Civil rights

Before civil rights, most clubs were reserved for whites. A Greenwich spot for CT Black professionals defied the norm.

GREENWICH – At the edge of the Greenwich shoreline, at the bottom of Byram Shore Road, a small island rises out of Long Island Sound.

It is called Shore Island and today is home to little more than a stand of trees, a crumbling seawall, shorebirds and a small sandy beach.

But the island holds an important place in African American history – one of the few places in the region where black people could enjoy an ocean breeze and watch their children play in the sand during the segregation era. widespread before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

As Black History Month begins, forgotten stories like that of the Lee Haven Beach Club are highlighted by educators and archivists.

The Lee Haven Beach Club, as it was known, was once the site of an African-American-only beach club, a place they could call their own. As a haven from the segregated world that excluded black people from recreational opportunities and beaches that white Americans took for granted, it attracted black professionals from as far away as Washington, D.C., to summer on the small island. .

The beach club was also closely linked to Greenwich couple Alver and Berenice Napper, early civil rights pioneers. The Nappers fought to integrate local businesses, improve opportunities for young black people in southern Connecticut, and provide a measure of dignity and respect to black people, rich or poor, when these qualities were often in short supply.

Alver Napper, who was the treasurer of Lee Haven during its existence as a black beach club from 1949 to 1952, was also the manager of Crispus Attucks Community Center, which was a black recreation and advocacy organization in Greenwich . His wife, prior to the couple’s divorce, was an accomplished musician in addition to her early work in the civil rights movement and political organizing.

Alver Napper, whose oral history of Lee Haven and black history in Greenwich has been archived at the Greenwich Public Library, said the beach club had a serious purpose besides summer entertainment.

“I like to think of this island, this club, as one of the milestones in the evolution of recreational aspirations for black people in this area,” he recalled in an interview in the 1970s.

He said the club offered black people “the luxury of leisure, which has been a luxury that most black people could not share”.

Napper died in 2002 aged 91 in Stamford, where he moved after living for many years in Old Greenwich. In his oral history, he recalled how difficult it was for black people to find recreational opportunities at local clubs and fitness clubs. Even bowling alleys were generally off limits, he recalls, and a black church basement was usually the only place black people could find some fun or quiet time during their workday.

Andrew Kahrl, a professor at the University of Virginia who has much written on black beaches around the United States, said coastal enclaves served a valuable purpose.

“They were born out of a need for recreational space in a hostile and segregated society, a society in which African Americans, both individually and as groups, were not welcome in recreational spaces. owned by whites or even public. This necessitated the development of segregated black recreation spaces,” he said in a recent interview. “They answered an important need in the lives of black people. They provided spaces for relaxation and community.

Shore Island near Byram Park was once the home of a rowdy, boozy saloon, with its roots in the days of Prohibition and circulation of rum along the Connecticut coastline, known as Pirate’s Den or Pieces of Eight Club. A black real estate agent and developer from Mamaroneck, NY, James O. Hagens, purchased the island in the late 1940s and established a club for African American residents to use during the summer months. It was named Lee Haven, in reference to the small “haven” and beach on the leeward side of the island.

Over time, four buildings were constructed which hosted dozens of guests during the summer. But there was resistance every step of the way, Napper recalls.

There was a struggle for the club to get a liquor license. There was opposition to the use of a nearby municipal car park for club visitors. There was a fight over the use of a small ferry, worked with a rope and pulley, to take club guests to the island.

Lee Haven attracted many of New York’s wealthy black professionals — lawyers, doctors and teachers who found a way forward at a time when job and educational opportunities were tough for African Americans — as well as people in Connecticut, Napper recalled. Some sailed to the island on their boats and docked there. The others drove and transported a short distance to the small island. Meals were served three times a day and a family routine revolved around swimming, boating, dancing, lawn parties, games and beach time, Napper said.

While Lee Haven was a rarity on the Connecticut coastline, there were other resorts in the area and in the mid-Atlantic where black people carved out recreational spaces that still thrive to this day. Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard has been a long time destination for black beach lovers, as well as Azurest to the village of Sag Harbor in Long Island, NY Highland Beach in Maryland was founded by black abolitionists in 1893.

Several others have disappeared.

“There were hundreds of them,” said Kahrl, who has also written extensively about beach exclusion policies in Greenwich and the Connecticut coastline. But their existence was often in conflict with their surrounding communities, he said.

“Many of them have been the subject of attacks, whether it’s arson, harassment from white neighbors or local government – zoning codes and other measures to remove them from map. A lot of these places have faced a variety of hurdles,” Kahrl said.

Class divisions were the downfall of the Lee Haven Beach Club, as Napper recalls. High-income professionals in New York and Westchester County, NY, wanted to keep the club exclusive — “they wanted to change the club’s constitution, so you had to be a professional” — and turn away working-class black people, Napper says . The professionals eventually withheld funds from the operations of the Lee Haven Club, and the ensuing financial crisis caused the club to close in 1952.

After that, a hurricane did extensive damage, and vandals and thieves did the rest. The buildings have all been demolished: “Back to nature now,” Napper said of the club’s demise.

While the beach club only lasted a short time, Alver and Berenice Napper left a long legacy in the area.

Napper, a Georgia native whose family moved to Hartford, graduated from Virginia State College (now a university) and later earned a master’s degree from the Hartford School of Religious Education.

In 1938, needing a job during the Depression, he became a toll collector on Merritt Parkway, the first black toll collector, he believed, in the country.

Later he was director of the Crispus Attucks Center on Railroad Avenue in Greenwich, named after an early black patriot killed in the Boston Massacre by British troops in the years before the American Revolution. The center provided recreation for black people, offered scholarships and counseling, and, Napper recalled, worked “to try to develop a new perspective for black people,” one of ambition and determination.

Napper then worked as a probation officer for the State of Connecticut until his retirement in 1976.

Acclaimed singer and pianist Berenice Napper, from Norwalk, once hosted prominent African-American opera singer Marian Anderson at the couple’s home in Old Greenwich. A graduate of the Howard University School of Music in Washington, she was a social worker and claims examiner for the state unemployment department.

In his quality of a civil rights leaderNapper was a field secretary for the NAACP’s national office, giving talks, organizing membership drives, and leading civil rights campaigns across the country. She died in 2009 at the age of 92.

She was the first black woman to stand in the Greenwich local elections, organizing a petition campaign to get elected to the Selectman board, in 1983 and again in 1985. Napper garnered only a fraction votes both times, but she was undeterred by the odds against her, she told a reporter at the time.

“You’re not going anywhere if you don’t venture out,” she said.

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