, these soldiers came home and began rebuilding their lives. Mr. MacKay, like most of his generation, is humble when he speaks of his role in defeating the evil that was the Axis powers. That we have James M. MacKay’s story to read and to absorb and to use as a teaching tool is something that should not be overlooked. There are powerful and amazing stories of Greenwich citizens that are waiting to be discovered at the Greenwich Oral History Project. It is an admirable source of information for teaching our current generation of the everyday life, livelihood, and sacrifices made by those who came before us.

James M. MacKay’s interview, #2794, Life on Riversville Road, can be read in the reference section of the Greenwich Library, first floor, or by contacting the Greenwich Library Oral History Project office, 203- 622-7495. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Two Indomitable Greenwich Women

Today we honor two women of Greenwich, one a fearless aviator and WASP during World War II, the other a woman who served in local government at a time when few women did or could. The timing seems right for both since this month we will be commemorating Veterans Day and also since this month we go to the polls to elect city officials.

At the Greenwich Library Oral History Project, we are thankful to our volunteers who make the Project possible. And our blog writers are among our valued volunteers. 

This month we recognize two of our writers, Joseph Campbell, who has been contributing blog posts for more than a year, and new to our members is Noor Rekhi of Greenwich Academy. She contributes her first post this month as our Oral History Project student blogger.

We are grateful to them both. Jean P. Moore, OHP blog editor

Noor Rekhi, student blogger
 We begin with Joseph Campbell’s post: 

Gloria Whitton Heath in uniform,
World War II
Greenwich has had many famous residents throughout its history. One of these was a woman named Gloria Whitton Heath(1922-2018). Ms. Heath became a pioneer in women in aviation and a leader in post World War II international aviation safety. Interviewed in 2012 by volunteer Janet T. Klion, Ms. Heath’s story begins in college, the literal start of her journey in aviation.

The first steps of the journey were taken thanks to her brother, Royal Vale Heath, Jr., who had joined an aviation cadet program. He invited Ms. Heath to visit him at college for a flight with his instructor. She accepted—and became hooked on flying. When Ms. Heath went back to her school, she spoke with a pilot instructor about taking flying lessons. He told her to get together with her friends and buy a plane. He would then teach them to fly, so Ms. Heath and her friends did just that. They gathered the required contributions and assured the college they would not all die in a crash. They painted the plane in school colors to gain more support, and up they went learning to fly. Ms. Heath managed to earn her license and to graduate, no easy feat, she notes in her interview. 

Ms. Heath graduated in 1939. The war in Europe had begun, and on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese Empire attack on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, America, too, was in it. 

England, having been at war for several years, saw women taking on a larger role in the military and civilian sectors. This included training women pilots to ferry aircraft from the factories to the airfields, freeing up male pilots for combat. Nancy Harkness Love, whose husband was the head of the US Military Air Transport Service, got a group of American women pilots together prior to American involvement in the war, and they went to England to help with transporting aircraft.  

When America entered the war, the idea of women flying warplanes was floated past commander of the Army Air Corps, General Hap Arnold, who was skeptical of women flying. Eventually, though, under the guidance of Jacqueline Cochran, the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) was formed.

In her interview Ms. Heath discusses how training for these new women pilots began in Texas, where they took the same air cadet training program that the men took under the same conditions with only slight modifications. Ms. Heath points out, for example, a higher standard required for women: If a male cadet failed a flight check, he could still go on to fly as a bombardier or as a navigator. A woman cadet, however, was not given the same opportunity. One failed flight check, and she was out.

Under such conditions, with little support from the men and initially even without official military uniforms, these amazing women began their air cadet training. They may have been WASPs, but they were not technically part of the military. They may have held second lieutenant bars and were thus saluted, but they could not salute back. Ms. Heath talks about how they winked in response when enlisted men saluted them. 

But without doubt, they were committed to the serious business at hand. During the war there were 1,100 WASP members serving the country. Thirty-five of them died in service. 

In her interview Ms. Heath goes into detail about the problems they faced. In addition to the discrimination, there were also professional rivalry, jealousy, and fear, fear that these trained women would take jobs away from their male counterparts vying for jobs in aviation after the war. 

Ms. Heath describes the battles that were fought in Congress and the War Department for recognition of their wartime efforts as aviators. She points out that after the war the US government sealed the records of the WASPs. In an effort to counter the cover-up, the WASPs formed their own association to protect their interests. She notes that one of their alumnae groups made films to get the word out that WASPs indeed had flown planes during the war for the Air Force.  

