The Fight for Justice

School Prayer in 1963

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, August 2013

Fifty years ago, when West Hartford students were heading back to school, the United States Supreme Court forced local Boards of Education to change their policy on school prayer. The policy at the time of the Supreme Court ruling stated that schools’ daily opening exercise “shall” include the Lord’s Prayer and a Bible reading. At the time, West Hartford’s Public Schools had almost equal numbers of Protestants, Jews and Roman Catholics. So this subject led to some controversy. The Board of Education needed to change its policy to be in tune with the Supreme Court rulings, but it did not happen immediately.

In Engel v. Vitale (June 25, 1962) Justice Hugo Black wrote the decision (6-1) that a state written non-denominational prayer in New York abridged freedom of religion. Black argued that the prayer itself affirmed religion, making it unconstitutional.

In late August 1962, the Chair of the West Hartford Board of Education, Attorney Willis G. Parsons Jr., ruled that the children would continue to say the Lord’s Prayer in West Hartford Public Schools. He argued that “We do not believe that this opinion can be used as a blueprint to cover all school activity involving some degree of religious expression.” Parson’s confident pronouncement came from the town’s lawyers, Nick Lenge and John Berman. They believed that their ruling also allowed for invocations at assemblies, Bible reading and grace before meals.

In March 1963, the Supreme Court heard the Abington School District v. Schempp case in which Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark wrote the decision that prohibited state-sponsored prayer in schools. In the Abington case, (8-1) Clark prohibited all Bible readings and other government/school-sponsored religious activities in the school setting.

Clark’s controversial opinion, issued on June 17, 1963, read:

The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the state is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.

This ruling made it more clear that a daily prayer or Bible reading could not be done in school.

The Rev. Gordon T. Scoville, minister of West Hartford’s Westminster Presbyterian Church welcomed the decision for upholding separation of church and state. He affirmed, in the Hartford Courant that, “I don’t believe the decision in any way asks us to give up God.” Others in the state did not agree with him.

The State Commissioner of Education, William J. Sanders, sent a letter to superintendents explaining the significance of Abington to Connecticut public schools. He explained that boards of education could not open each school day with a required Bible reading or recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. He knew, though, that individual schools would determine religious practices in other areas of the school day. The Hartford Courant quoted superintendents from Barkhamsted, New Britain and Middletown saying that religious practices would continue as they were until someone complained.

With the Abington ruling, West Hartford’s Board Chair Parsons knew policy had to change. Immediately after the ruling, he thought that West Hartford might replace the prayer with a moment of silence. A week after the ruling, Superintendent Edmund H. Thorne reported to the Board on how the ruling affected the schools. But still by mid-August, the Board had not ruled on the issue. Thorne asked for the Board to suspend the rule because school would soon begin. As of August 15, nothing in the School Code about prayers or reading the Bible reflected the new Supreme Court ruling.

At the September 12 meeting, the Board of Education banned prayers or any other devotional exercises in the public schools during school hours. The vote was a divisive 4-3 with Chairman Parsons (R), Robert Thayer (D), Thomas Smith (D) and Charles Buck (R) voting for the ban. Dorothy McNulty (R), Robert Nichols (R) and William Mosehauser (R) did not vote for the ban. More than 80 people listened to the debate at King Philip School’s library.

The vote proceeded in three steps. First McNulty made a motion to change the school code to read that the salute to the flag will be held during opening exercises and the teacher may have a “moment of silent meditation.” Then the Board adopted the same wording for assemblies.

Democrat Thayer argued that these votes “placed the teacher in jeopardy,” by opening them up to “severe pressure” from parents and “noted that this has been done in other matters ‘many times’ by West Hartford parents.” Thayer argued that the Board was shirking its duties if it did not rule directly on the prayer issue. Thayer contended that the Supreme Court clearly defined a teacher’s religious role at school. He wanted a measure passed which said “no employee of the Town of West Hartford will conduct, or authorize students to conduct prayers on school premises.”

Superintendent Thorne questioned Thayer, asking if this ruling would bar a teacher from saying a prayer at a Hi-Y or Boy Scout meeting after school but in the school building. Thayer said that the ruling would do that. Chairman Parsons reminded the Superintendent that the Supreme Court ruled that any type of devotional service in the schools was against the law during school hours.

Thorne worried that the ruling would affect the Christmas programs in the schools and urged the board not to go any further than it had to. The Board voted down Thayer’s motion.

This decision to separate church and state did not sit well with many people in town. The Hartford Courant reporter ended his article noting several teachers left the meeting dissatisfied that “grace” before and after meals was among the prayers banned.

In 2002, in a post 9/11 context, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a law requiring that each town have a policy “to ensure that time is available each school day for students in the schools under its jurisdiction to recite the “Pledge of Allegiance.” The law cannot be construed as requiring any student to recite the Pledge, but the opportunity to say it has to be there. Does the “under God” portion of that pledge, added in 1954 as an anti-communist point, make this a type of prayer which injects religion into a government/school-sponsored activity? I wonder how Clark, Thorne, McNulty and Thayer would weigh in on this issue.

The Butterworths Fought for Equal Representation

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, November 2010

In 1948, when Miriam “Mims” Butterworth and Oliver Butterworth moved from Kent to West Hartford, they lost equal representation in the General Assembly. At that time, Kent, with 1,400 people had two representatives in the state legislature, and West Hartford with more 40,000 people also had two representatives.

The Butterworths had 28 times the representation in Kent as they had in West Hartford. In the next 14 years, they joined a class action lawsuit that changed representation in Connecticut under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Every 10 years, the U.S. government takes a census to reapportion the U.S. House of Representatives. However, even though population shifted, there was no state law that forced the state to redistrict for the General Assembly.

The House of Representatives was set up under the 1818 Constitution with two representatives per town and 12 senators were elected at large from the state.

Twenty-one Senate districts were first established in 1829 and increased to 24 in 1881.

The 1903 redistricting increased the senatorial districts to 35 and in 1941 a new district was added for Greenwich, making the 36 we have today. Connecticut’s last reapportionment was in 1904 and that one continued the dominance of the rural towns.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr (1962) decided that federal courts could intervene to decide how states would reapportion their representatives. Based on a suit brought by citizens of Tennessee, they argued that there should be a “one person, one vote” measure for redistricting.

This case on representation, according to Justice Earl Warren, was “the most vital decision” during his career on the court, and the apportionment revolution which followed, he believed, was his most important achievement as Chief Justice. His ruling changed the way reapportionment was done from being decided politically by legislatures to allowing federal courts to decide the cases. The ruling in Baker v. Carr effectively ended the over-representation of rural areas (like Kent) in state legislatures and increased representation in suburbs like West Hartford.

Central cities like Hartford had been under-represented, but by the 1960s were losing population to the suburbs and so their representation did not change much. Right after the Baker decision, 36 states began reapportionment battles.

In Connecticut, talk turned quickly to reapportionment. The Republicans had a plan and the Democrats had a plan. Both parties knew the facts: 12 percent of the people elected the members of the House of Representatives in Connecticut.

Both parties agreed that the 36-person state Senate did not fairly represent the population. However they disagreed on what should happen to the 294-member House. Democrats argued for a unicameral legislature based on population. The Republican plan would make just nine percent of people elect the General Assembly and would give them additional state senators. However, the legislature could not agree, so the decision came to the Courts.

The Butterworth’s involvement in the case came through their connection to the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, which supported this suit. The League, a non-partisan political organization whose purpose it is to encourage active participation in government and fair elections, saw the apportionment issue as important enough to fund the lawsuit and to get plaintiffs to be part of the class action.

Mims Butterworth was a member of the League.

Ten people from six different towns joined this class action lawsuit filed in 1962. S. Rains Wallace from West Hartford’s 5th Senatorial District joined Oliver and Mims Butterworth.

Two men from Manchester, one from East Hartford, two from Fairfield, one from Bridgeport and one from Hartford made up the group of 10 who believed they were not represented fairly according to the Fourteenth Amendment. Mims Butterworth became the only female plaintiff in the case, even though the League of Women Voters was a driving force behind it.

Rains Wallace was married to a woman who, in 1956, was elected president of West Hartford’s League of Women Voters. He was a psychology lecturer at Yale and an active community member, heading up a drive for the symphony and as chairman for the Greater Hartford Community Chest. His wife later served as president of the Connecticut League of Women Voters and in the late 1960s was head of the Overseas Education Fund of the league.

Oliver Butterworth was an author of children’s books including The Enormous Egg (1956) and The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear (1960) and a professor of English at Hartford College for Women. Mims Butterworth taught history at the Chaffee School and was active in the community.

They claimed their voting rights “were being invidiously discriminated against” by the present apportionment of representatives, according to a Hartford Courant article from February 12, 1964.

