Tuesday, September 8, 2020

To mark the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, August 18, 2020, giving women the right to vote, student writer for the Greenwich Library Oral History Project, Noor Rekhi, a senior at Greenwich Academy, draws from four interviews with Greenwich descendants of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. John Barney and his sister, Rhoda Barney-Jenkins, were interviewed by volunteer Penny Bott Haughwout in 1974. Catherine Stanton was interviewed by volunteer Donna H.Kavee in 1982, and Coline Jenkins was interviewed by volunteer Patricia Holch in 1997.

This month, the Oral History Project dedicates its blog to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her descendants.  While Stanton lived in New York State, many of her descendants lived or currently live in Greenwich. Through interviews conducted with John Barney, Rhoda Barney Jenkins, Catherine Stanton, and Coline Jenkins, the Oral History Project has learned more about the Stanton family and their strong ties to the advocacy of feminism.

Although Elizabeth Cady Stanton, born in 1815, did not live to see the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, she was arguably one of the most famous suffragists in American history.  Coline Jenkins recounted her great-great grandmother’s legacy saying, “She and other women rewrote the Declaration of Independence. Their document was named the Declaration of Sentiments and was a list of grievances against the male-dominated society. There was a radical part of her document. The radical part was that women should vote; and she believed that, through the vote, women could gain other rights. She felt these rights were inherent to being a citizen of America, despite the gender of the citizen. She’s a central character in our family.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton with her son 
Henry Brewster Stanton Jr., circa 1855.
 Photo courtesy: Coline Jenkins

Central character she was. Her descendants have made efforts to preserve her history and carry on her efforts.  Rhoda Barney Jenkins, great granddaughter of Stanton, was herself an advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and a member of the National Organization for Women. A resident of Greenwich when interviewed in 1974, she shed light on the background of the family going back to Margaret Livingston Cady, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s mother. The daughter of a Revolutionary War colonel, Margaret was born with a fervor to stand up for what was right. Jenkins fondly recounted a family story in which Margaret cleverly managed to ensure that women would have the opportunity to get their votes counted in the election of their new minister. It is highly plausible to suggest that Margaret’s spirit may have been passed on to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who would in turn inspire other generations of Stanton women.

Rhoda Barney Jenkins, accompanied by her grandson, 
Eric Jenkins-Sahlin, voting at Julian Curtiss School, circa 2000.
Photo courtesy: Coline Jenkins

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch played an active role in the movement her mother ignited. Blatch was a powerful feminist in her own right and was instrumental in organizing the first suffrage parade in New York City. Her work helped lead to the passage of the 19th Amendment. Blatch’s daughter, Greenwich resident Nora Stanton Barney, paved the way for other women as well. She was one of the first female civil engineers in America, graduating from Cornell in 1905, despite the lack of acceptance from her male peers. Even though she was purposely excluded from a class yearbook photo with her fellow engineer graduates, she received her degree and came in second in her class.  At Cornell, she founded the University’s suffrage club. Undoubtedly, Nora Stanton Barney was an impressive figure. She was even invited to the British Parliament’s visitors’ box, although the invitation was retracted when she informed the State Department of her plan to shout, “Votes for Women!” in solidarity with British feminists.

Most recently, Coline Jenkins, Greenwich resident and RTM member, helped preserve Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s legacy and ensure suffragists maintain their place in history. In 1921, a statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony was relegated to the crypt beneath the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., days after its dedication. It remained there until the 1990s when  a Woman Suffrage Statue committee was formed to return it to its place in the Rotunda, “the centerpiece of American democracy,” as described by Jenkins. Jenkins helped create the documentary An American Revolution: Women Take Their Place about the moving of the statue. Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped secure the right of women to vote and Coline Jenkins helped ensure that her ancestor would still have a voice today.

As we reflect on the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, it is imperative that we recognize Stanton and the generations of women after her who campaigned for women’s rights. When you cast your ballot this November, remember all the people who persevered so that every American woman could vote.

Reflecting on Stanton’s work, Rhoda Barney Jenkins remarked,” I really would have liked to have known Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You know, the more you read of what she’s written, the more you respect how deeply she thought about things and how elegantly she put it, and this tremendous amount of work that she did, too. It’s just incredible.” Although Stanton lived over a century ago, we do get to know her. We know her through the progress she has made for women in our society and through the oral histories preserved for generations to come.

