Black Philanthropy Month Spotlight: Les Treize

Aug 23, 2023

Part 2 in our series celebrating this year’s Black Philanthropy Month theme, “Love in Action.” Read Part 1.

During World War II, Bridgeport became a destination for Black families who were looking for career opportunities in the war industries that had sprouted up in the industrial Fairfield County city.

In addition to those drawn to Bridgeport for manufacturing jobs, a smaller number overcame daunting odds to parlay college degrees into professional employment.

Included in that group were 13 courageous and visionary women who collectively called themselves “Les Treize” — French for “thirteen”.

These pioneering business and professional women shared a special bond as trailblazers in White-dominated professions. They also felt a responsibility to pass on what they learned and to recognize and reward Black youth who were achieving academic success.

The result was the creation of Les Treize Inc. — an organization that raises money for and awards scholarships to assist Black students who are pursuing college or post-secondary education. The group also develops programming that provides civic, cultural, and social opportunities in the Bridgeport community.

“The fact that these women had such a vision back in 1947 that has perpetuated until now is just amazing,” Sheila Thomas Watts, Les Treize’s current President and a former Les Treize scholarship winner. “They’ve created such a wonderful legacy.”

Geraldine Johnson, one of the 13 founding members, was the first female and African American Principal and later Superintendent of schools in Bridgeport. She later became Interim Superintendent of Fairfield Schools and Associate Dean of Fairfield University.  Les Treize members have continued the legacy as teachers and principals who have been trailblazers in their respective school systems.  Other members have been ministers or employed in other philanthropic agencies.

1968 newspaper clipping about Geraldine Johnson, one of the 13 founding members of Les Treize, who was the first female and African American Principal and later Superintendent of schools in Bridgeport.

August is Black Philanthropy Month — which spotlights the too-often untold stories of Black Americans’ longstanding commitment to philanthropic investment and action. And while Les Treize is familiar to those who have received scholarships or have been involved in its community events, its story deserves greater attention in Fairfield County and beyond.

Since awarding its first scholarship in 1947 to a Harding High School graduate named Elaine Gardner, Les Treize has helped hundreds of Black students achieve their goals of pursuing college and post-secondary degrees. Distinguished recipients include the late CT State Appellate Court Judge Eugene Spear, Bridgeport Assistant Superintendent of Schools Henry Kelly, former Dunbar School Principal James Hodge, Harvard Law and Business School graduate Donald Smart, and Girl Scouts of America’s National Director of Leadership Development and Research Valerie C. Gifford.

Watts, Les Treize’s, President, leveraged her scholarship to earn a degree at The Ohio State University to launch a career as one of Fairfield County’s few Black physical therapists at that time and ultimately went on to become an instructor in the Physical Therapy Program at Sacred Heart University

Ashley Hampton’s personal connection to Les Treize began not with a scholarship, but with coming with her mother, who is also a current member, to the organization’s fundraising picnics and fashion shows when she was a child.

“Going to those events was such a core part of my childhood and the members of the organization were people who I looked up to in my community,” Hampton said. “I always thought it was such a beautiful thing.”

Hampton is now a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and serves as Clinical Director for Domus Kids, Inc.— working to address barriers and trauma among underserved and underrepresented populations. She also works as an independent consultant.

And she was especially proud when she was invited to become a member of Les Treize and ultimately serve as its Scholarship Chair.

“For me to be part of this phenomenal group of educated, professional women who are giving their time to make sure that other young people have opportunities, that’s the definition of Black philanthropy,” Hampton said. “The fact that it connects back now, 75-plus years later, and there’s a story and a history to it that everybody can bring their own perspective to, to write and help carry it forward even further is beautiful.”

You can learn more about Les Treize — and hear from a distinguished group of Black leaders from across Connecticut, including Ashley Hampton — by watching a special Black Philanthropy Month presentation co-sponsored by Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and The Prosperity Foundation. Watch it here.

Fairfield County’s Community Foundation partners with Les Treize to provide administrative management for their five scholarship funds.