In a phone interview with Mims Butterworth, she remembered the case well. The plaintiffs were represented by Donald F. Keefe of Gumbart, Corbin, Tyler & Cooper in New Haven. Ralph Shulansky of Shulansky & Cohn in Hartford and the late West Hartford resident Ralph G. Elliot of Alcorn, Bakewell & Smith of Hartford wrote the brief.

They sued Gov. John Dempsey, Secretary of the State Ella Grasso, as well as the state Treasurer and Comptroller. Grasso’s daughter was a sophomore at Chaffee in 1963 and approached Butterworth. Grasso said “I hear you are suing my mother.” Butterworth said yes. Grasso continued, “well, I hope there will be something left for Christmas,” thinking that Butterworth was suing Grasso for all her worldly goods.

Butterworth remembered the case being tried by the lawyers, but without the plaintiffs present. The lawyers argued at the U.S. District Court in New Haven and she and her husband wanted to sit in.

They finally had a chance to go to the courtroom and found the proceedings fascinating. At lunchtime she remembered being taken out to lunch by the lawyers at a private club. Only men could go in the front door; she had to enter through the back door. But that was a fight for another day.

The three-judge panel found in favor of Butterworth et al. in a 2-1 decision. They argued that their Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated. The court found that both houses of the General Assembly had to be redistricted and ordered the legislature to redraw its district boundaries.

It also ordered the state to create a constitutional convention to rewrite the State Constitution to require redistricting every 10 years after the federal census. The court ordered that the legislature elected in 1963 serve until its successor took office in 1967 after the redistricting was completed, calling off the 1964 elections.

The state appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed the decision of the three-judge panel. In 1965, the state called a constitutional convention, the first since 1818.

According to Mims Butterworth, people rose to the occasion on both sides. She recalled that those who attended remembered it as being “the most satisfying political action they ever took.”

In 2011, the state once again begin the process of redistricting to insure equal representation in our democracy.

Women’s Rights

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, March 2011

In 1972, a married woman who wanted a library card could only get it in her husband’s name.

The Hartford Courant posted jobs as “Help wanted – male” and “Help wanted – female.”

And, even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stated that women could not be discriminated against in their work, women employed by the Town of West Hartford were stuck in secretarial and clerk jobs which gave them much lower pay than men.

Bob Farr, as chair of the Human Rights Commission, faced these issues when the commission held a hearing on equal rights for women in 1972. The Commission sent invitations to 22 women’s organizations in the Hartford area including NOW and town employees.

The Commission was originally established to address racial issues, but Farr argued in 1972, “There are few blacks in West Hartford,” and so saw few complaints brought to the commission. Farr hoped to find out if there was discrimination in making women administrators in the school system, town services, private industry, and in the provision of day care.

The hearing led to the commission investigating employment practices by the town that the Commission believed could discriminate against women.

At the public meeting, Christine Carpentier of 14 Richmond Road represented 120 female town employees. She offered town employment statistics, which showed women confined to clerical and secretarial positions. Only 5 of 30 principals and vice-principals were women and those were elementary school principals. She said that the library was the only exception for employment. She also noted the library card issue. Carpentier said that she and her women’s consciousness raising group compiled the statistics in less than 24 hours.

The commission voted to ask the library to change its requirement to allow women to be recognized as Miss or Mrs. Using their own name when applying for a card, and after some negotiation, they did.

Ann Bandazian, president of the Central Connecticut Chapter of NOW spoke, and commended the Commission on having the hearing. She asked that the Commission fight to “remove male and female qualifications from job descriptions, pay equal pay for equal jobs and eliminate marital status from job applications.” Bandazian went on to say that she believed the three most important issues for women in 1972 were the right to “free abortion on demand,” ending educational and employment discrimination, and universal, voluntary day care.

Anne Streeter, the President of the League of Women Voters was the third speaker. Streeter agreed with Bandazian about day care and employment, particularly in meaningful full time jobs. She also made a more subtle argument by saying “If you were to stop the average woman in a supermarket and ask her if she was being discriminated against, she would say no. She would say no until she went out and tried to get a good job. Discrimination is not always something overt. Discrimination can be something lacking, rather than something obviously done.”

But the case that drew the most attention was one brought by eight women hired in July 1971 to be fire and police dispatchers. The women claimed that they were paid less than the men they replaced, that they should be paid double on holidays, and that they had been harassed. Before they were hired, regular fire and police personnel were the dispatchers and received the pay of police and firefighters. The women believed they deserved the same pay. By 1973, their pay ranged between $6,700 and $7,900 while the firemen dispatchers had made from $9,600 to $11,500.

Within four months of employment in November 1971, the eight women complained to the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

The Town Council’s General Government and Finance Committee, chaired by Chuck Matties concluded, after meeting with the Fire and Police Chiefs, that there was no bias or harassment. Fire Chief Yaccavone claimed that the women were well aware of their working conditions before they took their jobs. Their salaries and benefits met those of dispatchers in other towns. Matties said that the job description was not listed as a “woman’s job.” Corporation Counsel Ed Hebb said he had found no evidence of the women being harassed.

The state Commission on Human Rights disagreed. Their field representative Frances Goodale believed that the there was “reasonable cause” to believe that West Hartford violated the state’s Fair Employment Practices Act. Their salaries were about $2,400 less than those of the men who worked before them. Goodale believed the women could get $25,000 in back pay. Goodale said that in fact the job had been posted as a “woman’s job” and that the town needed to follow the FEPA.

Eleven days later, on October 20, the Hartford Courant reported that Corporation Counsel met with Goodale in a conciliatory conference, which lasted for 2 ½ hours, but did not reach any conclusion. The women kept up their fight and the next September got a hearing before a Human Rights Commission tribunal, a group of men selected by the Governor.

If the tribunal decided in the women’s favor, they could be awarded $48,000 in back wages. Town Manager Richard Custer claimed this would be a real hardship on the town because of the tight budget.

Almost a year later, the case was still not settled. In January 1974, the Human Rights Commission finally heard the case. The Commission ruled against the Town of West Hartford and ordered back pay for the female dispatchers. The Town then appealed the decision and Judge William Graham of the Hartford Court of Common Pleas ruled that the town’s hiring favored women and the change in pay was aimed at saving money. After that decision, the town estimated they had saved $175,000 in back pay. Final legal arguments were presented in April 1974.

The town argued they changed the job description to “operator” after town officials decided to eliminate the position of fire dispatcher. According to a June 13, 1974 Hartford Courant article, a 1970 study by the town of West Hartford showed that the town could save money by hiring civilians rather than firefighters to be dispatchers. The Town’s position was that the men who did the job were overpaid. The Town believed that the present dispatcher pay should be decided by collective bargaining.

The Supreme Court overturned the Court of Common Pleas’ ruling about back pay, though they agreed that the town discriminated against the women. But, they did not believe that the women should be given back pay.

The women ably challenged the town for their rights and made their point, but there would be no back pay. They won the moral battle, but got no remuneration for their win. Nan Streeter, who was Mayor from 1975 to 1979, remembered women being frustrated with their jobs and pay during that period of time, but as mayor, she also knew that low pay for women helped to balance the budget.

Employment for women has changed tremendously over the past 40 years. No longer are there separate listings for male and female, though the jobs of secretaries and clerks remain almost exclusively in female hands.

In 2011 West Hartford has a female superintendent of schools. Still, the five secondary school principals are men, with six women vice principals out of eleven. In the elementary schools, eight of the eleven have women principals and 11 of 12 elementary curriculum specialists and vice principals are female. These assumptions about who is fit for the job and thus what they are paid have strong roots in the town.

West Hartford and the Mississippi Freedom Summer

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, June 2013

Bring the nation’s children, and the parents will have to focus on Mississippi, our thinking ran. And if the parents raised their voices, the political establishment would be forced to listen. — Bob Moses, recounting Freedom Summer, 2001

In late June 1964, West Hartford’s Susan Gladstone, 20, a student at Pembroke College (now part of Brown University) went to Clarksdale, Mississippi as part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project to register African American voters, teach in a “Negro Freedom School,” and help build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. A 1962 Conard High School graduate, she had joined the Northern Student Movement to register Mississippi voters. While in Clarksdale, she stayed with an African American family.

The Congress of Federated Organizations (SNCC, SCLC, and CORE) organized the Freedom Summer Project which recruited over 800 northern college students to work on voting and education. Leader Bob Moses believed that the students could bring much needed publicity and protection to the African Americans who were already doing this work in Mississippi. As white violence toward Blacks increased in 1964, organizers thought that the white workers could help their cause.

Susan Gladstone arrived in Clarksdale with The Project, and met Police Chief Ben Collins, who she described as a “vicious man.” By July 11th, 100 African Americans had tried to register to vote, but only one succeeded by passing the literacy test. The town administered literacy tests designed to stop blacks from qualifying to vote. The Confederate flag stickers adorned courthouses doors where voters registered and were given the literacy test. Chief Collins “ordered Negroes not to try” and ordered the students to leave Clarksdale, according to the Hartford Courant.

