SALISBURY — When Peter McEachern bought a fixer-upper home on Farnum Road in Lakeville, in 2016, he didn’t know its hidden contents would prove to be the inspiration for an art exhibit and a lecture series.
McEachern discovered, hidden in the attic of his house, a collection of photographs spanning the years from the 1930s to the 1970s. The home and the photos were previously owned by the Fowlkes family, one of several black families in the small town. McEachern said he recognized the historical importance of the images and developed a proposal to use the photo archives as a starting point to teach a course at Salisbury School (where he teaches music) entitled “Black History in Rural Connecticut.”
McEachern discussed Salisbury’s historical black community’s friendships amid a period of national segregation on Jan. 5 at 4 p.m. at the Scoville Memorial Library at 38 Main Street in
Salisbury. The lecture, presented by the Salisbury Association
Historical Society, was entitled “A Forgotten History.”
McEachern showed slides, including that of the Farnum Road house he is still renovating with his wife, Danielle Mailer. “This is where it all started,” he explained to the people who attended the talk.
The house was once the home of the Fowlkes family, including Shag and Ray Fowlkes and an older sister, Bertha.
When he discovered the collection, McEachern said, “I knew it had to be seen by the larger community.” When he involved his interested students at the Salisbury School, he said the project really took off. “Not being a professional historian, this was all new to me,” he added. “I began to understand the black history of the area.”
McEachern, who was born and raised in Connecticut, is a professional jazz trombonist with three CDs for Polygram under his belt. He is the Chairman of the Music Department at Salisbury School and has also been a jazz teacher at the Litchfield Jazz Camp since 1998.
With assistance from the Salisbury Town Historians, past and present, Katherine Chilcoat and Jean McMillen, as well as using historical U.S. Census data and help from McEachern’s own brother, Torrington Historical Society Executive Director Mark McEachern, he assembled most of the names of the people in the photographs.
In his hourlong Saturday afternoon talk, McEachern talked about the national impact of slavery on later Connecticut migration of black residents. In a slide show, he discussed a photo (circa 1880) of James Mars, a famous slave in the area. Mars wrote “Life of James Mars, A Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut,” published in 1864. “Most slave owners had one to two slaves, and freed slaves worked as indentured servants,” he noted.
McEachern pointed out that Connecticut abolished slavery in 1848. (Connecticut had passed in 1784 the act of Gradual Abolition, stating that children born into slavery after March 1, 1784 would be freed by the time they turned 25). Mars’ parents fled from the South to Norfolk, and in 1815 bought their freedom.
According to the National Humanities Center’s website’s “Emancipation” section, a rare option for slaves to become free was “self-purchase” (revealing the basic illogic to slavery). In fact, in 1839, 42 percent of free blacks in Cincinnati, Ohio, had bought their freedom and also purchased their own relatives.
After slavery ended, McEachern said an influx of black domestics and skilled workers came to the area. Salisbury’s iron ore industry also brought people. “It was the Great Migration,” he said, adding that the Barton Agency in Great Barrington, Mass., recruited blacks for jobs from 1933 to 1965.
Among those recruited were Bertha Fowlkes, who came to Lakeville as a teenager from Alabama. “She didn’t want to pick cotton anymore and came up here,” McEachern said. “She was 94-years-old when we interviewed her. She lives back in Alabama and has fine memories of the town. She is remembered with kindness by all.”
The slide show featured photos of residents Henry and Bill Palmer at Mount Riga in 1934 with a caption reading “Two Water Rats.” A contributed photo in the show depicted female domestic workers attending a matinee play dress rehearsal at a local private school, Salisbury School.
McEachern said although seven homes housing black families originally existed in the Farnum Road area, only two houses remain: McEachern’s, and the former Branch family house.
Perhaps the heart and soul of the exhibit was the photograph of longtime resident Ray Fowlkes, pressman for The Lakeville Journal when the newspaper was located on Bissell Street in Lakeville. Fowlkes is now deceased. “Ray was born in town and died there,” McEachern said of the home at 188 Farnum Road. “Fowlkes was married to Geraldine, who was part Native American.”
Another photo prominently displayed near McEachern’s podium was of the young children, Robin and Donny Fowlkes, dressed up for Easter Sunday.
“There were many stories of him (Ray) as an old man retired from The Lakeville Journal,” he said. “The newspaper was still using the printing press and when it would break down, they would bring Ray out of retirement to fix it. He would grumble but he would come in. They couldn’t work it without Ray.”
