October 20, 2021

Op-Ed: Systemic Racism and Old Lyme — Past, Present and Future

COMENTS ARE NOW CLOSED ON THIS ARTICLE, BUT THE 20+ SUBMITTED CAN STILL BE READ.

This op-ed was written by the ministers of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme:- Rev. Steven R. Jungkeit, Ph.D. (Senior Minister), Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager (Senior Associate Minister), and Rev. Carleen Gerber (Associate Minister.)

As the death of George Floyd, and now Daunte Wright, once again dominates the news cycle, so too local communities throughout the United States are called to continue the work of addressing the inequities and injustices caused by systemic racism.  Thankfully, in many places, that work didn’t begin with the death of Mr. Floyd – it has been happening all along.  Still, the horrific footage of that event, together with the killing of Daunte Wright, underscore both the urgency of the work, and the sheer scale of it.  The roots of systemic racism run deep, and they are pervasive.  Those roots run deep throughout the entire country, but they are especially pervasive in local communities.  Old Lyme, Connecticut, is not an exception.

To say that a community (or a country) is afflicted with systemic racism is not the same as attributing racist behaviors to individuals.  While it might be true that some individuals do exhibit racist behaviors, and while it is also true that most people possess unconscious biases in need of examination, systemic racism is far more subtle.  It has to do with who benefits most from our economic system, our educational institutions, and our business practices.  It has to do with the availability of health care, and the location and availability of housing.  It has to do with transportation and environmental resources.  Countering systemic racism involves discovering where blockages toward racial justice exist, and then doing the hard work of reshaping and reforming those structures in order to create communities that are inviting, fully responsive to the diverse needs of those who live there.

Old Lyme, along with the entirety of the Connecticut Shoreline, has a long history of systemic racism that has gone largely unnoticed and unaddressed.  Historical research discloses that the wealth of the town was built through trade with the West Indies, islands where slaves were worked to death on sugar plantations.  Barrel staves were made in Old Lyme, which were then shipped to Barbados from the Lieutenant River and the Connecticut River.  Molasses, converted from the cane sugar harvested by enslaved Africans, came back in those barrels, which was then converted into rum.  Communities all over Connecticut supplied the West Indies with agricultural products, which were then converted into molasses, and then rum, and then the purchase of human beings.  Old Lyme, together with other Connecticut towns like Old Saybrook, Wethersfield, New London, and many others, played its part in that global relay system.

But Old Lyme didn’t simply profit from a slave society that was far away.  It was a slave society.  We can document as many as 160 enslaved people – and likely more – that lived in this town alone.  Many, if not most, of the towns along the Connecticut Shoreline have similar numbers.  The first minister of the Congregational Church in Old Lyme owned at least one enslaved person, named Arabella.  A prominent member of the town in the early 18th century sold a three year old child, named Jane, away from her mother, writing in the deed of sale that she was sold in order to have and to hold, to be possessed and enjoyed.  The largest slave holding family in New England, the DeWolfs, built an integrated empire of slaving in Bristol, Rhode Island in the 18th century, but they got their start in Old Lyme – one of the early family patriarchs is buried in the Duck River Cemetery.  At least three enslaved people lived on the site where the Congregational Church now stands.  At least five enslaved people lived in the house that now serves as the parsonage.  Several more lived on the site of the town library.  More still lived at the site of what is now the Florence Griswold Museum.  That’s merely a handful of the human beings who were enslaved in Old Lyme.

But it’s not only enslavement that occurred in Old Lyme.  Redlining did too.  Property records exist from the mid-20th century that prohibit the sale of houses or land in Old Lyme to people of color.  Such records raise questions about precisely what is meant when contemporary residents deploy language about “preserving the town’s historic character.”  What does “character” mean, precisely?  Can that “character” be separated out from the history of systemic racism that took place in Old Lyme?  Given the evidence of systemic racism in Old Lyme, are there not aspects of the town’s “historic character” that we might wish to address, change, and overcome?

The Resolution on Racism as a Public Health Crisis currently before the town’s Board of Selectmen is a way of publicly acknowledging the ways structural racism adversely affects the bodily, emotional, and spiritual well-being of people of color, an acknowledgment that should not be controversial.  Passing it would acknowledge that structural racism exists throughout our country, including in places like Old Lyme.  It would send a clear message to the people of color and minorities who do live in the town that local leaders actually care about their well-being.  It would do the same for the people of color who work in town, but live elsewhere.  But more than that, passing the resolution would send a signal to those living in other communities that Old Lyme understands the conditions that far too many people face in Connecticut and in the wider United States.  Finally, it would help to acknowledge this town’s complicity in the very formation of structural racism, a complicity in which it is not alone.  Sadly, failing to affirm that Resolution declares the opposite: the desire to retain the town’s “historic character,” together with all that phrase implies.