Back in West Hartford, Gladstone’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. James E. Gladstone, were not so reassured that their daughter was safe, and still they supported her civil rights work. James’s 2007 obituary describes him as devoted to “causes of underserved people and all forms of progressive politics.” But, like hundreds of student activists’ parents, they were concerned for her safety. From their point of view, they found it “hard to believe that sort of thing [stopping registration] can go on in the United States.”

In 1960, Mississippi and Connecticut were miles apart in terms of wealth and educational levels of residents. Mississippi held the distinction as the poorest state in the nation, and Connecticut as one of the wealthiest. In Mississippi, 86% of Black families lived below the national poverty line. Blacks made up only 5% of the registered voters, but comprised 45% of the state’s population. Whites argued that Blacks had no interest in voting. Blacks worried they would lose their job if they registered.

Before arriving in Mississippi, Gladstone traveled to Oxford, Ohio where she learned voter registration tactics, the history of Mississippi and the strategy of nonviolence. She trained with Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner and then traveled south on June 20, 1964. The very next day, June 21, three Ku Klux Klansmen murdered organizers James Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. During that summer of 1964, more than 60 black churches, businesses, schools, and homes were bombed or burned.

Gladstone’s parents helped realize Moses’ idea that white students would bring with them concerned white parents and more press. Since 1960, at least 12 civil rights activists had been murdered, but news did not spread outside of Mississippi. When the white students arrived, as Moses predicted, the national journalists began to pay attention. The FBI sent hundreds of agents to the state, to investigate, but not protect these activists. Five FBI agents went to Clarksdale.

Susan’s sister Andi, who was 16 in 1964, remembered her parents receiving numerous phone calls from Clarksdale threatening that they would kill Susan for the work she was doing in Clarksdale. Andi remembered hearing her parents crying in the other room during Susan’s time in Mississippi. Gladstone’s parents and their daughter Andi, along with other students’ parents from the northeast, travelled to Washington D.C. on July 1 and 2 hoping to meet with President Lyndon Johnson, seeking more federal protection for their daughter and the other civil rights workers in Mississippi. They called themselves the Parents’ Mississippi Emergency Committee and were joined by parents from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. The West Hartford Committee members also included Mrs. Roydon Berger (parent of Robert), Mrs. Paul Landerman (parent of Dick), and Mr. and Mrs. I.M. Chaikin (parents of Henry), all West Hartford parents of students working in Mississippi.

The parents quickly arranged the trip after the three civil rights workers went missing. On July 1, the parents met with U.S. Senator Thomas Dodd and Asst. Atty. Gen. John Doar (father of West Hartford Town Councillor Burke Doar) from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Doar did not suggest to the parents that their children return home. Doar said, “We all accept the fact that there is danger there, as did our sons and daughters when they set out. Asking anything like that would have let them down miserably. They have a very deep commitment to what they are doing.”

The movement continued. On July 2, 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination in public places, providing for schools and other public accommodations to be integrated, and making it illegal to discriminate by race in employment. This Civil Rights Act, the first to be passed since Reconstruction, came after months of lobbying bolstered by the August 1963 March on Washington.

The students continued their work, but with much more media coverage and federal protection for the movement. Mississippi continued to fight the changes and Governor Paul Johnson urged “non-compliance [of the Civil Rights Act] until the whole gamut of the law is tested in the courts.” To fight the Governor’s power, student volunteers helped to establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which attempted to unseat the state’s all-white regular delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Although the Democratic Party ultimately seated Mississippi’s regular delegation, the MFDP’s bid for recognition raised awareness of voter discrimination in the Deep South and helped secure passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Andi Gladstone remembered going with her parents to Atlantic City in August 1964 to the Democratic Convention where the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party tried to be seated. She remembers staying up all night at a vigil and being supported by an African American man named Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.

According to Andi, Susan was so moved by her work that she dropped out of Pembroke and stayed on in Clarksdale for at least another six months. She returned to West Hartford and then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and graduated two years later.

After her graduation she went to Antioch University where she earned her teaching degree. She moved to Washington, D.C. to teach junior high school in the late 1960s where she met her husband Art Ellison. They moved to New Hampshire where she worked with battered women and then became a vocal AIDS activist before she died of that disease in 1992.

Even though, in the 1960’s, there were some residents in West Hartford who worked to keep African Americans out of town, simultaneously, West Hartford’s youth, supported by their families, became warriors for justice in a very dangerous time. Gladstone’s courage in taking the trip to Mississippi showed her what it meant to fight for justice, and the value that the right to vote held in this nation. Her presence in Mississippi helped push the civil rights agenda, and was a part of creating this nation’s history. Susan’s sister said that experience “made her rock solid in her beliefs” about justice.

Gladstone’s papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society include diaries, letters and an interview. Her name appears in two books on civil rights workers in Mississippi and in several Hartford Courant articles.

Project Concern and Educational Opportunity

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, June 2001

It is one thing to be ideologically committed to equality of educational opportunity as a right and not as a privilege. It is yet another to intelligently implement programs that will in fact insure the practice of this ideal. — Charles Richter, Superintendent of West Hartford Public Schools, 1966

Before the first Hartford students boarded buses to West Hartford in 1966 as part of Project Concern, the town wrestled with what role it wanted to play in providing equal educational opportunity for all children. Strong leadership by West Hartford’s superintendent, and federal and state support helped Project Concern succeed in West Hartford - but not without a fight.

In 1960, West Hartford had a total of 25 students of color out of a school population of over 6,000 students, less than one percent of the population. The city of Hartford had many elementary schools with over 85 percent students of color and a large majority living in poverty. Just six years before, the Supreme Court decided that separate but equal schools by law (de jure) were inherently unequal. Some Hartford area residents decided that they needed to address the fact that separate schools by housing patterns (de facto) did not provide equal opportunity for all.

In 1964, Hartford area business, education and political leaders gathered in a meeting to support cross-town busing with the “Meeting of Tomorrow.” This group commissioned a study that became known as the Harvard Report. Junior high school students from Hartford’s north end, the report found, were one and a half years behind the national average in math and reading.

The Connecticut State Department of Education, supported by the Hartford Board of Education, wrote a grant to develop a voluntary interdistrict-busing program and called it Project Concern. They submitted the grant to the Office of Economic Opportunity under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By 1965, they hoped 300 Hartford students could participate in an attempt at educational and social integration, to promote educational equality of opportunity.

Some West Hartford residents wanted to participate in the program. On April 14, 1966, 1,200 people attended a public hearing at Conard High School and stayed for a seven hour meeting. The West Hartford News claimed that the meeting was “the most passionate meeting in West Hartford’s history.”

Many who opposed the bussing program came to the meeting. One West Hartford resident argued that equal educational opportunity was a right by contending that he had “worked hard for 40 years so he could have his kids educated in West Hartford. No one bused me here.” An African American teacher from Hartford reacted by saying “a Negro child does not belong in West Hartford” after she heard the racist attitudes at the meeting. A Hall High School student who spoke in favor of the bussing program was told to “go to Weaver” if he wanted an integrated school.

The issue of local autonomy loomed large in the view of the opposition. West Hartford residents used the umbrella term of “neighborhood schools” to “protect” their local district. They believed that busing was the first step to losing autonomy and jurisdiction through an interdistrict program. Others argued that black students would bring down the level of educational attainment for white students in the classroom. Equality of educational opportunity, they argued, would lower achievement levels for all.

But there were also strong advocates of the program. The pro-Project Concern Committee of New Education Opportunities was formed with both Christian and Jewish support. Rabbi Abraham Feldman, from Temple Beth Israel, a founder of the group, went to the public hearings and clearly expressed his support for the interdistrict-busing program for both educational and social reasons.

Superintendent of Schools Charlie Richter wholeheartedly supported the program. He believed that West Hartford should be a leader in the Hartford area because, he felt, it would improve the already excellent educational system here. He argued the day after the Board of Education made their decision, “If West Hartford can’t do it (Project Concern), then no one can.”

On April 18, 1966 just four days after the public hearing, the Board of Education voted to accept Project Concern “in principle.” West Hartford would not incur any cost for the program because Hartford footed the bill through federal and private grant monies. The Board of Education boldly accepted the challenge, and chose to start by integrating their 1966 summer school. But, West Hartford’s commitment was only to this short-term trial.

The state approached West Hartford, Manchester, Farmington and Glastonbury to participate in the program. West Hartford was the first town to agree to the educational experiment. Glastonbury refused to participate with the other three after a tie vote on the Board of Education denied their participation. South Windsor and Simsbury also became part of this original group.

But, the opposition was strong. By early June, West Hartford opponents gathered 4,287 signatures on a petition to make the Board’s policy null and void. However, their petition failed because it was illegal for the Town Council to stop a Board of Education decision. The opponents threatened to sue the board for their use of “excessive power.” This too failed.