McEachern also discussed Concern, an activist group organized to improve race relations in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut. He said several area residents who were members of Concern traveled to the famous civil rights march in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. McEachern said that Dolores Johnson, one of the participants who now lives in California, reported she and others prepared for the march by enduring attack dogs and mock beatings. “They had to drive at night with no headlights,” he said. “A member of the demonstration had been shot and killed.”
On Dec. 26 in the late afternoon, McEachern gave a private tour of the Tremaine Gallery of the Salisbury School located on the lower level of Centennial Building at 251 Canaan Road in Salisbury. The gallery housed 40 mostly black-and-white photos dating from the 1930s to the 1970s in an exhibit entitled “Black History in Rural Connecticut” (there were 314 photos total that were originally found, he said). The show had run its scheduled course from October, and in a few days the exhibit would be dismantled. The photos were blown up from their original size and featured overall good composition.
The exhibit and the oral history behind the photos are not seen strictly through rose-colored glasses. McEachern said there was another woman who is now in her late 70s who said she had a less positive experience of the way she was treated in town. Also included in the photo collection was a cringe-worthy photograph of a “blackface” minstrel show (also featuring black participants) held in the 1950s at the former Housatonic School, which is now the site of the lower school of Salisbury Central School at 45 Lincoln City Road in Salisbury.
Interspersed with the photos were displayed vinyl records included the early-1950s doo-wop group The Ravens’ 1948 “Send for Me If You Need Me” and tenor saxophone player Chu Berry’s 1939 “Sweethearts on Parade.” Other paraphernalia, such as vintage ashtrays and a membership card to a “colored nurses union,” were also on exhibit.
“When we started this, we were living in Goshen and we didn’t know the history of Salisbury,” McEachern said. “ At first we had no IDs. Now we know most of the people in the photos. They were so helpful.”
Some of those captured in the photos came to the exhibit’s opening reception in October. Others had passed away or were unable to attend. “Marion Reed is still alive,” he said. “She is 100-years-old and lives in a home in Middletown. We want to go and interview her.”
McEachern noticed that many young men identified in the photos had called themselves in captions “The Millbrook Sheik” and “The Millerton Sheik.” McEachern said the “sheik” moniker denoted a ladies man after silent-screen movie heartthrob Rudolph Valentino’s 1921 film “The Sheik.”
“Some came to the area for the iron ore industry,” he said. “There was also a big influx of domestics.”
Part of the legacy from the photo collection included McEachern teaching a local black history course at Salisbury School, a private boarding school for boys, where he is chairman of the music department. In the course, he noted, “The students from other countries and not of this town take longer than the students in town to get the connections. Eventually everyone comes to it.” When the photographs’ subjects attended the October 2018 exhibit opening, he said the students definitely got more engaged. Of the subjects in the photos being interviewed, McEachern said, “Their memories shined a light on a part of town. Everyone has been very interested in it.”
McEachern added, “The Fowlkes family was one of several black families who made a life here in this small mostly white rural Connecticut town. In the course, we worked to identify people and places in the photos and to learn their stories as well as the broader history of the area’s black residents.”
McEachern’s course also resulted in two exhibitions. The first exhibit derived from the photo collection, “Black History in Rural Connecticut,” ran April through June 2, 2018, at the local historical society Salisbury Association’s Academy Building at 24 Main Street. Beginning Oct. 26, the Salisbury School Art Department presented the 40-image exhibit “Salisbury in Black and White” at the school’s Tremaine Gallery at the campus. The exhibit closed in late December.
“Finding the collection was like finding gold,” McEachern said. “The collection has a life of its own.”
The photos depict everyday events like weddings and holiday celebrations. But they are made all the more poignant due to the prevalent racism and segregation found nationwide.
According to the history website www.ConnecticutHistory.org’s social movements page: “Throughout state history everyday people have banded together on local and national issues to defy the status quo and call for change.” The causes ranged from anti-slavery, temperance, and universal suffrage to the Good Roads Movement championed by Hartford bicycle innovator Albert Pope in the late 1870s. Noted Connecticut reformers include abolitionist Roger Sherman Baldwin, who defended the Amistad slave ship rebellion prisoners, and Estelle Griswold, who challenged the state’s ban on birth control in the 1960s.
A 2016 Connecticut Post article mentioned a study at the time by 24/7 Wall St., a financial news company that examined which U.S. states had the most and least inequality between the races. The firm measured statistics on median household income, poverty, high school and college educational attainment rates, home ownership rates, and incarceration rates. The Nutmeg State landed in the middle of the ranking at number 23, the state’s large wealth being one factor that lowered the state’s equality ranking.