By Mary K. Witkowski
Editor: Ann Marie Virzi
Alice Whiting Farrar had many passions: music, church, education and above all, her family and their home on Bridgeport’s East End. Skills she learned at a young age, especially sewing,served her well as a mother running a household with her husband Edward Langston Farrar and their seven children.
Alice and Edward Farrar set high expectations for their children, including their third oldest, Geraldine Farrar Johnson, who would go on to become Bridgeport’s first female and African-American schools superintendent.
When the Farrar children weren’t in the classroom, they participated in school events, took music and dancing lessons or went to church.
The family’s strength was a foundation for the family’s extraordinary achievements as they collectively and individually gained social prominence and earned respect as professionals in their chosen careers. The strength also served as shield against the racism they’d invariably encounter as blacks living in a predominately white neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s.
“If someone called you a name that wasn’t very complimentary, in fact which was insulting to you, we were just taught to ignore it because we were given perfectly good names,” Geraldine Farrar Johnson, said in 1983 in an interview for a Bridgeport Library oral history project.
The Whiting family came to Bridgeport in 1900 when Alice was seven and her sister, Lillian, was eight-months old, migrating from rural Fauquier County in Virginia. Their father, Samuel Whiting, became a trucker for Canfield Rubber; their mother was a homemaker and seamstress. Their first home was next door to the sprawling Warner corset factory on Lafayette Street in the South End and near Little Liberia, a neighborhood of free people of color established decades earlier. The Whiting family’s move north pre-dated the Great Migration of blacks from rural Southern states to industrial cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West by at least one decade.
Education was an important part of Alice Whiting Farrar’s childhood. She attended Myrtle Avenue School, Lincoln School on Stratford Avenue, Shelton School on Wheeler Avenue and Congress High School. At the time, only 10% of American youth were enrolled in high school. What’s more, her sister Lillian Whiting Hamilton attended Bridgeport schools and earned the distinction of becoming the first black teacher in Bridgeport.
From the age of 11 until she was married, Alice Farrar took piano lessons. At the time, it cost 50 cents per session. The lessons paved the way for her to become the organist at A.M.E. Zion Church in the South End, a position she held for nearly 50 years.
When Alice and Edward Farrar married, they had a small house wedding. Her mother made breakfast for family and friends before the couple left for honeymoon in Portsmouth, N.H. When they returned, they made their home at 349 Wilmont Avenue in Bridgeport’s East End where they were the first black family in a neighborhood of white European immigrants.
Edward Farrar was a power mechanic at Bridgeport Brass where he worked for 50 years. During the Depression, he was employed on a reduced schedule – three days a week – with reduced income. The family’s resourcefulness helped them flourish during challenging times. Alice Farrar relied on sewing skills she learned from her mother. “I made all of my children’s clothes. I never bought them a coat in their life,” Alice Farrar recalled decades later. Edward Farrar had a garden that provided fruits and vegetables, which were canned and preserved for year-round use.
While the Farrar family was self-sufficient – never asking anyone for help – they were empathetic to their neighbors in need of assistance. “We had some very poor neighbors that would come over and borrow sugar or borrow flour. We never borrowed anything because my mother didn’t believe in borrowing,” daughter Geraldine Farrar Johnson recalled in 1983.
The Farrar family was pragmatic about church attendance. It would have been too costly for the entire family to take the trolley or bus from the East End to the South End to get to A.M.E. Zion Church where Alice Farrar played the organ; Edward attended Messiah Baptist Church. Geraldine Johnson recalls that neighbors invited the children to attend Newfield Methodist Church, mostly attended by white parishioners, because it was only three blocks from their home.
As the children got older, Alice Farrar transitioned from homemaker to beautician, graduating in 1936 from the Modern School of Hairdressing in Bridgeport at the age of 42. Ever industrious, she opened a beauty salon with her daughter, Edna Carter.
As young adults during World War II, Alice and Edward Farrar’s children took a different path than thousands of others in Bridgeport. Rather than work in wartime manufacturing, the Farrar children were dedicated students and continued their education.
