Remarkable actress and stirring vocalist Kimberly Wilson performed at the Wilton Library in a program jointly sponsored by the library and the Wilton Historical Society early this month as part of reflections on both black history and women’s history at the meeting point of the months in which we celebrate each.
Wilson’s one-woman show is a real tour-de-force with her astonishing ability not just to change character but to age her facial appearance and her vocal inflections to capture the sense of these black women of history. She portrays them vividly for 75 minutes, using as her sole prop a long and colorful scarf, as she carries us from slave capture in Africa, to intense and exhausting plantation field work, to forced separations of parents from their children, to slave escapes, ending with slave life right here in Wilton.
The Belden family were the owners of the last slave in Wilton under Connecticut’s “gradual emancipation” laws that kept slavery in existence in our state until 1848. The Beldens worked their slave Hagar hard day after weary day and well into her old age while other Wilton families, like the Wakemans, were strong abolitionists and even Underground Railroad operators — as our Cider Mill School students experience annually at Ambler Farm in a remarkable two-hour slavery-immersion program there.
Wilson’s presentation is one that we all need to experience, and especially so in these times when the school district consolidation issue is rightly in the forefront of concerns for our town. That consolidation issue raises understandably grave fears about its consequences for our future. Regionalization, especially for well-functioning and highly cost-effective school districts like our own, is neither wise nor efficient based on national studies of district consolidations and our own town’s hands-on experiences with how best to do public education for our children, as detailed in my Feb. 7 column. As I noted in that column, our town government and school district already share senior financial and building-supervision officials and are always looking for cost-saving ways of working with other districts. The panic that proposed legislation requiring consolidation has engendered has united us across party lines in ways I have never seen before in over three decades of living here. To say consolidation has gotten our attention is an understatement!
That being said, the fact is there is another fundamentally important issue: We need to understand and address the enormous extent to which the racial composition of our cities and towns, even here in Yankee Connecticut, was the result of restrictions imposed by federal and state government fiat. Those government directives right here in Connecticut as well as nationwide took many different forms as detailed in my Oct. 26, 2017, column on this subject. Those forms included racially restrictive zoning laws from the 1920s forward, legally enforced deed restrictions that prohibited sale of homes to people of color, and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) rules that for decades, from the 1930s forward, redlined large residential areas, including whole towns, as ones where banks could not finance homes bought by African-Americans, nor could developers who used federal government construction financing (essentially all large-tract developers post-World War II — think Levittowns) sell to people of color. In fact, the federal government itself built large amounts of explicitly racially restricted housing during the Great Depression and during and after World War II.
These were actions taken by our own government, and their consequences have been enormous, changing municipalities in which there was racial diversity into those split into either predominantly white or predominantly black. The segregated results in housing led to very bad consequences in education, and we live with both the housing and the education consequences to this very day.
Now what are we, as people of conscience and goodwill, going to do about that? That is a fundamental question, and legislators on both sides of the consolidation issue need to turn their attention to addressing this issue head-on, not with ill-advised mandatory school consolidation ideas but with frank analysis of the best way forward in light of a system of segregation imposed by our very own government that has had consequences for all of us to this very day.
The time has come to address that fact squarely and to do so with action right now while everyone’s attention is so focused. We can find a result that establishes our state as a national model for how to do it right if we make this energized moment a rallying point for moving forward to a just result.