The John Barney, Rhoda Barney-Jenkins, Catherine Stanton, and Coline Jenkins interview Transcripts may be read at Greenwich Library and are available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The Oral History Project is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org.  Mary Jacobson, OHP blog editor

Monday, June 22, 2020

Chancy D'Elia: Pre-Feminist Entrepreneur

Olivia Luntz, guest blogger, was a Greenwich High School senior at the time this blog was written in 2017 about Chancy D'Elia. Chancy owned Chancy D’Elia clothing store at 244 Greenwich Avenue, a true landmark, from 1945 until it closed in 2005. Although she faced numerous obstacles, Chancy persevered and became one of the most successful businesswomen in Greenwich. The original Interview of Chancy was conducted in 1975.

Chancy D'Elia
Collection of the 
Oral History Project

D’Elia was born in 1911 in Greenwich, after her parents immigrated from Italy several years before. D’Elia attended the Havemeyer School and the high school on Mason Street. After high school she enrolled in secretarial school and then went to work as a secretary at the New England Carpet Cleaning Company. After working there for a few years, D’Elia made a dramatic change in her life. “I was just about twenty-one…and the thought came to me that I would like to start a little business, and then my uncle, A. V. Salvatore, who was a furrier and fine tailoring shop on Greenwich Avenue, had also a little store called Snappy Cleaners, and I asked him, one day could I put in a few ready-to-wear things. And he was reluctant, you know, for a while, and then I kept teasing him. He said, ‘All right.’ So I did.”

D’Elia's next step was to acquire clothes for her budding business. She recounts how “On February 13, 1932, I went to New York with my sister with $270 in the bank; we bought a few skirts, dresses, and sweaters. In those days, you know, you could buy your skirt for about $2.50. You could buy a dress for about $3.75, inexpensive clothes.” D’Elia ended up purchasing “a few sweaters, skirts, and about eight or ten dresses” and put all of her clothes in the front section of Snappy Cleaners. D’Elia observes that it only “takes … one person to get you started,” and for her that one person was Hope Tyson, who bought most of the clothes D’Elia had originally picked out for the store. Along with Mrs. Tyson, Mrs. Meany, the wife of golfer Bill Meany, also became a regular customer. D’Elia recounts their first interaction: “She had come into this little Snappy Cleaners dressed with furs from the top of her head down to her feet, and she said, ‘I’m married to Bill,’ and she said, ‘He loves to play golf, and he wants me to play golf.’ She said, ‘So, what do you have for me?’ So she just shed all her clothes right then and there. She put on a skirt and a top, and from then on she was another wonderful customer."

Greenwich Time
April 22, 1932
Courtesy of
Greenwich Historical Society
Along with the luck she had in acquiring such loyal customers, D’Elia also had quite a bit of luck when it came to buying the clothes for her store. She relates how “every time you went into a wholesale house, they would ask again, ‘Are you rated?’ I said, ‘No.’ And it was a strange feeling because you couldn’t buy anything; you had to be rated before they’d sell to you….So I was borrowing from the tailor in the beginning. I was borrowing from the presser, everyone. The things would be coming C.O.D.”. About two years into running her store D'Elia attempted to go to a credit house in New York City to become established, but, she says, “Nothing came of it. I think he must have had a hearty laugh after we left. He just must have torn the application right up.” However, she had a stroke of luck when she went to Boeppler Sportswear’s wholesale house. “He [the owner] said to me, ‘Chancy,’ he said, ‘I’m going to give you credit on your face value.’” Her lucky streak continued at another wholesale house, called Harry Segal. According to D’Elia, “He had beautiful sweaters, and I was able at times to buy some sweaters off price. There were two brothers, Harry and Dave Segal, and they liked us. They knew that we [D'Elia and her sister] were perfectly innocent kids and they wanted to help us, and they started extending credit. They were both extending me credit, so when they asked me about the rating, I would say, ‘Reference would be so-and-so,’ and that way, between the C.O.D.’s and everything else, I was able to get established.