On Tuesday, July 5, 1966, 250 Project Concern students entered West Hartford’s Summer School and it went very smoothly. Money from Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act ($270,000) and the Ford Foundation ($50,000) helped fund the summer program. In August, the Board of Education voted to extend the bussing program to the regular school year with kindergarten through fifth grade students.

The State Department of Education got $470,000 from Title I and Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to carry out the regular school year program. On September 4, 1966, 75 Hartford students entered West Hartford’s elementary schools, the most of any of the participating towns.

Extensive studies of the project continued into the 1970s and 1980s. Each of the studies documented the benefits for both the Hartford and West Hartford students. Though not every student chose to remain in the program, those who did showed increased academic achievement and increased social interactions. Parents of children in classrooms with Project Concern students became supporters of the program while those who had no direct contact often continued their opposition.

Rights and privileges are ideas constantly in conflict in a democracy. If equality of educational opportunity is a right, who carries it out and how is it done? When students have unequal abilities, unequal motivation, and unequal knowledge, can there be equal opportunity? These thorny issues are fraught with tensions and continue to be discussed in West Hartford today. The issue of neighborhood schools and local autonomy in light of the state Racial Balance Act continue to challenge the town to address whether equal educational opportunity is a right or a privilege. In 1966, both political, religious and educational leadership in town saw it as a right.

Moral Voices in West Hartford

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, September 2007

In 1966, West Hartford embarked on a path to offer educational opportunity to Hartford students by participating in Project Concern. The moral voice that emanated from the faith community provided a moral voice for policy makers in town as it helped to galvanize the community.

The impact the religious community had on public policy in West Hartford has varied over the years. When the town was founded in the early 18th century, the church and the government were one and not until 1818 did the state government separate the Congregational Church from its public role by disestablishing the church. In West Hartford, until the 1850s, there was one church in town –- the First Congregational Church. And, for the first 100 years of our history as a town, that church continued to hold a privileged place. In the early 1950s, with over 5,000 members, it was named one of the 10 most influential and successful churches in the country.

In the spring of 1966, just nine years after the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, West Hartford’s Board of Education voted to participate in the busing of 75 elementary age Hartford students to West Hartford. Manchester, Farmington, South Windsor and Simsbury joined the group. Project Concern was the first program of its kind in the country and was financed by national, state and Hartford funds.

On April 1, 1966, a committee of 50 formed the West Hartford Committee for Educational Opportunity to “draw to this cause as many as will come from the ranks of the thinking citizens of West Hartford… people who are willing to take a first step in the direction of providing equal educational opportunities for all children, regardless of color.” Rabbi Abraham Feldman and several ministers founded the group.

This in turn was followed by a vote of the executive board of the Webster Hill School’s Parent Teacher Organization to hold a referendum on the busing on April 6. The Web Hill community expressed concern that West Hartford would not be able to “maintain our educational standards” if Hartford students were bussed here. However, the law did not allow for a referendum.

In the first week of April, The Reverend John P. Webster, pastor of the First Church of Christ Congregational sent out letters to his congregation urging them to “get the facts” on the busing program. He strongly supported Project Concern and encouraged his parishioners to go to a public hearing and write a letter to Superintendent of Schools Charlie Richter to express their support for the project. In his letter, he quoted Rabbi Feldman, the convener of the West Hartford clergy group, that the whole program could “be dismissed or rejected unless there is some effective public opinion imparted to the Board of Education and the superintendent.”

Webster went on to write, “Ironically, someone said that there would be no word from the synagogues or churches on this matter because their people are involved with Passover and Easter. The Passover celebrates the sparing of an oppressed people for their escape from bondage. Easter celebrates the triumphant victory of Jesus Christ and His way over the forces of destruction and death.”

On April 15, Rev. Kingsland Van Winkle of the Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford sent letters to his West Hartford parishioners urging them to support the regional desegregation plan by calling Board of Education members and the superintendent of schools. He argued that this project was a “very small but extremely significant attempt to achieve the sense of oneness which all of us feel is so essential to metropolitan living.”

On that same night, Rabbi Feldman spoke at a public hearing at Conard in front of 1,200 townspeople. He was booed, hissed, and catcalled. Someone shouted, “Take your congregation and go home.” At the end of his talk, the audience rose in a standing ovation amid boos from some audience members.

On April 18, the Hartford Courant reported that West Hartford church leaders used their pulpits to sharply criticize the behavior of some town residents at the public hearing at Conard.

The Roman Catholic clergy made a joint statement deploring “the vicious display of intemperate and abusive bigotry by some of our fellow citizens… That any minister of religion should have been booed and hissed here in West Hartford after expressing his convictions on this issue violates every norm of common courtesy, shamefully disgraces our entire community and makes a mockery of Christian charity.”

Rev. Wallace Grant Fiske, minister of the Universalist Church read an “open letter” to Rabbi Feldman, praising him for his public stance and denouncing the crowd. Fiske praised Feldman for his “mature, constructive leadership…”

As a reaction to the controversy, “stand-by mothers” organized to offer themselves as neighbors to the north end families involved in the busing program. Mrs. Alice Doyle and Mrs. Charlotte Kitowski led the group and sent a letter to the north end churches. Already, 32 families signed up to act as neighbors who could help out in case of emergency or illness in an attempt “to work together, to open up one more opportunity for our children, so that when they grow up, they won’t feel so apart.”

Just one week after the tumultuous meeting at Conard, 30 people went to a “Meeting of Concern” at the Elmwood Community Church to discuss the effects of the busing program. Ministers, representatives of the West Hartford public schools, the Hartford Board of Education, teachers, students, and citizens of the town attended. Hartford Board of Education member Dr. Lewis Fox told the group, “Something wonderful has happened in West Hartford. The one organized force in town was the combined churches and synagogues…”

The ideals of the clergy won the day as Hartford students attended summer school that summer and then 75 took the buses on September 7, 1966 to West Hartford schools.

The opponents of school integration continued to show their disapproval. On December 16, the publisher of the Hartford Times, who lived on Whetten Road, woke up to find a glass bottle filled with rags dipped in gasoline thrown through a window in his house. This followed a similar incident with Hartford’s Mayor George Kinsella and came after the Hartford Human Relations Commission received an anonymous note in which threats were made to those perceived to be supporting school integration.

The 2007 Supreme Court ruling in McFarland v. Jefferson County Public Schools rejected the use of a student’s race in student assignment plans. This comes at a time when segregation rates for students of color are on the rise. West Hartford is a case in point. In 2007, the elementary schools are more segregated than they have ever been.

What role do political and religious leaders play on this issue today? On September 4, 2007, about 75 Hartford students enrolled in Project Choice came to school in West Hartford. Is the sentiment in 2007 more like that of the clergy in 1966 or the Webster Hill PTO in 1966?

West Hartford Education Association at 50

November 2015

On November 10, 1965, 539 out of 660 West Hartford teachers voted for the West Hartford Education Association be the sole representative for West Hartford public school teachers. This gave the association the power to negotiate contracts with the West Hartford Board of Education. At that moment, the “Association” became a union with the ability to collectively bargain with the Board of Education. Though an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers existed in West Hartford, they did not challenge the WHEA in this election.

Before the Association had the legal standing as a union, the Superintendent, Charles Richter met with each teacher individually and had them sign their contract as an individual. Teachers had no say in working conditions, and no protections of their rights.

For instance, in the 1960s, a woman who was pregnant had to quit teaching when she “showed.” And, the Board of Education made a rule that upon turning 65, a teacher had to retire. Teachers found the “merit pay” idea unfair as the award of the extra $400 per year seemed to be based on loyalty to the administration.

The Association’s power came through public persuasion and bringing lawsuits against the Board of Education as in the 1963 Herzig case. Fred Herzig, a teacher at Conard High School was forced to retire when he reached the age of 65. The courts found that he had the right to remain teaching.

There was much upheaval in the West Hartford Public Schools in the 1960s in a time of rapid growth in the system. The Board of Education forced Superintendent Ed Thorne to retire after 16 years in the job in 1963. In 1964, the Board hired Charles O. Richter to replace Thorne. Richter came with the reputation of being innovative, full of energy, and by many accounts very strong willed and overbearing. He and the Board of Education believed they should have sole decision making ability over contracts and working conditions. This set the scene for a four year battle to get a written contract.

The vote for collective bargaining was long in the making. The WHEA began in 1928 as the West Hartford Teachers’ Association, an association of professionals. Soon thereafter, in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act became the law of the land, allowing workers in the private sector to collectively bargain. It was not until 1962 when John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10998, that federal public employees earned the right to collectively bargain. Connecticut’s Legislature passed Public Law 10-153 in 1965 giving teachers the right to join and elect an organization and then establish a bargaining unit in negotiations with their board of education.

In 1965, West Hartford teachers did just that. But just having the Association represent them was only the start. The WHEA leadership then began to bargain for a written contract. It took four years, a lawsuit, a proposed slow-down by the teachers, hundreds of hours of negotiations, and mediators and arbitrators to negotiate a written contract.

