Tuesday, May 28, 2024
African American Heritage

Black Bridgeporters

by Michelle Black Smith

In 1977, a dedicated group of African American teachers decided to record the history of Black Bridgeporters in the residents’ own words. The Afro-American Education Association (hereafter AAEA) petitioned the CT Humanities Council for funds and technical support. The introduction to the AAEA recorded history states “This project is a study of the changes in Bridgeport neighborhoods from the viewpoint of selected Black residents during the historical periods of World War I, the Depression, World War II, and the 1960’s.”

During the time of the oral history gathering, the AAEA consisted of African American teachers who worked in the Bridgeport public school system, were living and/or engaged in the community, and had a vital interest in the black population. That interest extended beyond the history of the people to the health, welfare, and advancement of the people. So it was against the backdrop of the 1970s:  a time rooted in community, and promising the realization of “The Dream” that this historian sat down to interview Ms. Frances Judson, past president of the AAEA and Chairperson of the Committee that spearheaded the oral history project.
Ms. Frances Judson is known as Sister Judson at First Baptist Church of Stratford, where she has served in the Music Ministry for many years. Ms. Judson invites me to take a seat in the choir loft before the closing ceremonies of a summer Vacation Bible School program. It is a peaceful and reflective moment before the rush of students comes to celebrate the lessons they’ve learned with their classroom teachers, and sing the songs taught to them by Sis. Judson. She was a Music teacher in the Bridgeport public school system, rotating at schools across the district before teaching at Read and retiring after a long tenure at Park City Magnet. Ms. Judson views the project endeavor as well as its contents as historic, given that the oral histories were made into Black History Kits for grades 5-8, and were adaptable to a high school curriculum.

The oral history project catalogued as Black History Kits was compiled by the Afro-American Educators Association between 1977 and *1983. While the existing audiotapes might be too fragile for patrons’ use, the transcripts are rich primary source materials. Individually and as a body of work, these oral histories capture the voices of the people, and the tenor of the times.

Note: “Black Bridgeporters” is a term used by the AAEA Committee in the introduction to the oral history project
Interview conducted at First Baptist Church of Stratford, CT on July 1, 2011
Who might be interested in these oral histories?
• Individuals researching family history (genealogy). At least 23 families are represented in the oral histories
• Teachers looking for innovative teaching tools, especially in Language Arts and Social Studies curricula
• Universities/Colleges, and advanced High School Studies where Oral History Methodology is taught
• Churches desiring additional information about members, clergy, and/or the neighborhoods where their places of worship are situated
• Anyone interested in the rich history of a rapidly changing 20th century Bridgeport

Michelle Black Smith
Michelle Black Smith is a curator, cultural historian, and divinity school student. She received her Bachelor’s Degree at Princeton University with a major in Art History, and her Master’s Degree with Honors at S.U.N.Y. Fashion Institute of Technology with a major in Museum Studies. Black Smith has either acted as guest curator or consultant to numerous museums, arts organizations and cultural and educational institutions, including but not limited to, the Smithsonian Institution, Anacostia Museum, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Motown Historical Museum, Henry Ford Museum, Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine, Black Fashion Museum, and the Bridgeport, CT Public School system. She is a lecturer at schools and libraries, and institutions of higher learning. Black Smith resides with her family in her home town of Bridgeport, where she is a co-founder of the city’s first charter elementary school.