Thanks to the help she received from businessmen who believed in her, after about four years of operating her store out of Snappy
Greenwich Time
July 10, 1935
Courtesy of
Greenwich Historical Society
Cleaners, D’Elia had enough money and enough merchandise to move into her own store, which happened to be right next to her uncle’s own furs and tailoring store. She described it as “a perfect move.” After staying in this store for another eight years, the owner of the building informed D’Elia that he needed the building back and that her store would have to more elsewhere. Fortunately, her uncle, A. V. Salvatore, was selling his building next door. “The Salvatore Building was an old, old building. It was the Red Cross Building at the time, about 1890 to early 1990’s….In the meantime, he’s torn this building down and put up a new building, and he said to me at the time, he said, ‘I’m going to sell my building.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘you are?’ So he said,

‘I want $65,000 for it.’ And I said, ‘Oh, $65,000.’ That was back quite a few years, and I wrote to my husband right away again (who was in the Army Transport Command during World War II)….We naturally negotiated, and we bought the building in January of 1945.” Buying this building was a huge step for D’Elia and her store, and she was thankful she did decide to buy, as her store was able to remain in this same location for the next sixty years.
Greenwich Time
December 24, 1935
Courtesy of
Greenwich Historical Society

D’Elia explains that her business occupied a niche market in Greenwich. “We had no competition really here, none.” Although she remembers other clothing stores, such as “Frances Clark, The Shirley Shoppe…[and] Favorite Shoe, Finch’s, Boswell’s,” she asserts that her store was the only one “that was just for Greenwich women.” Her store also went through many evolutions. Of the first location, she recalls, “it was mostly sportswear in the bank building. We more or less catered to the juniors, to high school and college girls.” She adds, “Mothers used to come in with their daughters, get them ready for college, selecting their wardrobes. They had their lists with them, and they start from scratch all the way out.” However, when teen’s styles and buying habits started to change, D’Elia took her business in a new direction. She did not label what her store then carried as “mature” but rather as “ageless.”

She admits she always had good judgment with what to buy and knowing what her customers would want. “Well, usually a buyer had a limit to what, you know, they had the regular form that they go by. You buy so much of this; you buy so much of that. I never had, always, a free hand. I never cared what I spent. I just went in and bought it. We had so many sweaters one time that we supplied practically the whole town.” She continues, “I’m a wild buyer. Always took a chance, never hesitated. Even now, I do that now. I don’t stop. If I think something is good, I’ll go right ahead and buy it.” However, the ever-changing trends in women’s fashion kept D’Elia on her toes. “There have been so many changes,” she says, “from the Chanel look” on. “In fact, one year when the skirts dropped way down—they went to your ankles—that time we had taken a beating, such a beating. We couldn’t sell what we had in stock. I just took the whole mess of them, and I had a nun, a cousin in Italy, and she was with the orphanage, and I packed them all and sent them to her and, of course, I received so many blessings from them.”
Published in Greenwich Time
July 28, 1971

Still at the helm when this interview was conducted, D’Elia proudly asserts, “I buy everything that comes in the store. I buy everything, and I go to the New York market in seasons—spring, summer, fall, resort, holiday….For instance, in the wintertime, I go in for about a week to ten days, every day. Then I go in maybe once every month, and then we have many salesmen come in here, many, many salesmen….Sometimes we have them standing out there, four and five deep, all day long….That saves me a trip into New York.” Although by that time, D’Elia acknowledges, there was a lot of competition in Greenwich and the surrounding towns. Even so, she does not believe these stores affected her business, as by now she had customers who had been with her for decades. Along with the success of her business, D’Elia’s reputation as a respected business owner was also confirmed when she was appointed in 1972 as an associate director of the State National Bank, the second oldest bank in America. Noting that she was the only woman on the board, D’Elia describes the position as “quite an honor.”