§ Oldest daughter, Lilian Farrar Russell, graduated from Fisk University, an historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee; she became a concert pianist and music teacher in St. Louis, Missouri.
§ Edna Farrar Grant was educated in the Bridgeport public school system where she worked for 30 years as a reading specialist.
§ Geraldine Farrar Johnson graduated from the Bridgeport Normal School on Warren and Prospect streets; it was a three-year training school for prospective teachers. She then took her fourth year at the New Haven Teacher’s College, now known as Southern Connecticut State University, in 1940. She received an MA from New York University in 1959 and a sixth-year professional certificate at the University of Bridgeport in 1969.
§ Laurayne Farrar-James was a teacher before she worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
§ Doris Belle Farrar Randall attended Lincoln Nursing School in New York City, becoming a Registered Nurse. Her first job was at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan.
§ Joseph Langston Farrar, the youngest child and only son, became a lawyer after graduating from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Fordham Law School in New York. He was director for the Affirmative Purchase Program at Equitable Life Assurance Society and house counsel for the AFL-CIO Local 144.
The Farrar home was a hub of social activities over the decades. “Mrs. Alice Farrar entertained members of the senior choir, Walters Memorial AME Church,” reads one dispatch in “The Afro-American,” a national newspaper. “Beautiful beautician Mrs. Alice Farrar is one of Bridgeport, Connecticut’s most charming and loved Moms – Her home has been a gathering place of the young socialites for years” wrote Sara Slack, a columnist for the New York Amsterdam News, in 1971.
Alice Farrar continued to be a groundbreaker, even as a centenarian. In 2000, she was one of two women in Connecticut honored at the age of 106. The distinction? They both participated in the U.S. Census 11 times.
In the 1970s, Geraldine Farrar Johnson made headlines as she fought against racial and sexual discrimination. She took legal action against the Bridgeport Board of Education when she was passed over for the position of schools superintendent after having served as the school district’s assistant superintendent in charge of developmental programs and subsequently, elementary school curriculum. The school board reversed its decision, hiring Geraldine Farrar Johnson as superintendent in 1976. She retired from the position 1981 but later went on to become the interim superintendent in Fairfield.
Geraldine Farrar Johnson died November 28, 2015 at the age of 96. A school on Lexington Avenue, Bridgeport, is named after her.
“A Study of Bridgeport Neighborhoods: A Black Perspective, 1900-present,” Interview with Geraldine Whiting Farrar Johnson, Bridgeport Library History Center, November 17, 1983
“A Study of Bridgeport Neighborhoods: A Black Perspective, 1900-present,” Interview with Alice Whiting Farrar, Bridgeport Library History Center, October 8, 1983
“Geraldine Johnson, teacher, superintendent, humanitarian dies,” by Michael Mayko, Connecticut Post, November 29, 2015
“How America Graduated From High School: 1910 to 1960,” National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, June 1994, Claudia Goldin http://www.nber.org/papers/w4762.pdf
Photo, “First Class in Hairdressing Graduates at AME Zion Church” Hartford Courant, July 13, 1936 “Ideal Mother 1955 Honorable Mentions,” Washington Afro-American, May 10, 1955, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2238&dat=19550510&id=Q8slAAAAIBAJ&sjid=6_QFAAAAIBAJ&pg=3534,6755591&hl=en
“The History Makers,” Geraldine Johnson biography, April 29, 2010
“King’s Dream Of Unity Reflected In Celebrations,” Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1993
Obituary, Doris Randall, Connecticut Post / Legacy.com, May 10, 2015
Obituary, Joseph Langston Farrar, Connecticut Post / Legacy.com, March 5, 2006, http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/ctpost/obituary.aspx?n=Joseph-Langston-Farrar&pid=16919715
Newspapers, “The Afro-American,” http://www.pbs.org/blackpress/news_bios/afroamerican.html
Sara Speaking,” New York Amsterdam News,” page 5, April 24, 1971
“With Much At Stake For State, Officials Urge Residents To Be Counted,” Hartford Courant, March 18, 2000