Passing a resolution is a largely symbolic activity.  Still, we believe such passage would be a substantive step toward lasting change.  But clearly more work is needed if we are truly to address the inequities that have existed in Connecticut, and in Old Lyme.  That work would include a public education program to learn the history of enslavement in Old Lyme.  It would include building a curriculum that would teach that history to our children.  It would include an active campaign to invite people of color to live in our community, and to take part in our educational system.  And it would include a commitment to building affordable housing, which, it should be noted, would also benefit many within this community who already face precarious housing.

We believe it is time for Old Lyme to lead on issues surrounding structural racism.  The murder of George Floyd and the murder of Daunte Wright, together with the public reckoning that such violence has unleashed, has created an opening toward greater honesty, empathy, compassion, and justice.  Mr. Floyd’s death, and Mr. Wright’s, is nothing short of a tragedy.  Indeed, it is more than that – it is a national emergency.  With that tragedy and with that emergency, we have an opportunity to work toward a greater and more inclusive public good, one in which towns like Old Lyme become the hospitable and welcoming communities that we most deeply wish to be.

Editor’s Notes: We welcome comments on any article published on LymeLine.com but we would like to remind readers that our policy on comments states that you must provide your first and last name, and an email address that we can verify. Comments will not be published under a pseudonym. Personal attacks on anyone or any group or organization, especially on other commenters, are not permitted. Also, we will not publish comments that are abusive, defamatory, indecent, libelous, obscene, off-topic, pornographic, profane, threatening, unlawful, vulgar, or otherwise objectionable.

Comments

  1. Emerson Colwell says

    This is blatantly pandering to a political / media narrative and calling the residents of Old Lyme racist! It’s been over 130 years and the residents of Lyme / Old Lyme today had nothing to do with slavery!
    This article has nothing to do with government, resolutions or racism but has all to do with how we as treat people.
    This article has nothing to do about Christianity, unity or love for everyone!!!!

  2. Mike Bucior says

    The roots of racism may run deep in your family Reverend, but they don’t in mine, nor do they in the overwhelmingly majority of past and present Old Lyme families.

    • Shawn Gergler says

      Growing up in Old Lyme 70″s-90’s in a family of many colors we didn’t see racism, what I did see was economic discrimination. I was actually told my child was depressed due to his non “Abercrombie and Fitch” clothing.

  3. Mona Colwell says

    Eighty percent of the women and children flooding the border right now are being sexually and abused. While the Congregational members are distracted with resolutions created by Marxist terrorists that have nothing to do with any laws in our town, a large, real problem of sex trafficking is alive and doing well in the country that represents the most child pornography in the world.

    People in our town should not be bullied into signing something we do not believe has anything to do with the town’s government, especially while real problems of slavery are happening in the US today thanks to open borders. What can we do about today’s slaves? We can write to the President and Vice President, members of Congress asking them to immediately stop the cartels by closing the border. We can support organizations that help trafficked women and children. We can pray for everyone involved, especially those profiting and encouraging this tragedy, to be brought to justice. This also does not involve a town government resolution, it is just an effective way for us to support ending slavery because we are a loving and supportive community.

  4. Kevin Greene says

    I’m sick of these so called places of worship judging me, I refuse to have guilt based on my skin color, there has been atrocities committed to many different kinds of peoples in world history but I refuse to be full of guilt to something I was not part of to a group of people who quite honestly have used it as a crutch for 100 years

  5. Sandra Rueb says

    We (EVERYONE) is called to create a better world. Recent shootings and vindictive reactions are a sign that we have a long way to go. Our ministers are calling us to create a more inclusive community right here in Old Lyme. We are far from a perfect society. All of us, who are privileged, have grown up with blinders about what others, especially Black and Brown people or Asians faced . We have made “assumptions” about what these individuals might aspire to become….. I am trying to cure myself of these caste perspectives. Maybe others should be honest about their own preconceptions and use this Resolution as a way of affirming our desire to do better.