Attempts for a written contract started in earnest a year after the vote, when in November 1966, Representative Council voted unanimously to seek a written contract. Supt. Richter wrote to WHEA President Janice Falcon, stating his support.

Richter was a tough cookie. Falcon could match him. She was elected president three times and she got the first written contract. In 2015 she was still alive but not willing to be interviewed at age 94, though we did have one phone conversation. She seemed like the leader the teachers needed at that moment.

Teachers wanted to negotiate working conditions, grievance procedures and insurance, as well as salaries. But 1966 proved to be a year full of contentious issues for the Board and the Superintendent. School busing from Hartford — Project Concern — began in summer school that year, voters turned down a referendum to build a new Hall High, and the union helped Wolcott teachers voice their grievances about an overbearing principal.

Negotiations hit an impasse because Superintendent Richter wanted to retain the power to be the final arbiter of all grievances. In May 1967, the Board of Education chair Edward Mosehauer said “I’m willing to negotiate with them, but the Board of Education runs this school system and that is not going to change.”

By June, 1967, no agreements had been reached about a written contract, and the WHEA encouraged teachers not to sign their individual contracts. 400 teachers refused to sign. By October 1967, the Hartford Courant reported that the contract talks had ended in failure after a 15 hour mediation session and the negotiation would go to arbitration.

WHEA President Falkin asked both the Connecticut Education Association and the National Education Association to investigate the contract impasse over working conditions, accumulated sick days, release time for the WHEA President, and grievance procedures. Salary schedules had already been agreed to. The CEA report, released in January 1968 claimed that a tough administration caused unrest among the staff.

Very quickly, arbitration hit a snag. The Board of Education chose Willis Parsons to be their arbitrator. He was the Board of Education chair until 1965 and then became Superintendent Richter’s personal attorney. The WHEA brought suit against the Board and won in February 1968, with the court arguing that Parsons could not be impartial. With a win under their belt, but still no contract, the WHEA and the Board of Education attempted to negotiate once more.

In the summer of 1968, teachers voted again not to sign their salary agreements. The WHEA came up with a set of issues on which they would “slow down” for the two days at the end of school after students finished to try to pressure the Board. In return, the Board of Education threatened to withhold half of their June salaries if they participated in the “3 day boycott.” The Board did not issue paychecks on June 15.

That same day, the state education commissioner stepped in and helped the two sides reach an agreement. The teachers called off their slowdown.

On July 3, 1968 the teachers signed their first written contract for one year. It took 17 months to negotiate.

But, the troubled relationships between the union and the Board and Superintendent did not end here. In 1969, the Board of Education chose to test the new Teacher Negotiation Act passed by the state legislature in 1969. This new law forced Boards of Education to negotiate on many more working conditions. The WHEA wanted to negotiate a contract with the Board of Education for both teachers and administrators. Even though they had settled the salaries, the negotiations went to arbitration and a three man arbitration panel came up with a package. After 22 failed negotiation sessions, and failed mediation, the Board, led by chair John Hand Conard, rejected the proposal. New WHEA President Dick Blaisdell said the Board was running roughshod over the teachers.

Even into October, the Board of Education, and John Hand Conard, tried to keep total control over working conditions and keep salaries at what they considered to be a reasonable level. But the new law made it necessary for the Board to negotiate all areas of teachers’ employment. June 27 was an all-day mediation at the state office of education.

At year’s end, the two sides had still not agreed on the contract. And into 1970, Richter continued to hold on to his belief that he could unilaterally decide on working conditions. The WHEA responded by printing a Superintendent’s report card in the Hartford Courant in April 1970, giving him six “F’s”.

It wasn’t until September, when the teachers were already back at school until both sides agreed to a new contract, 15 months after negotiating started.

Many factors contributed to their first contracts, one of the most important being the role of the federal government in allowing public employees to collectively bargain, and then the Connecticut State Law which allowed for the bargaining of working conditions as well as pay.

The union’s solidarity, their willingness to stand up to the power of the Board of Education, and their superintendent who at the least would be called headstrong, gave union members the role models to stand up for what is fair.

The union leadership was brazen and forceful in standing up for teachers’ rights. The binding arbitration law of 1979 changed these long drawn out negotiations and some in administration realized that in fact the union makes the school system even stronger. And yet unions continue to be under attack. The Supreme Court will hear a case in 2016 called Fredericks v. California that will allow employees to not have an agency fee. Teachers only have these rights if they continue to fight for them.

Gordon Bennett

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, November 2009

When the Noah Webster House had a fundraiser at the Brace Road Fire Department in the late 1990s, Gordon Bennett, a founder and benefactor of the Noah Webster House Foundation, got in the rescue cherry picker and scaled three stories to its full height. This didn’t surprise those in attendance who knew Bennett, but some young observers, worried about this 91 year old on this new adventure.

Gordon Bennett loves life and embodies the type of active community member that makes West Hartford such a vibrant community. He turned 100 on November 6, 2009. His economic and civic involvement has made West Hartford a better place. According to resident Booker DeVaughan, Bennett is a “complete gentleman, and West Hartford has benefited much from good works and dedication to the town.”

Gordon Bennett first appeared in public documents in the Hartford Courant, on its society page where it was noted: “Dec. 18, 1931, Mr. Charles W. Bennett and Mr. Gordon Bennett, sons of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Bennett of North Oxford Street, Hartford, “will return Saturday from Union College, Schenectady, NY.”

He graduated from Union with a degree in engineering. He remained loyal to his alma mater in his role by 1947 as the Secretary of Connecticut’s Union College Alumni Association. Today, Bennett is Union’s oldest living class agent and he recently received an award for fundraising.

After graduating with an engineering degree from Union, Bennett worked with his father who served as the Connecticut State Highway Commissioner. His father Charles W. Bennett was the second highway commissioner in Connecticut. Gordon talked about how, in the 1920s, when the highway was built from Hartford to New London in the 1920s and 30s, Bennett remembers that the road had many curves because it had to follow the landscape. There was no money to blast through hills or build bridges. Though he and his father were Republicans, they worked for Democratic Governor Wilbur Cross to build the Merritt Parkway. Cross hired them because Bennett’s father was one of the prominent highway engineers of his day.

By the late 1930s, Bennett married and had two daughters and moved from Hartford to Whiting Lane. Bennett remembered, “that was the place to be back then… it was a wonderful town. And you didn’t have to cross the river.”

When Bennett’s father died in 1941, Gordon was 32 years old and ready to go out on his own. He worked for Vulcan Radiator Company as an executive vice president and then moved onto to a ten-year stint at Hartford Empire Company (later Emhart) where he was export sales manager and glass plant manager. This is when Bennett began to travel the world, and for this job he did most of his traveling in Asia, South America, Western Europe, and Scandinavia.

Bennett was on the cutting edge of the global economy. World trade was part of his life in the 1940s and 1950s. According to the Hartford Courant, in March 1952, at age 43, Bennett, Granville Shattuck and Helen Sanborn, all experienced in foreign trade, opened a company called New England Overseas Corporation at 12 LaSalle Road. They managed export businesses for Connecticut small machine tools firms who did not have foreign trade department.

In 1957, Bennett became President of Whitlock Manufacturing Company, a principal supplier to rapidly expanding plastics, gasoline, synthetic fiber and atomic power industries. Whitlock Manufacturing came to West Hartford in 1891 when Walter Goodwin persuaded the company to locate on South Street along the railroad tracks. They bent pipe, preheated by steam for car radiators, water heaters and made giant water turbines for the Gatun Dam in Panama. Later they made storage heaters and tubular heat exchangers for laundries, textile plants, hotels and other large users of hot water. During World War II, Whitlock got involved in the Manhattan Project and supplied specially designed systems for nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.

By 1963, Bennett was president of the company and between 1962 and 1963, profits tripled. Bennett’s family moved to Hilltop Drive. On his daily commute down South Main Street each day, he drove by Noah Webster’s birthplace. Fred Hamilton owned the house, though he and his wife had moved to the house just to its north. The Hamiltons and Bennetts were family friends, and as the story goes, in 1962, Bennett persuaded the Hamilton family to donate the house to the town. The town did not take the initiative to do anything to the house and it began to deteriorate. This is when Bennett stepped in.

Bennett, a business leader in town, used his contacts and his ability to sell. He convinced others to start the Noah Webster House Foundation and to raise money and restore the house. His friend, Dick Crampton served on the Town Council and took up the cause as well. According to Joan Warner, a founder of the Foundation, Gordon was a true leader in getting people to work with him and volunteer to move the project forward.

When they started in 1965, they had $280. The restored house opened to the public in 1968. It attracted visitors from all over and distinguished itself with its school programs. By 1974, they needed more room and Bennett was instrumental in adding the museum portion of the building. His role as supporter and benefactor is built on his love for community and for history. He is a self-proclaimed history buff.