The WASPs were in existence for a little more than a year, but it was an important one for women in aviation. During that time they overcame many hurdles and became role models for the women who would follow in their footsteps. In time their achievements were duly recognized: Gloria Heath and the WASP fliers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but not until 2010.

Ms. Heath’s contributions in aviation didn’t end with the disbanding of the WASPs. After the war, she became a leader in the field of aviation safety and search and rescue and wrote a manual on how to ditch an aircraft in water.

Gloria Whitton Heath died in 2018, leaving a lasting legacy. Her contributions in the field of aviation and to the women who followed are significant. It is with pride that we honor her on Veterans Day.
Gloria Whitton Heath
[Gloria Whitton Heath’s interview, Pioneer in Women’s Aviation and Flight Safety(2012), by Janet T. Klion, can be read on the first floor of the library in the reference area.]

Student blogger Noor Rekhi writes this month about Florence Cross, who worked for many years in Greenwich government as secretary and then as executive for the town’s selectmen. She was interviewed on two occasions in 1977 by OHP volunteer Marian Phillips.

Here is Noor Rekhi’s blog post based on these interviews:

Florence Cross started working as a secretary to the First Selectman in the 1950s and held that position for over two decades. During that time she built strong relationships with many first selectmen, learned valuable life lessons, and had a great impact on Greenwich. But any commentary on her years of public service would be incomplete without reference to her relationship with and admiration for Agnes Morley, another woman who was dedicated to Greenwich and who worked in government for many years to improve our town.
Florence Cross
Ms. Cross entered government at a time when not only the number of women in the public sector was sparse, but also during a period when it was less common for women to work. Nevertheless, Ms. Cross pursued a career, and after meeting Jack Gleason, Greenwich’s first chief administrator, she set her sights on town government. While originally she was offered a job in the Department of Parks and Recreation, Ms. Cross was determined to be a part of the Office of the First Selectman.

It was in this office that she expanded her knowledge of politics and became well versed in town affairs. In fact, on two occasions she was the acting chief administrator of Greenwich. Her dedication and commitment to local government are impressive and inspiring; she often left the office at night, working long hours without overtime.

One of the most prominent features of her interview is the friendship and fellowship she fostered during her tenure in the public sector. The closest of these relationships was with Agnes Morley, an engaged citizen and the Democratic selectman of Greenwich from 1965-1970. A Democrat in a Republican run administration, Ms. Morley already faced obstacles when entering public office, and being a female elected representative in a male-dominated era only exacerbated the doubts some held about her capabilities. 

Agnes Morley was frequently excluded from social gatherings thrown by her colleagues, who refused to take her or her policy plans seriously. Nevertheless, as Ms. Cross recollects, Agnes Morley persisted as a pivotal figure for the town and as a model citizen. A strong advocate for open communication and expression, she frequently took part in vigils promoting the causes she believed in. On many occasions, she stood as a role model for others to follow. Ms. Cross recollects how Ms. Morley insisted on going to the polls in a primary election, despite being sick, because she believed that everyone should take part in government. 

Ms. Cross includes another incident of Agnes Morley’s commendable character and integrity: While running for office, Ms. Morley and another man campaigned with an understanding that if they won, Morley would assume the position of the First Selectman, and he would be the other selectman. However, at a later time her running mate decided to backtrack on their agreement and attempted to take the position of First Selectman. He failed, but even so, most people would be appalled and angered if their running mate proved so untrustworthy, but not Agnes Morley. As Ms. Cross explains, “It never occurred to her to forgive him because she didn’t feel there was anything to forgive. It was a matter of understanding.” Ms. Cross herself indicates she would not have been so understanding had she faced a similar situation. 

In the interview, Ms. Cross expresses her wish that the legacy of her friend would be remembered, saying, “I suppose in 50 years, somebody is going to say, ‘Who is Agnes Morley?’ I would hope that there will be somebody around who will know and remember.”

Agnes Morley and Florence Cross stirred the status quo, enriched our town, and paved the path for more women in government. Thanks to the contributions of the Oral History Project, both their legacies of service and dedication can be preserved for our posterity. And as a result, they will both be remembered. 

[The Florence Cross interviews, later published as a book, Twenty-One Years at Town Hall: Oral History Interview with Florence Cross, 1978, by Marian Phillips, is available through the Greenwich Library, its branches, and the Perrot Memorial Library.]