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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Freed Slave Memoirs Spur Chat 135 Years Later

Freed Slave Memoirs 
Spur Chat 135 Years Later:
Fairfield Museum Spotlights 
“A Slave No More”
(Posted to 2/24)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Wallace Turnage and John Washington could not have imagined that their recollections of personal hardship, written in the 1870s, would be the topic of spirited conversation at a book chat in Fairfield some 135 years later.

On Wednesday evening, Fairfield Museum and History Center hosted Dr. Samuel L. Schaffer, who moderated a roundtable discussion of the book “A Slave No More” by David Blight. The subjects of the book are Turnage, a teenage field hand from an Alabama plantation, and Washington, an urban slave in Virginia. In the chaos of the Civil War, both escaped north. Blight retells their flights to freedom as well as provides an account of their lives as he reconstructed them.

The book chat, the first of four in a History Book Club series the Museum has scheduled to run through May 25, was attended by a small group of people that brought unique perspectives to the table and spurred lively discussion.

Moderator Schaffer, a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University and former student of the author, explained how Blight’s agent came to him five or six years ago with the narratives. One document was found in an attic by a Greenwich woman. The other was discovered in Massachusetts. Blight, who is currently working on a biography of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, reviewed the narratives and realized how important they were.

Using a wealth of genealogical information, Blight reconstructed the former slaves’ childhoods as sons of white slaveholders, their service as camp hands during the Civil War, and their climb to black working-class stability in the north, where they reunited with their families. Blight’s account includes a preface about runaway slaves and emancipation.

Schaffer said the slave narrative is its own genre and can be divided into two categories: Pre-Emancipation and Post-Civil War. With regard to the former, there are 65 known narratives and they were written by young men in their teens and 20s about their flight from slavery to freedom. Many were published by abolitionists to point to the evils of slavery. The post-war narratives, of which there are 45, are less about slavery and more about the journey from slavery to affluence, with arguments against Jim Crow laws.

Schaffer said the narratives of “A Slave No More” are unique in that they tell of escape to freedom but as a backward-looking reflection years later after slavery was abolished. Washington, for instance, escaped to the north in 1862 but wrote his account in 1873. Turnage escaped in 1864.

Attendee Sherry Thorne of Fairfield suggested, “War was a catalyst that created chaos and allowed many slaves to escape.”

Schaffer added, “The Emancipation Proclamation was the driving force and protected the slaves’ flight. They were fleeing to Union Army lines, which was a constantly moving border between slavery and freedom.”

Schaffer said the Union Army didn’t know what to do with the slaves, referred to them as “captured contraband” and put them to work. He said the slaves didn’t mind that though as it was “free labor” and not plantation labor. Still, he said, there was always suspicion that they would be sold back into slavery.

Attendee J. Alfred Dunn suggested, as Washington and Turnage’s narratives were not mediated nor previously published, that the men “put these recollections down for those that came after them in their families.”

Fairfielder Sherry Thorne agreed with Dunn. “They would have had no expectation of the documents being published.”

However, Schaffer said, “The memoirs are mediated by time and memory, with reflective inferences about the significance of the events of the war.”

Memorie Mitchell, visiting from Birmingham, Alabama, was intrigued by the topic. “I grew up during the Civil Rights movement,” she said. “We were all segregated. My class was the last totally white graduating class in my high school. There were white water fountains. No black person came into our restrooms at all.”

Thorne was equally impressed by Blight’s book. “What I liked about it was that it captured the difficulty of being so totally disenfranchised and then being free, and always the sadness of broken families. In the end, the epilogue explains how Blight was able to connect with the family of one of the slaves. It brings to mind how difficult it is for people of African-American descent to trace their family history. There’s just so much missing,” she said.

Victorian Age Inspires Crafts and Teacakes

Victorian Age Inspires Crafts and Teacakes:
Fairfield Museum American Girl program entertains girls
(Posted to 2/24)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – If the Queen – Victoria that is -- could have seen them busily working away at their activities, she would have been proud.

The period in which the English monarch reigned, 1837- 1901, defined as the Victorian Era, was the inspiration on Wednesday for the “American Girl Afternoon” program at Fairfield Museum and History Center. Targeting girls in grades 3 to 6, the workshop was one of several February Vacation programs being offered by the center in the Feb. 21-25 window. The program introduced participants to the craft known as decoupage and showed them how to prepare Victorian-style teacakes.

To best connect with this age set, the class was associated with the American Girl line of dolls, which helps teach what girls did in the past, and participants were encouraged to bring their own American Girl dolls.

Led by Christine Jewell, Director of Educational Programming, the class was joined by thirteen girls. All were very chatty and giggly, but tuned in and eager to learn. They sat around a block of tables that had been pushed together in a light-filled classroom.

“Who’s Queen Victoria?” asked Jewell, kicking off the session.