Initiating the Noah Webster House is not his only service to the town. By the mid 1960s, Bennett was a director of the Rotary and member of the Chamber of Commerce. He was active in Republican politics and served on the Town Committee. In the 1970s when he retired, he served as a director on the Seniors Job Bank and as vice-president of the Noah Webster House. He continued to be involved with the Rotary and the Noah Webster House in 2009.

When Bennett retired, he and his wife continued to travel for another 20 years. He says he has traveled to 100 countries through work and play. When Bennett traveled, he was always happy to return to West Hartford, which he deems “a very lovely town, and very well run.” He says this friendly town has not changed a great deal in its manner, even though the population has grown substantially since the 1930s. Bennett’s commitment to West Hartford has helped to solidify this town as a great place to live, learn and work. Happy 100th birthday Gordon!!

Piper Brook Redevelopment Project

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, September 2001

Like most changes in West Hartford, the redevelopment of the Piper Brook area in the 1960s and 1970s was full of conflict. Piper Brook is in the southeast corner of West Hartford, bounded by New Britain Avenue on the north, Hillcrest Avenue on the east, the Newington town line on the south, and South Street to the west. It totaled 155 acres, and in 1970 was 30% of the town’s industrial zone.

Until 1924, the Piper Brook area was residential, including houses along Rose Avenue and a few on Custer and South Streets. In 1924, when West Hartford adopted its first zoning laws, the zoning commission zoned this area industrial. Soon industrial buildings and warehouses were squeezed onto small residential lots.

The area, according to George Cunningham, who lived in the Piper Brook neighborhood since 1940, was characterized more by vacant lots than anything else. Its clay soil led to problems with sewage and sanitary conditions. Small lots and frequent floods discouraged businesses and families from settling there. Much of the area was swampland. Every spring floods came up as far as South Street. In the flood of ’55, water reached as far as the properties on New Britain Avenue.

During World War II, tents comprising an anti-aircraft encampment adorned the vacant lots of the Piper Brook area. Those in the barracks were there to warn citizens of attacks from the Germans.

By 1956, West Hartford established a Development Commission whose job was to increase the tax base of the town and encourage industrial growth in the form of office buildings, research labs and apartment buildings. The town yearned for a development like that of Connecticut General in Bloomfield.

In 1962, the town hired a firm to survey the Piper Brook area for development. In 1965 a land use study found 132 houses needed to be relocated and the area needed flood control. The firm submitted this information to the Urban Renewal Administration, a federal agency established under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.

Historically, back as far as the 1930s, West Hartford was not reluctant to take advantage of federal funds for building projects in town. Under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, West Hartford built its Town Hall and library, a pool at Beachland Park and sewers for Farmington Avenue. In the 1960s, federal money flowed again, and the town applied for money from Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The federal government had a concern for what they considered to be “blighted areas.” Because the Piper Brook area had mixed uses with residential structures next to industrial ones, they considered there to be “a great potential as a future blighted area regardless of the condition of the structures today.” This made the entire Piper Brook area eligible for federal urban renewal funds. Their idea was to save as many commercial buildings as possible, move the residences and build new dwellings so that residents would be separate from the industrial district.

In November 1966, West Hartford residents defeated a bond referendum at the polls for 20% of the cost of the project. George Cunningham believed that fear motivated the voters. Many families had lived in the area for years and felt a sense of security in their neighborhoods. They attended the local church and their houses were paid for. Some heard that they would be compensated only by the original price of their homes and would be left alone to find new housing. Cunningham helped organize the Piper Brook Boosters Association to try and make the residents a part of the renewal project. He knew all the neighbors and he served on the Project Area Committee. Through this community organization, Cunningham galvanized support for the project.

Two years later, in November 1968, voters approved a revised municipal bond. The federal government grant of $4.5 million was approved in December of that year. And, the town voted almost $1 million in funds for the project.

The plans included building a 96-unit apartment building, realigning the Piper Brook channel, the construction of a new Rose Avenue with 33 residential lots, and building the infrastructure with town utilities. By 1970, 73 project area families were interested in relocating to these new apartments. One of the purposes of the subdivision was to make a place for the residents of Rose Avenue to relocate. The plan was to move some of the houses and build some new houses. The second phase of the project included fixing the interior streets in the project area by putting in town sewers and town water and rehabbing some of the 75 commercial buildings in the area. According to the original plans, the project would be completed by 1973.

However, the project did not go without a hitch. By January 1971, the West Hartford Redevelopment agency had approved William E. and Beverly Curry of Hartford as the developers. The apartments, to be built on Hillcrest Avenue, were for moderate-income families. In March 1971, HUD eased its standards by allowing more one family apartments to be built than were normally allowed in federally funded housing. But by April 8, Curry still had not secured the $1 million bond that he had assured the town he could get. He had to be removed from the project and the town had to find a new developer.

A zoning battle and trouble with town administrators continued to slow down the project, but in December 1971 building began, and by the summer of 1972, residents moved in.

In 1973, Education/Instrucción Inc. (E/I), a Hartford civil rights action group, filed a complaint with the Connecticut Community Development Program, claiming that continued work on the Piper Brook Redevelopment Project violated civil rights laws and state statutes prohibiting state agencies from discrimination. E/I stated that the moneys were used “to insulate and isolate and retrench suburban growth from the problems of the core cities.”

Nothing substantive came of these claims, but it did alert area residents to the segregation in the cities and pushed local officials to think about whether they were meeting the established purposes of the federal money.

In 1975, infrastructure work continued. The Redevelopment Agency came back to the town for another $2.6 million to complete work on streets in the area.

By early 1977, the town bought the $2.3 million mortgage from HUD. George Cunningham criticized the move, arguing the town would never complete the project. The town hoped sale of remaining land would help them pay off the mortgage. Cunningham claimed that the cost of a parcel of land had tripled since the town took over the mortgage.

At this point, the town closed out the project, disbanded the Redevelopment Agency and the executive director was no longer an employee of the town.

Newspaper articles in 1977 alluded to a change in the federal government requirements for federal redevelopment monies. The feds combined Urban Renewal grants with others into the HUD Community Block Grant program. This program required the town to build 192 new units of low and moderate income housing in three years. The Republican led Town Council feared that the town was losing control over its own destiny under the federal program. Councilor Bob Farr spoke out most strongly against the federal mandate, according to the Hartford Times. He suggested building only 100 units for the elderly and rehabbing units in existence.

By 1977, the value of the 20 unsold parcels of land was half its 1970 value, but town officials were eager to sell it to get it back on the tax rolls. They hoped that because they bought the mortgage from the federal government that restrictions placed on the land by HUD could be eased, making purchase and development easier.

The Piper Brook Redevelopment project illustrates the often contentious relationship between federal, state and local governments, the clash between the interests of city and suburb, and residents and industries.

By 2001, almost 35 years after the first plans, the area is a bustling commercial and industrial district. The Piper Brook apartments are full and the new community center sponsored by federal and town money has helped build the community that would please George Cunningham.

Racial Balance Law

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, December 2009

On October 9, 2009, the Board of Education addressed West Hartford’s lack of compliance with the 1969 Racial Imbalance Law. A 2007 United States Supreme Court ruling, which threw out Seattle’s use of race to assign students to schools, has emboldened some Connecticut policymakers to question the constitutionality of the law. With the largest achievement gap of any state in the union, West Hartford is in the middle of the controversy over the efficacy of racial integration in schools.

The West Hartford School Board’s commitment to school integration has ebbed and flowed with its superintendents. From 1966 to 1970, Superintendent Charlie Richter, supported interdistrict integration within the context of the migration of African Americans from south to north, the civil rights movement, and subsequent urban unrest, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.

On September 6, 1966, at West Hartford’s Fall Convocation, Superintendent Richter said:

The West Hartford Board of Education attracted national attention during the 1965-66 school year when the Board of Education became the first to propose a program of mixing urban-suburban youngsters, the first to accept a controversial regional invitation to join with other towns in such a plan and the first to implement its own plan locally as part of the regular summer school program…

Richter believed that integrating schools would attack poverty, and he wanted West Hartford to be part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which addressed the roots of poverty. Although poverty was less visible in the 1960s, Richter argued, it was “no less real.” He believed, “in our society, poverty is still a problem and still exacts a price. And I believe that magnanimous Americans will reach down to lift up again.”

The national, state, and local impetus to integrate schools in the Hartford region is still a policy issue in 2009. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires school systems to educate all students and close the achievement gap. The state, through the Racial Balance Act (1969) and the Sheff v. O’Neill case (filed in 1989) asks for voluntary integration within school districts in the Hartford region. Within the town, a magnet/redistricting plan in 1995 tried to better balance the 11 elementary schools by establishing three elementary school magnets, and redrawing district lines. Segregated schools developed because of regionally segregated housing patterns for the many migrants to Connecticut and West Hartford from the 1950’s until today.