  6. Christina J and Thomas D. Gotowka says

    When we saw this Op-Ed early this morning, composed by the faith leaders at FCCOL, our first thought was that Old Lyme is blessed to have leaders like these, and at least one elected office holder, who have the courage, and are willing to speak on difficult social issues.
    Our second thought was “how will OL’s loyal opposition” respond?
    Predictably and unfortunately, they responded with hostility and rancor. In some situations, it may be prudent to remind oneself of some words attributed to Voltaire.
    We agree with the authors in their assessment that “passing a resolution is a largely symbolic activity; but such passage would be a substantive step toward lasting change”.
    The following is also relevant to the discussion: In honor of its 75th anniversary, the United Nations called on designers and futurists to imagine how a future of sustained peace could take shape. Leslie Chang’s contribution to the UN effort included:
    “The past has been there all along, reminding us: This time–maybe, hopefully, against all odds, we will get it right.”
    We were unaware of the darker side of OL’s history; but it is out there now; and probably even more important than who had the “firstest” first public beach in America.
    Letter to the Editor: ‘The Battle of the Beaches’; Who’s Oldest, How to Resolve it … Annually (lymeline.com)

    • Mona Colwell says

      I don’t see hostility…

      Hostility is bullying and name calling, exactly the words coming from the “faith leaders”. The Lord our God in the Bible has said all men are created equal. Wouldn’t the “faith message” be better if it was straight from the word of God vs Marxist terrorist takeover techniques which cause racial divide through media selected propaganda?

      I’ll tell you about recent real race problems in Old Lyme. There’s a group of people who are racist against America. On Election Day this past November, as they drove through LOLMS to vote, they gave the middle finger to 13 and 15 year old kids holding Trump 2020 flags. That’s the only evil problem I have ever seen here in Old Lyme. People that think it is OK to abuse women and children is a far worse problem, one that this resolution and causing division within our town is overshadowing as millions of abused people are flooding in to our country.

      Can we please not fight over a “resolution” of slave guilt while slavery is happening today?

      • Thomas D. Gotowka says

        stet.

      • Jason Kemp says

        I think it is very unfortunate that we can’t have a conversation on a sensitive subject without calling fellow citizens Marxist terrorists, whatever that means, as well as evil, and anti-American. I don’t doubt that happens from people of varying beliefs, but it seems to be coming from one particular political side on this issue.

      • Jim Alonso says

        It’s the Declaration of Independence that states that “all men are created equal” – not the Bible. The fact that the Declaration of Independence was written by people who also owned slaves is a historical reality that helps illustrate the way that our racism is inextricably bound in the roots of our country. This doesn’t change the power and importance of the American Dream – not at all. It just means that to truly reach its promise we need to be clear about how we – as Americans – have fallen short in the past, and in the present.

        The bible verses that mention equality generally refer to people being one in Christ – which is a form of equality, but is definitely short of the declaration that “all men are equal” (I’m thinking Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28, specifically). This makes sense, given the historical period that the various authors of the Bible lived.

        History matters. Our past is only a burden if we don’t acknowledge it.

        • Mike Bucior says

          Whose past and what history are you talking about ?

          Most of this is taken from Wikipedia so by all means, fact check it.

          Slaves and servants of all colors and races were brought to the new world over a span of 400 years, starting approx. 300 years prior to there even being a United States of America. Spain brought the first African slave to what today is Florida in 1526.

          About 600,000 slaves were transported to the 13 colonies or 5% of the 12 million slaves taken from Africa. About 310,000 of these persons were imported into the Thirteen Colonies before 1776: 40% directly from Africa and the rest from the Caribbean. So in total, approx. 111,600 Africans were brought to the United States directly from Africa after 1776.

          So are we as Americans now responsible for all slavery in the history of the New World even before we were a country ?

          During and immediately following the American Revolution, abolitionist laws were passed in most Northern states and a movement developed to abolish slavery. These were the first abolitionist laws in the New World. To me, thats a good thing but I guess if you need to say Thomas Jefferson owned a slave to make yourself feel better, then thats your prerogative.

  7. Jim Alonso says

    The resistance that these posts spark is always incredibly telling.

    This recent post from Michael Harriot addresses many of the points made in these comments. https://www.theroot.com/maybe-america-is-racist-1846667213

  8. William Folland says

    Earlier comments have suggested that the Town of Old Lyme must adopt the resolution as 21 other towns (municipalities) have. There are 169 towns (municipalities) in Connecticut.
    Old Lyme stands with the majority of towns that see the resolution as an attempt by a small majority to impose their will on communities that set the example of good social behavior for those communities in social stress.

  9. Shawn Gergler says

    So if I understand this correctly
    1. We sign this and say we were racist but since the signing we welcome all races with open arms.
    2. We would advertise this signing on exit ramps, all local businesses entrances, and every real estate sales.
    3. Signing this will now solve all racism issues in Old Lyme’s future.
    4. By signing this we declare this is our best effort in a “health crisis”
    5. THIS IS RIDICULOUS, SIGNING THIS ISN’T MAKING THE DIFFERENCE REQUIRED!

  10. Jennifer Symonds says

    I grew up in Summit NJ a town of 30,000. I went through the school system and many of my friends were black or Hispanic and we were good friends. We cherished all our time together. No racial feelings back when I was in school. 70’s -80. Never a problem, we all loved one another, no hatred.
    Today the world has changed and how can we not be one? One of the same blood and be a human to know we are all one. I believe we can be as one.

