Hempstead Historic District and the quest for civil rights

In May 1963, a group gathered outside a New London department store protesting an incident in Greensboro, North Carolina, where four black college men were refused service at a Woolworth's lunch counter. The demonstration was led by Linwood Bland, Jr., a civil rights activist who lived on Franklin Street in the Hempstead Historic District, part of Connecticut's Freedom Trail. This month, New London Landmarks officially takes ownership of Linwood's former home, which ironically was built by the descendant of a slave owner. Landmarks plans to rehabilitate and preserve it because of its role in the centuries' long struggle for social justice.

Flip the calendar back to the 18th century, when Joshua Hempstead, Jr., lived on Hempstead Street in the house his father built in 1678. For decades, Joshua kept a diary recording his life as a farmer and tradesman. He chronicled significant people in his life, including Adam Jackson, an enslaved member of the Hempstead household.

By the 19th century, some attitudes were changing, and a number of Joshua’s descendants had become abolitionists. They were members of the New London Anti-Slavery Society, ran a school that included African American students, and published a newspaper, “The Slave’s Cry.” The Hempstead House was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

New London’s cityscape was changing, too, as whaling wealth fueled a building boom. Farms were subdivided for urban residences and businesses. New roads like Franklin, Hope, and High Street were cut to accommodate the growth. (High Street later became Garvin Street, but that’s another story.) Although a jail was erected to handle sailors behaving badly, the Hempstead neighborhood was desirable and pricey. Around 1845, Savillion Haley, an early New London abolitionist, built five homes on former Hempstead property and sold them at cost to free black families. Soon, other African Americans joined this growing community.

Around this time, George Fayerweather, an African-Native American blacksmith, and his wife, Sarah Harris, lived on Hill Street; the sequence in which 1850 census takers interviewed residents suggests that the Hempsteads lived nearby. Sarah was the first black woman to be admitted to Prudence Crandall’s academy in Canterbury. She and George were abolitionists with ties to national figures like Frederick Douglass. In 1849, George represented New London at the State of Connecticut Convention of Colored Men, a forerunner of the NAACP. Connecticut had abolished slavery only one year earlier and the Civil War loomed just ahead.

The war saved the Union and freed the slaves, but it didn’t end the pervasive injustices faced by African Americans. Even traveling for business or pleasure could be difficult and dangerous. In the 20th century, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black motorists found safe lodging by consulting “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book.” The 1940 guide listed four such establishments in New London including Hempstead Cottage at 73 Hempstead Street, and Mrs. E. Whittle’s Tourist Home at 785 Bank Street. The 1956 edition’s sole entry for New London was Mrs. Whittle, still in the hospitality business but located at 46 Hempstead Street.

Linwood Bland, Jr., whose house New London Landmarks has purchased, came to Connecticut from North Carolina in the 1930s when he was just a kid. In his memoir, “A View from the Sixties: The Black Experience in Southeastern Connecticut,” Linwood recalled that the train he took north was segregated as far as Washington. From D.C. to New London, he could sit where he pleased, but this didn’t mean that his new life would be easy.

Linwood lived in New London for over 60 years. He raised a family, worked as a machinist at Electric Boat, served in World War II and the Korean conflict, was president of the local NAACP during the turbulent 1960s, and — as an old man — learned how to use a personal computer while writing his memoir. In his book, Linwood paid tribute to the activism of his colleagues, but it’s clear that his own commitment to the cause came with emotional cost and physical risk.

I found reading Linwood’s book a moving but stressful experience. He seemed to be on "speed dial" for anyone with a civil rights issue from fair housing, to employment, to equitable treatment in the legal system. Besides reacting to trouble, Linwood was proactive in forging positive relationships across the community. He organized awareness-raising seminars at schools and businesses, and negotiated successfully for better employment opportunities. He participated in the March on Washington in 1963, and later received the President’s Certificate of Appreciation for his civil rights advocacy.

Linwood died in 2005. As mourners noted, he was a legend in his own time.

When New London Landmarks first announced their plans for Linwood’s home, his son told The Day that he was pleased because he wanted to “make sure my Dad is not forgotten.” People who make the pursuit of social justice their life’s work should always be remembered.

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Bland’s memoir, published by the New London County Historical Society in 2001, is available at the Groton Library and at NLCHS for reference. New London Landmarks and NLCHS provided invaluable assistance with this column.

 

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