Between 1950 and 1960, the African-American population in Connecticut more than doubled from 53,000 to 107,000. From 1960 to 1970, 80,000 Hispanics migrated to Connecticut. These migrants moved to cities at the same time that white middle class residents moved to the suburbs. In the 1950s and 1960s, Hartford factories closed and some, like Colt’s Firearms moved to the suburbs or south.

Though the civil rights movement of the 1960s, was largely perceived as a southern event, cries for black power and civil rights activism flourished in Hartford as well. There was a growing militancy among new black leaders that galvanized the black community. Those who had lived through being second-class citizens lost some of their fear and willingly fought for their equal rights.

According to Connecticut historian Herbert Janick, “black youths” looted Hartford’s North End in 1967, 1968, and 1969. In July and September 1967, frustrated and angry youths, reacting to Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968, threw rocks and bricks at police and firemen, chanting, “You killed Martin Luther King!” On Labor Day 1969, mobs fought state and city police. Those in the mob set fire to a public library and damaged almost 100 buildings. Over 500 people were arrested in this, the largest riot.

These riots led to much soul searching on the part of the city, state and federal government. Johnson’s Great Society programs were based on addressing the deep seated causes of poverty and so jobs programs and educational programs were both implemented. City and state government reacted by pushing through summer camp and work experience programs for city youth. It is in that context that Connecticut’s General Assembly passed their Racial Imbalance Act in 1969, believing that a good education in an integrated setting could help the city’s poor succeed.

In the 1960s, Hartford’s schools were about 50% white, so there was a chance for intradistrict integration. But, by time the Racial Balance Act was implemented, many Connecticut cities had more than 75% students of color in their schools, so believed the only way to integrate was by crossing district lines.

In West Hartford, according to the 1960 census, 229 African Americans, 0.4% of the population lived here. By 1970, the number grew to 263, but stayed the same fraction of a percent of the population. Clearly, for Superintendent Richter, integration was an interdistrict issue in the mid 1960s.

According to the Hartford Courant, the education committee in the state legislature rejected the first set of regulations for the racial imbalance law drawn up by the State Board of Education. In the ensuing years, the major Connecticut cities threatened lawsuits against the state. But, by the late 1970s, the federal courts were holding states liable for not moving quickly enough on de facto segregation. Each Connecticut city worked independently with the commissioner of education to develop individual desegregation plans. But, city officials claimed that they could not desegregate schools within a city.

City officials claimed that the racial imbalance act was racist because it put such a positive value on “whiteness” and a negative value on “blackness.” They believed the only way desegregation could happen was through a regional effort. Officials from Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford and Waterbury all signed a statement to that effect.

In 1976, for the first time, the state Board of Education drew up regulations to carry out the racial imbalance law. In the context of the busing uproar in Boston, Connecticut officials were understandably nervous about any forced busing and it took them seven years to write up the regulations, which allowed for plus or minus 25% students of color at a school than the town’s school system average. With these regulations, virtually all-white suburbs, and all-black cities would not change. The regulations did not mandate busing, or any specific means to achieve racial balance. It was clear that the only true integration would come from student transfers across town lines. From 1969 to 1979, Connecticut schools became more segregated.

Superintendent Richter chose to champion voluntary busing in West Hartford before the Racial Balance Act, before the riots, and twelve years after Brown v. Board of Education. In 1970, The West Hartford and Hartford Boards of Education agreed to a recommendation to double the number of Project Concern students in West Hartford to almost 400.

According to Richter, integration made for good schools. He believed “That good schools can make a community a better place in which to live. Good schools attract good people.” With this spirit, Richter and the Board of Education defined a positive role for West Hartford’s schools in its voluntary efforts to integrate at a time when the West Hartford community itself was not integrated.

When Teachers Marched in Protest Down Farmington Avenue

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, February 2004

Between 1969 and 1975, West Hartford teachers grew militant in their demands for a negotiated contract. In April 1970, teachers marched from Hall High School (the present Town Hall) in the center of town down Farmington Avenue to the old East School on Whiting Lane to protest lack of action on their contract by the Board of Education.

Negotiating a contract led to terrific tension between taxpayers, teachers, and the Board of Education. The West Hartford Education Association (WHEA) claimed that teachers had few rights in the classroom and the Board was caught between supporting its teachers and raising taxes. Up until the late 1960s, Boards of Education acted paternalistically toward their teachers and felt they had the prerogative to establish all working conditions and pay.

It wasn’t until the mid 1960s that there was actually a written salary schedule for teachers in West Hartford. In 1968-69, Farmington teachers drew up a contract for the first time. In the fall of 1968, Hartford teachers went on strike over class size and working conditions. In July 1969, eight Connecticut towns were in arbitration.

The 1960s were a time for direct action and a time when ordinary citizens fought for equality and democracy and teachers would not be denied their rights. Just flexing their union muscles, however, could only work with the power of the 1969 state law making boards negotiate with their unions.

In 1969, the West Hartford Board of Education chose to test the new Teacher Negotiation Act passed by the state legislature in 1969. They tried to keep total control over working conditions and keep salaries at what they considered to be a reasonable level. The new law made it necessary for the Board to negotiate all areas of teachers’ employment.

In 1969, the WHEA attempted to negotiate a contract with the Board of Education for both teachers and administrators. When a three man arbitration panel came up with a package after 22 failed negotiation sessions, and failed mediation, the Board, led by chair John Hand Conard, (son of Frederick U. Conard) rejected the proposal.

Traditionally West Hartford had been about 5th in teachers’ salaries in the state. The proposal offered by the Board of Education would have dropped them to 15th. With 29 different issues on the table, the Board moved only on salary and refused to change its position on any other issue since negotiations began.

President of the WHEA, Dick Blaisdell understood that the idea of collective bargaining came from teachers, not from the board. He believed that the board needed to be reminded that collective bargaining for teachers was a right guaranteed by state statutes and not a favor to be dispensed. He said, “The Board’s expressed attitude is reminiscent of that which prevailed 30 years ago when the superintendent of schools was a father figure before whom teachers trembled and the board was completely unapproachable. That day has long passed and if the present superintendent doesn’t soon realize this, good teachers will continue to leave West Hartford in serious numbers.”

The Superintendent was Charlie Richter, known as a brilliant idea man. But he was also known for being arrogant by Board members and teachers alike. Blaisdell stated publicly that the Board, with Richter as its representative, was running roughshod over the teachers.

When negotiations and mediation failed by the end of June 1970, the process moved onto a three person arbitration panel. The arbitrators made their decision in late August and the Board, rejected their proposal. Teachers, including almost 130 new professionals, started a new year without a contract. Under the new law, the arbitration was not binding. On October 8, the Board rejected an arbitration decision which included salary proposals of $7,100 for a first year teacher with a BA up to $15,400 for a teacher with PhD and 17 years experience. Richter’s salary stood at $34,500.

Board Chair Conard rejected the settlement because it would have cost the town an additional $200,000 out of a budget of $13 million (about 1.5%). A further issue was that the awards “take away the Board’s power of decision over matters of educational policy.” These matters included binding arbitration over teacher grievances and release time for union business.

So, the struggle continued for another six months. Teachers did not want to go on strike, but they continued to look for ways to get the public’s attention. This led to the march down Farmington Avenue and then a final settlement before the end of the school year.

Five years later, in 1975, the Board and WHEA found themselves deadlocked again. At this point, the school population was declining and the issue of staff reduction was of key importance as the number of students in the school system continued to shrink and thus teachers had to be laid off. The school population hit its peak in 1970 with over 13,000 students, and the hiring of over 100 teachers in that year. By 1975, the number had shrunk to about 11,000 in 20 schools, and continued a decline for another 14 years, hitting its lowest point in 1989 at about 7,000. (In 2004 there were about 10,000 students in 15 schools.)

Negotiations began in November of 1974. The WHEA used a series of “pressure tactics” to get the school board to compromise including a boycott of a superintendent’s meeting a, a three-week work slowdown, an all nighter spent in each school, and then a strike vote. Marilyn Miller, a WHEA officer and negotiator, said she would go on strike “because of what I’ve seen in West Hartford these past ten months… the apathy of the public and the parents.” She went on to say that she believed that teachers were “the only group of people in West Hartford who care about education.”

On October 6, the New York Times covered the all night protest held by the teachers. They stayed overnight in their schools trying to bring attention to their plight without going on strike. At the beginning of November, teachers voted to give the leadership the ability to go on strike. Donald LaCroix, president of the WHEA and a kindergarten teacher, reported that 55% voted to use the strike as pressure for settlement. LaCroix believed that at least 50% of those who voted against the strike would not cross the picket line. Experts believed that to make the strike effective, 80% had to participate.

The rejected proposal called for 5% increase in the first year, 6.85% in the second year, and 6.9% in the third year. The school board offered 4.25%. Inflation was running between 6 and 8% at this time.