“I think she was the queen of England and the Victorian Era was named after her,” said Gillian Rooney, 10, an Osborn Hill student, brightly.

This ignited a discussion about the clothing and mannerisms of that period and helped set up the decoupage activity. Jewell provided colored tissue paper, magazine pictures, doilies and patterned paper and instructed the girls to tear or cut pieces from the materials as elements to glue onto small wooden boxes.

“It was common during the Victorian Era to decoupage glass, boxes and furniture,” said Jewell. “They really decoupaged everything. This is a good and easy way for girls to experience this popular period craft.”

As she cut lace for her container, Emma Weller, 8, visiting from Cambridge, Massachusetts, said, “This is super fun to do. I’m going to use the box for my doll’s accessories, like shoes, bracelets, necklaces and things for her hair.”

At the opposite end of the table, Osborn Hill student Katie Hinkle, 10, glued pink and red scraps of paper to the lid of her container. “These are some of my favorite colors,” she said. “I’m going to put jewelry in my box.”

Sitting down the way, Sarah Herley, 9, a St. Thomas Aquinas student, said, “I picked the paper I’m using ‘cause it looked interesting. The box will be for my American Girl’s stuff.”

As the girls completed their decoupage projects, Jewell set them about preparing Queen Victoria Dream Bars -- small tasty teacakes. Rachel Loboncz, 9, one of a set of triplets, really looked forward to this part of the program.

“I like to help my mom bake and we cook a lot of things in our house… bread pudding, cookies,” Loboncz said. “All of us kids help out with the cooking. These Dream Bars are fun!”

As important as the afternoon program was as an educational opportunity, it also fostered friendship and camaraderie between the girls. As they worked on their activities, it allowed them to share tales about school, family and friends.

“There’s always something to talk about,” said Jewell as the group chattered away.

Alayna Barrios, 11, of Burr School, who has participated in similar programs in the past, enjoyed the friendly environment. “Everyone has a story to share. Usually this is more fun in a big group like this, as many of us know each other and we can share things we’ve done together.”

No sooner had Barrios said that when Dani Corrigan, 10, of Jennings School, chirped, “We’re going to take a survey about Justin Bieber.” Girls will be girls after all and the dynamic here proved that.

Adirondack Night a ‘Lodge’ of Fun

Adirondack Night a ‘Lodge’ of Fun:
Annual Audubon fundraiser draws bird lovers
(Appeared in Fairfield Citizen News)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Sheepskin and wool throws over the backs of wooden benches. Old lanterns and flickering candles on a stone hearth. Wall mounted bear and deer trophies. Table centerpieces of pine needles and sunflowers. An Adirondack lodge environment? That was the idea.

These accents and more set the stage Thursday evening Feb. 17 for Adirondack Night at the Connecticut Audubon Society Center at 2325 Burr Street. The annual fundraiser, chaired by Peter Kunkel, vice chairman of the regional board of the Society, and his wife Carleen, helps support the organization’s mission to conserve Connecticut’s birds and their habitats. The event was attended by about 100 people, who were exposed to a myriad of elements.

Providing a music backdrop was New Haven area based band One Way Track, plucking out bluegrass tinged acoustic Americana. A silent auction featured such provocative items as a four-day Nantucket weekend, stone birdbath, a basket of “bird booze” (Wild Turkey and Famous Grouse Scotch), a case of red wine and a Winter Warm-Up Basket of Treats. Hors d’oeuvres included an array of cheeses and crackers, along with several pots of steaming chili. An open bar accommodated revelers with their beverage of choice. Millie the barn owl was even trotted out for a meet and greet.

“This is really great to just come here to a transformed lodge setting where you can hang out and relax while contributing to a great cause,” said Linnea McHenry, an educator with the Center.

Greenfield Hill resident Barbara Weintraub, attending with daughter Heather and neighbor Bill Seaver, concurred. “We took up Bill’s invite to join him and his wife Earlyne (a member) for the evening,” she said. “Of course, we will be sure and test Earlyne’s chili.”

Of the occasion, Seaver, 93, said, “It’s a wonderful event and great organization. We come every year. We’re bird people, with bird feeders. We buy 100 pounds of bird seed annually.”

Eyeing a gift basket among the silent auction items, Kathy Van Der Aue, a Society board member, shared the same enthusiasm. “This is my favorite event of the year. It’s informal and lots of fun. It’s more of a “friend” raiser than a fundraiser as it’s a little less expensive than our other events,” she chuckled.

Several attendees really dove into the spirit of the event, donning suede, flannel shirts or, like Judy Richardson, chairman of the Fairfield board of governors for the Society, a vest checkered with fly fishing lure imprints.

“This evening is a cabin fever party,” said Richardson. “At this time of year, we’re so tired of winter. There’s not much use for the facility. You can’t get on the trails… but we can connect with our members and give back.”