Overall, D’Elia stresses throughout her interview, the importance of having a good community that can help lead the way to success. She acknowledges the help of two of her four sisters who were highly involved with her in the store, stating, “but without my sisters, without my girls, without my customers, nothing would have been possible. It would not have been possible. You can’t do a thing alone. Impossible to do it alone.” She also points out the special relationship she had with her customers, “I call them my friends because I just love them. They’ve known me for so long, and there’s such an affection, and they want to be greeted. Put their arms around you, and listen to their little tales and their little problems. You have to listen to them, and there’s always time for it. Once in awhile a customer will come in and say, ‘Oh, I saw you back there, but you were so busy.’ I’m never too busy to say hello and speak to you, never. I find that’s so important really, and I always say to the girls when a person walks in that door, they have chosen this shop to shop in. They deserve every courtesy extended to them, every courtesy. That’s so important to me. I’d turn myself inside out for them.”

One can conclude that D’Elia’s success as a businesswoman, despite her early challenges and obstacles, was due not only to her perseverance and savvy, but also due to her philosophy that “you should work for the fun of it no matter what it is….And the money will come later… .Everything in life is enthusiasm.”

Chancy D’elia’s interview, “Chancy’s Background and Business,” conducted by Nancy Wolcott, July 31, 1975, can be read in the Oral History Project office in Greenwich Library.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

On Memorial Day we honor those who have given their lives in the service of our country and all who fought to defend our freedoms. Greenwich Library Oral Project blogger Joseph Campbell offers highlights of an interview with Robert Wylie that was conducted by project volunteer Connie Gibb in 2019. Mr. Wylie, longtime Greenwich resident who recently moved to Redding, CT, fought admirably in World War II as a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress and shares his experiences.

Bob Wylie and a B-17 Flying Fortress
courtesy of James P. Wylie
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey once said, “There are no extraordinary men, just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.” To read the interview of Bob Wylie, one would hardly consider him to be an ordinary man. Bob came of age in a world that was to be plunged into a global war with destruction on a scale unprecedented in human history. Bob, and millions of other men and women, joined the military without hesitation to defeat the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Bob was in high school in Stony Brook, New York, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In the aftermath of the attack and in their zeal to se

rve, Bob and two of his friends initially decided they would join the Marine Corps. Bob’s father was an intelligence officer in the New York National Guard and eventually served in the United States Army Air Corps. He quickly disillusioned Bob from serving in the Marines and, instead, Bob entered the Army Air Corps pilot cadet program. However, since he was dyslexic, he trained in gunnery school in Denver, Colorado. Although Bob enlisted at 17 years of age, he did not leave for training until 1943 and was not sent to Europe until 1944.

It is hard to imagine today the circumstances that existed during World War II. By 1943, the British and the Americans were constantly bombing occupied Europe. Every day, thousands of young men would climb into planes to attack Hitler’s Fortress Europa. There was a steep and deadly learning curve when it came to fighting the Germans. The Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force, was a tough and determined foe and, even as it was being defeated, the Allies lost a staggering number of air crews on missions over Europe. At times, the Allies put 1,000 planes into the air on a single mission—a feat that is hard to imagine even today.

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
When you read Bob’s story, you meet a man who is humble. While discussing his missions over Europe, he talks about how much worse it was for the airmen in 1943 and early 1944 since the Luftwaffe had not yet been worn down by the Allied forces. However, that humility belies the danger that Bob and his fellow airmen faced every day. The war was far from over when Bob arrived in England in 1944. His story is both amazing and tragic as he speaks about the experience of flying in freezing temperatures with open windows at high altitudes facing German fighter and anti-aircraft fire. (Do not miss his description of the clothing he wore on these missions.). Bob lost friends from school, including one on the same mission in which he was flying.

Bob tells about the time his father, a Colonel in the Army Air Corps, visited him in England. In this segment of the interview, he gives a snippet of his father’s time in WWII as well. Bob also talks about what life was like at home for his mother. It is easy to forget that those left behind were often forced to deal with not knowing the fate of loved ones. Most communication was through letters and mail took a long time to arrive from overseas. In addition, lifestyles were altered by the war as Army pay was often not the equivalent of civilian pay.

In his interview, Bob describes the men with whom he served and their missions as well as what occurred if they were shot down and captured. Bob flew missions over occupied Western Europe, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Although his story is a fascinating one on its own, it is made even more so when one realizes that it is the story of so many of his generation—a story of lives interrupted in order to defeat true evil in the world.