  11. Russell fogg says

    We love to point to the accomplishments of our forebearers but but ignore their dark failures as it is very uncomfortable . But as we are proud of the legacy left by them , we must also acknowledge the cost of it all … very simply we own it all. One can’t pick and choose the past. My deep New England roots are intertwined with the darkness and the light. If we are to make a truly better society both local and Nationally, we need to acknowledge our faults and fix them. To know the truth of history is very liberating as opposed to mindless propaganda that says we can do no wrong. It’s time to move forward.

  12. Thomas D. Gotowka says

    Unfortunately, my assessment of hostility and rancor stands. This discussion is clearly one of those situations where the words attributed to Voltaire are worth re-visiting.
    Given some of the negative and almost threatening rhetoric contained in many of the comments above by those apparently in opposition to FCCOL’s proposition, I can’t imagine that wearing the mantle of “the bullied” is at all appropriate.
    Please provide your source for “Eighty percent of the women and children flooding the border right now are being sexually and abused”. If you’re citing that in support of finally passing more humanitarian immigration policies, I agree with you; but what’s the source?
    I was unaware, and I am surprised that there was absolutely no media coverage of the miscreants who displayed their middle fingers to 13- and 15-year-olds on election day. Frankly, that doesn’t sound like they could be supporters of President Biden.
    In closing my comments on this discussion (I hope); I am compelled to remind everyone that “forty-five” was a single- term president. Neither releasing the krakens or January 6th had an impact on the validated election results. Although the latter could certainly have grave long-range impacts on preserving security in our Nation’s capital city.

  13. Steve Spooner says

    This must be the UNITY that the left promised…… Interestingly, Old Lyme was not racist when selectwoman Nosal and Reemsnyder held the necessary votes on the BOS just 2 years ago.

    Thank you selectmen Griswold and Kerr for standing up for Old Lyme….where all are welcome.

  14. Jerry Weiss says

    My gratitude to the ministry of Old Lyme for speaking to the history that has shaped current attitudes, and helps to explain the depth of resistance to acknowledging its less flattering aspects. I worked in Old Lyme for fifteen years, and travel through every day. It is a beautiful area, rich in art and culture, but one constructed, as was much of the Connecticut River Valley and coastline, on the subjugation of Native Americans and people of color. It will be more beautiful as we accept history with humility, rather than seeking to whitewash the past.

  15. Lucy Wilkinson says

    So many of us in Old Lyme have insulated ourselves from the reality of our nation, yesterday and today, and the health crisis created by treating so many as “others”.

  16. George Clough says

    Before commenting closes on this letter from the First Congregational Church, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank LymeLines for their coverage of my comments to the Board of Selectman two weeks ago. As many commenters noted I never called anyone a racist and never implied that the Town of Old Lyme was racist.
    What I did ask for from our elected representatives was for a conversation, a dialogue if you will, to better understand what we, as a community might be able to say and frame in a positive way about our path forward on systemic racism.
    Look, the type of systemic racism I am talking about is for example the type of redlining the bank I worked for in Boston in the 70’s was guilty of in Massachusetts. I am talking about the impact of busing in the Boston public schools as a result of this economic racism.
    When I moved to West Hartford in the early 80’s I again witnessed the injustice of busing to solve an obvious Greater Hartford systemic problem. Supposedly to remedy separate but equal. An inequity visited upon the children. No less a form of apartheid that we witnessed in South Africa. West Hartford knows that history and maybe that explains why the town has signed the Resolution on Racism.
    And what of Old Saybrook and Essex locally? When they signed on, did folks in town suddenly feel they were being judged as racist or that their town was self-identifying as a racist enclave? Of course not! They were merely recognizing their place in the past history and wanted to affirm that in their future they wanted to be open and inclusive. A positive path forward.
    Which brings me back home to Old Lyme. Among some of the more rewarding labor I have put in in service to our community has been volunteering at the Common Good Garden in Old Saybrook.The garden is the primary source of fresh produce to the food pantries of Old Saybrook, Old Lyme, and Niantic.
    One of my good meaning friends once asked; hey, you can afford to write a check so why bust your hump gardening? The answer is simple; someone has to do the dirty work so if not me who?
    To all of you that have commented, I invite you all to join in a conversation. I hear you. I hope you hear me. I love this community. So what do you say to doing the hard dirty work, have those tough conversations, and make this community stronger for our struggle.
    There is a path forward. And maybe more importantly I believe that everyone is welcome along the way.
    Thanks again for listening,
    George Clough