Dressed in a lumberjack-like red shirt trimmed with suspenders and browsing auction items was Dr. Robert Braun, 82. A past president of the Society at the time the Burr Street facility – the Larsen Sanctuary Center – was being built, Braun offered a unique perspective about the site.

“I’ve been a member since 1941,” he said. “The Society has grown tremendously since, from less than 400 members then, to tens of thousands now. The Fairfield branch is the second oldest Audubon Society in the country, founded by Mabel Osgood Wright in 1898. When I was a boy of 12 or 13, I used to ride my bicycle up to this area on Sundays to go bird watching. It was much wilder then.”

Enjoying cups of chili, Sally Waugh of Southport and Ted Pratt of Westport said they were true bird fans. “We love birds… hate squirrels. We have a hawk around our property – hopefully he’ll take care of some of the squirrels,” Pratt joked.

Truly embracing the evening’s theme was Landon Storrs, a conservation commission member who had donned a Victorian-style dress and bug veiling. She explained, “We have a camp at Blue Mountain Lake, NY, built during the Victorian era. This is period bug attire… protection from black flies.”

Looking out across the room, event co-founder Carleen Kunkel was happy to see how the affair had evolved over time. “This started off as a friends event, a freebie. Then a new director came on board and suggested the evening could be a fundraiser. We drag furniture and décor from our own homes to dress the space up to make it warm and lodge-like.”

As a couple began spontaneously two-stepping, it was clear Kunkel had succeeded in effecting an environment where attendees could let their feathers fly.

Man About Town: Andros Diner, A Neighborhood Favorite

Man About Town: Andros Diner, 
A Neighborhood Favorite
(For Feb. 18 Fairfield Citizen News)
By Mike Lauterborn

It was the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, skies were overcast and snowbanks all around were frozen and gray. The morning called for a setting that would immediately thaw a fed-up-with-winter demeanor. Andros Diner and Restaurant at 651 Villa Avenue seemed like a good candidate.

With its Art Deco-style décor of chrome trim, neon lights, and booths and stools with raspberry and pastel green color schemes, the 3,000-square-foot diner has been an area anchor since 1972.

Greeting me at the door was owner Leo Pertesis, 60, who gave some background about the place and spoke about its dynamic. “It was originally owned by me and my three brothers – four families in all. The four became 20 and we all branched off around town. I remained with this location.”

He said that there were two houses and a shoe store on the site originally. “We bought the property, knocked the structures down and built the restaurant. Where Super Stop ‘n Shop is now was then Pantry Pride, there was a Topps clothing store and Kohl’s was Caldor’s. The area’s always been a business section, just the names have changed. We’re about the only ones that haven’t changed.”

The diner has enjoyed long-time fans, said Andros. “Customers that came in as children come to see us now as adults with their own families.” As we spoke at the front register, Leo greeted by name nearly every customer that stepped up to settle their tab.

One of those was Gary Zingo, 64. “As a young kid, my dad used to take me to the Bridgeport Y to swim, and then, after, we’d go to Uncle Bill’s Diner where Leo got his start as a cook. When he opened up this diner, we just moved over. Now I live in Florida and, whenever I am in town, we always make sure to stop in, reminisce and have some good food. My two children now come in here with their own families.”

Andros said customers are from all walks of life. “We get musicians, artists, retirees, politicians, young families. They like the casual friendly atmosphere. You can eat anything from eggs to surf and turf any time of the day. We’re open 24 hours, about one of the only ones in town that do that. People begin and end their day here.”

As to popular dishes, which are all reasonably priced, Andros said those include dinner platters, Eggs Benedict, Greek and Italian specialties, steaks and chops. All baking is done on the premises.

Mark Resko, 67, seated at a counter, was another fan. “I’ve been coming here every weekday for 25 years to meet friends for breakfast. I also come over by myself on weekends. My business, MCI Security Systems, is right nearby. The food is consistently good and Leo, Maria, Johnny and Tony treat their patrons as if they were family.”

Settled into a booth with his wife Caroline, Len Benton, 73, was yet another veteran of the diner. “I’ve known Leo and his family since the early 60s and have been coming here since he opened. I’ve got 12 brothers and two sisters and all of them have come here, too, over the years. We always order the Caroline Omelet, named after my wife – egg whites, spinach, lettuce and tomato. It’s a good healthy dish – my wife’s a health freak.”

The Benton’s usual waitress, Cindy Nishball, 44, said regulars like the couple give her a reason to come to work. “I like the camaraderie. We have fun.”

Spoons clinked on plates, good folks streamed in and out, and kitchen doors swung back and forth as orders and empty dishes went in and steaming hot platefuls of food came out.

It was hard to leave this warm blanket of an eatery but further Man About Town adventures called.