Bob’s interview also delves into other aspects of his life. He discusses the discrimination and segregationist policies of the US military at the time and how these experiences led him later into his involvement in the civil rights movement. He describes in detail coming home after the war and becoming involved in his church and Democratic politics in Greenwich and the state.

Bob’s interview is a wonderful story of an amazing life. It should be read, not just by residents of Greenwich, but by everyone. It is a fascinating insight into the experience of an American man who came of age in a life-altering time and carries the lessons of his experiences with him.

As with all our interview transcripts, the Robert Wylie transcript may be read at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The Oral History Project is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org. —Mary Jacobson, OHP blog editor

Monday, May 11, 2020

In recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, Greenwich Library Oral History Project student blogger Noor Rekhi offers highlights of an interview with Ted Gilman by project volunteer Laurie Heiss.

Ted Gilman retired at the end of January after forty-three years with the Greenwich Audubon Center, where he served as Senior Naturalist and Education Specialist. His love for flora and fauna was kindled as a young child in Montclair, New Jersey, where he grew up playing outdoors, and developed a love for ornithology. He continued this passion at Earlham College, where he studied natural history, and at Cornell University, where he participated in a graduate program in the Department of Natural Resources.

Ted Gilman leading a nature walk 
at Greenwich Audubon Center
Mr. Gilman first honed his skills as an educator in the 1970s when he worked for a Toledo-based program that sought to give fifth graders in Ohio a chance to experience the great outdoors. His experience with Audubon began in 1974 when he became a bird life instructor at an Audubon camp in Maine. Gilman continued to spend two more summers at the camp before coming to Greenwich in 1977 to work for Greenwich Audubon as an education specialist and naturalist. During that summer, he worked in the Audubon Ecology Workshop for Educators; he was named director of the program the following year. The workshop taught teachers from across America and overseas how to embrace and connect with natural surroundings so that they could bring those same lessons to their students. Mr. Gilman greatly enjoyed many aspects of teaching in that program, noting that it “was the opportunity to help adults have child-like experiences.” Through this workshop he gave an invaluable experience to the teachers involved and their future students; everyone should have the opportunity to embrace nature and hone the ability to connect with it.

Ted Gilman teaching children about 
birds at the Greenwich Audubon Center
While in the summer he worked at the Audubon Ecology Workshop for Educators, during the other seasons he worked in the Volunteer Teacher-Naturalist program, which allows children to explore nature and wildlife in small group settings. Through this program, Gilman reached thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to pursue natural history studies themselves. He fondly expressed his enthusiasm towards helping children get in touch with the outdoors, saying, “It’s that fun of seeing the kids have the opportunity to get out and explore outside the four walls of the school. And whether it is peering at a tiny little nymph of the spittlebug on a stem of a plant in spring, or tadpoles and frogs, or seeing hawks soaring overhead, I think it’s trying to help children have that ‘oh, wow’ experience of the new—the new discovery, the new awareness and exploring and discovering of the natural world, hopefully widening their horizons.”

Through his work, Gilman has taught many children and adults to cherish the environment and realize the need for conservation not only in protected wildlife sanctuaries, but also in our own backyards. Although in this modern world many of us find ourselves more connected to our screens than the environment, Mr. Gilman works to preserve our Earth for all its future children. The next time you gaze upon the foliage and fauna that grace Greenwich or experience an “oh, wow,” moment while watching nature, note Ted Gilman’s contributions in sustaining our communal home. None of us is alone; we are connected to every person, animal, plant, and mineral in the universe. By connecting children and adults with feathered and finned friends alike, Mr. Gilman allows us to return to a child’s awareness of the interdependence of everyone and every living thing.

Mary Jacobson, OHP blog editor

As with all our interview transcripts, the Ted Gilman transcript may be read at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The Oral History Project is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Meredith Sampson, Wildlife Rehabilitator

To mark World Wildlife Day, celebrated in March, and its 2020 theme “Sustaining all life on Earth,” we feature Meredith Sampson, wildlife rehabilitator, who was interviewed by Project volunteer Sally McHale on June 5, 2018.

