Westport mulls honoring native son Paul Cuffe

The Westport Select Board is considering a request to honor Paul Cuffe, one of the town's most prominent early citizens.

By Ted Hayes
Posted 8/31/21

He died 204 years ago this coming Tuesday, and some residents think it is high time that Paul Cuffe, one of Westport's most prominent early sons, receives proper recognition from the town. Several …

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Westport mulls honoring native son Paul Cuffe

The Westport Select Board is considering a request to honor Paul Cuffe, one of the town's most prominent early citizens.

Posted

He died 204 years ago this coming Tuesday, and some residents think it is high time that Paul Cuffe, one of Westport's most prominent early sons, receives proper recognition from the town. Several brought their case before the Select Board Monday evening, and discussed the idea of renaming the Westport Elementary School in his honor.

Mr. Cuffe, who was born on Cuttyhunk Island in 1759 to an emancipated slave father and Wampanoag mother, was an abolitionist, founded the first desegregated school in the United States (near the bottom of Drift Road), served America's cause during the Revolutionary War, and contributed much of the money to build Westport's Friends Meeting House on Main Road. That such a prominent early citizen has been officially overlooked by the town for so long, planning board member John Bullard said, is a wrong that should be righted.

"I don't think there is much debate that he is Westport's leading citizen," said Mr. Bullard, who appeared before the select board alongside James T, Whitin, the planning board chairman.

"It does seem unfortunate that more than 200 years has gone by and we've not found a way to honor this son of a slave and a Wampanoag. I think that we should find a way to honor Paul Cuffe; there really isn't any excuse."

Fitting public recognition for Mr. Cuffe has been tried before but for various reasons, never found the traction it needed, Select Board member Steven Ouellette said.

"We have addressed it numerous times (and) it was not well received," said Mr. Ouellette, who noted that many of those once opposed to the honor have passed on. "I had it on the agenda numerous times."

The most recent attempt came just prior to the pandemic, when Main Road resident Betty Slade and others appeared before the Westport School Committee and proposed renaming either the elementary school, and briefly Route 88, in Mr. Cuff's honor.

"We were told that we really needed to get the word out, so we did," she told the select board. But the pandemic slowed progress, and she told the board that she and others have considered going back before the committee.

That would be a good idea, select board chairwoman Shana Shufelt suggested. As any decision on renaming the school in his honor would fall to the school committee, not the select board, she also suggested public outreach to spread name recognition and drum up support for the effort.

"I'm in favor of the school option, but all we can do there is to encourage" the committee to approve the plan, she said.

Select board members said they want to hear from the public on the matter, and will take up the issue at their next meeting. Those with opinions can write to the select board, she said, and responses will be added to the record and discussed. She also said the board will discuss writing a letter to the school committee at its next meeting.

"This is something that we should get behind," added select board member Brian Valcourt. "He's a unique individual in Westport. I know we have a lot of old families that have lived here forever, but his accomplishments ... what he did and the time he did it in," are singular and deserve recognition from all of Westport, he said.

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