           Meredith Sampson is a wildlife rehabilitator and environmental educator. She oversees the non-profit Wild Wings, LLC and is often the person called upon to help when someone encounters a lost, injured, or orphaned baby bird, squirrel, or owl. It is not unusual for her to find small animals left at her door by a well-meaning person who is uncertain of what to do to help them.

            With birds, Ms. Sampson advises people to first determine the baby bird’s condition and age. If it is uninjured and not too young, it can be placed near the nest area so that the bird’s parents may do their job of caring for it. Excessive handling, feeding, or moving of the bird can put it in a more precarious position. If, however, the animal is in need of care, Ms. Sampson suggests “If you’ve found injured or orphaned wildlife, or wildlife that you think might need help, get it into a secure container that’s well ventilated and put it somewhere in a quiet, warm place, and keep it away from people and pets. Then call me.” After rehabilitating the bird, Ms. Sampson would then release it into its habitat.

            Ms. Sampson also initiated the First Sunday Bird Walks at Greenwich Point Park in 2005 under the original co-sponsorship of Wild Wings, the Bruce Museum, and Greenwich Audubon Center. As of 2019, Friends of Greenwich Point became co-sponsor with Wild Wings. These bird walks are free and open to the public of all ages. They provide an opportunity to experience the amazing biodiversity of Greenwich Point with its beach, meadows, woodlands, and marshes. “It’s an extraordinary place. It’s like nature’s classroom,” says Meredith Sampson. It provides an opportunity to appreciate the effects of climate change on various species and the migration patterns of birds, as well as many other aspects of nature that may be otherwise overlooked in our day-to-day busy lives. In addition to observing bird life, participants observe the seasonal changes of insects including butterflies, plants, and other animals.

            Ms. Sampson also works with Audubon Center to do annual Christmas and summer bird counts in our local area. She has been performing this valuable service for almost forty years and has counted as many as seventy species in one area alone. Over the years, she has observed how changes in our environment have affected native species. “Whatever is happening in the environment can affect bird populations and this is something we need to pay attention to.” For example, Ms. Sampson describes how the results of certain bird species counts may differ dramatically from year to year due to various causes—some understood, others not. For example, when the West Nile virus became prevalent in our area in 1999, there was a dramatic drop in the bird count of crows and a number were found that were unable to stand or fly and were having seizures before dying. After animal autopsies at University of Connecticut at Storrs and extensive research, it was determined that the crows had contracted a virus that had infected an exotic bird from Africa housed at the Bronx Zoo and was carried by mosquitoes to other bird species and, subsequently, to humans.

            Questions arise when the migration patterns of certain bird species changes. For example, why are wood thrushes no longer prevalent in our area? What happened to the population of yellow-throated warblers that used to be here in far greater number? Has their southern habitat been deforested? These are only some of the questions which can arise as one keenly observes the environment as Meredith Sampson does. She underscores the importance of understanding the relationship between what we do to our environment and how that affects the species that inhabit it.

            Ms. Sampson also is a proponent of replanting native plants, trees, and shrubs in order to continue to provide the food and shelter that our birds and animals need to survive. This includes planting milkweed which monarch butterflies depend on for food.  She supports the removal of invasive plant species like garlic mustard and porcelain berry that choke our native ones. “The key factors of a successful habitat is that it provides shelter, food, and opportunity to reproduce. If any one of these links is broken, we witness dramatic effects,” she tells us.

            In her interview, Ms. Sampson recounts many unusual and often humorous situations in her career as a wildlife rescuer and rehabilitator. One is the story of a creative rescue in Greenwich Point. It involved Ms. Sampson with a 60-foot-high crane, a wicker basket from McArdle’s Florist & Garden Center, and a hapless baby owl that had fallen from its ill-made nest. Find out additional details by reading the transcript of her interview.

            We have much to learn from the wealth of experience Meredith Sampson brings to our understanding of wildlife and its relationship to our environment. As she has said, “We need to seriously restore habitat and create new habitat. We’ve got to treat this earth with a lot more kindness... This is the only planet we have, the only home that we have. And this, all this, is what sustains us.”

Mary Jacobson, OHP blog writer and editor

As with all our interview transcripts, the Meredith Sampson transcript may be read at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The Oral History Project is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org.

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.