The teachers angered Board member Richard Roth because he felt they had voted to take part in a “blatantly unlawful and illegal act.” He said he was having a difficult time explaining to his children how they should respect their teachers when the WHEA decided to strike.

To make matters worse for the teachers, on November 5, Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Donald Hardy reported that the school board had a $1 million deficit. This deficit was one of the main reasons the school board had been loathe to accept the arbitration award for teachers. At the same meeting, the Board authorized teacher layoffs, replacement and salary deductions for those who went on strike.

In 1975, just as today, strikes by teachers were illegal in the state of Connecticut and school boards asked the courts for an injunction against the teachers. Assistant Superintendent of Schools Paul Burch said that this would not be done; instead, he stated that they would lay off striking teachers by random selection.

At that point, teacher and school board negotiators started a series of marathon negotiating sessions and with the help of mediators, came up with a three year contract signed in the first week in December. The final contract included a moratorium on staff reductions until 1977 and gave teachers binding arbitration of selected contract items for the first time.

In December 2003, West Hartford Teachers voted to approve a contract negotiated by the West Hartford Education Association and the West Hartford Board of Education, giving teachers a 2% raise in each of the next two years. About 75% of the teachers approved the two year contract which went into effect in September 2004. This contract was negotiated during an economic downturn but also at a time with strong town support for the school system.

Binding arbitration has helped to level the playing field between teachers and boards of education giving teachers the rights that most industrial workers got in 1935 with the Wagner Act. The power of the state law has made negotiations more civil and less divisive as both sides are pushed to be reasonable.

Save Our Reservoir: The Fight to Stop I-291

January 2018

The 1950s and 1960s were a time of intense highway planning and development across the U.S. West Hartford was no exception. Have you ever noticed the four-level stack of highway exits and entrances on I-84 that lead to nowhere near the Route 9 entrance by West Farms Mall? The federal and state governments built this stack, from 1969 to 1973, to connect to highway I-291, planned to encircle the city of Hartford. It’s a highway to nowhere because a group of citizens, led by Charlotte Kitowski fought this highway project. This group, the Committee to Save the Reservoir (CSR) is a textbook example of citizen advocacy.

In 1957, the federal government began to design and build highways around cities to reduce congestion. The I-291 route was to be 27 miles long, running from Rocky Hill around to Windsor, going through West Hartford to Simsbury Road (Route 185) with an interchange at North Main Street (Route 218), One of the motivations for this particular highway was the arrival in 1957 of Connecticut General Insurance Company in Bloomfield — right near the proposed interchange.

Looking north from a point in Farmington, the “stack to nowhere” shows the beginnings of the connector to Route 291, a circular highway that was never built through the MDC Reservoir. Note the monastery, and the Buena Vista development. You can also see Veteran’s Memorial Skating Rink on Cornerstone Drive. Soource: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

In 1959, the state’s Department of Transportation received funding to plan this connector between I-84 and I-91. At the time, the government projected that West Hartford would grow by 40,000 people to 100,000 by the year 2000 and that these people would need a limited access highway to move people around the region more quickly. Kitowski and CSR, did not see moving people faster as a sign of progress. And they took the chance to make their case against this highway expansion.

The Federal Highway Act of 1956 required officials to get citizen input from those affected by new highways, through public hearings. The goal was to get input to understand “the overall ecological balance in communities and their capacity to absorb disruption” before building the highways. In June 1960, West Hartford citizens attended the first hearing for this highway at Duffy School. Legislators argued that the interstate should go through the MDC Reservoir instead of the route through neighborhoods where they would have to tear down many houses.

Charlotte Kitowski (1923-2005) spearheaded the fight to stop this highway. A nurse by profession, she became a dedicated environmentalist in the battle to stop Route 291’s path through the Greater Hartford Metropolitan Water System. And she had the experience and skills to win the fight.

She and her husband moved to West Hartford in 1950 and raised three children at 50 Arnoldale Road. In the 1950s, she worked with others in town to oppose Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee as they tried to root out dissent during the Cold War. In September 1963, just three weeks after the March on Washington, the Connecticut Council of Churches asked her to sit on a strategy committee to address “race problems” to improve the lives of African Americans in the state in terms of housing, jobs, and history textbooks (She was the only woman on this committee). She expressed her ideals around community engagement like this: “People say there’s nothing you can do. I’ve just never had that feeling… Challenging the government is the way the government works!”

In 1969, Kitowski helped organize the community to challenge the new highway plan. A high school student drafted a petition to stop the highway and circulated it at Conard, Hall, Plant Jr. High, the West Hartford Academy and Hartford College for Women. Kitowski engaged with and supported these students. The actions of the high school students and Kitowski’s organizing experience led to the formation of the Committee to Save the Reservoir (CSR)

CSR organized its first event, the Reservoir Ramble, on May 25, 1969. About 140 citizens attended this rally at the MDC Reservoir on Farmington Avenue. The event garnered some press and more activists to circulate petitions against the highway. In nine days they had 6,700 signatures on their petition. They delivered the petition which grew to 10,000 signatures to Democratic Governor John Dempsey. The petitions and a resolution from Town Councillor Robert Krechevsky led to a State Highway Department public hearing on September 25, 1969.

Over 1,100 people attended the public hearing at Hall High (the present Town Hall in the center of town). Students sang a song entitled “Spirit of the Reservoir” from the school steps as townspeople walked into the hearing.

At the meeting, the Department of Transportation outlined the route of the highway which would be 100 feet from Reservoir 6 and less than 100 feet from Reservoir 2. Health Commissioner Dr. Franklin Foote objected to the route because of the negative effects of lead and chlorine in the water. He argued that the highway should be at least ¼ mile away from any water to reduce the risk of pollution. A biochemistry expert from Washington, D.C. and a professor from Dartmouth School of Medicine both spoke against the highway stating health risks to the water supply. The DOT summarily dismissed Health Department warnings.

The Republican mayor of Bloomfield, Lew Rome, testified that both the Bloomfield Town Council and Bloomfield Planning and Zoning Commission wanted the new highway. He urged West Hartford officials to join those in Bloomfield in support of the highway. This was unpopular with many of Bloomfield citizens, particularly environmentalists. Six weeks after the Mayor’s testimony, in the November election, six of the seven Bloomfield council members did not run for reelection and Democrats won control. They quickly voted to withdraw the town’s support for I-291.

After the hearing, Governor Dempsey asked Commissioner of DOT, George Conkling to address the issue of the highway through the reservoir. Conkling had no written statement of policy from the Health Department about the projected route. CSR hired an outside group to do an independent study of the area.

At this point, Kitowski felt the best path was to bypass Connecticut DOT and go straight to the federal government. She urged people to write to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, John Volpe. And, CSR continued its letter writing campaign and petitions to state, local and MDC officials.

On the first Earth Day, in April 1970, CSR organized a bus tour through West Hartford; more than half of those on the tour were under 18. The buses, donated by the Connecticut Co. took riders on an ecological tour of town including where the state planned to build I-291.

In September 1970, a hearing in Bloomfield drew Kitowski and CSR and 400 Bloomfield residents. In October 1970, the Federal Bureau of Public Roads, to which CSR had written, suspended the design on the Bloomfield section of I-291 in response to claims made by the U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Transportation John Olsson after he visited the site.

After this suspension, CSR felt good! In fact, the federal government declared that the next Connecticut governor had the power to cancel the plans to build the highway, no matter what happened at the federal level. So, the power shifted from DOT to the Governor’s race between First District Congressman Emilio Daddario (D) and Sixth District Congressman Thomas Meskill.

In November 1970, state voters elected former Bloomfield Mayor Thomas J. Meskill for Governor. Right away, Meskill tried to get a route further to the west, outside the reservoir, but that made the ring road too long and beyond what the federal government would subsidize. Meskill played both sides of the issue by supporting building I-291, all the time knowing that the federal government would not pay for this longer route.

This win put pressure on West Hartford’s electeds to fight the interstate. West Hartford’s Democratic State Senator Jay Jackson helped pass Senate Bill 291 (yes, that WAS the bill number!) to stop the highway. CSR continued the pressure with a letter writing campaign to the Governor to sign the bill. Governor Meskill vetoed the bill in May 1971 on the grounds that he did not have the authority to stop the highway.

After the veto, Kitowski got citizens from Bloomfield and Windsor to join together with her West Hartford advocates against I-291. With local citizens and state legislators organized against the highway, even the veto was not stopping them.

In September 1971, Governor Meskill promised to keep the highway out of the Reservoir. CSR circulated 11,000 fliers reminding the Governor of his promise. And, they broadened the campaign to include all 386,000 people who used MDC water. This was a regional problem

On September 25, 500 cyclists rode to the reservoir and gave speeches against the highway, calling their protest a “bike strike.”

Kitowski quickly accessed the new federal Environmental Protection Agency, established on December 2, 1970, to get their support in this attempt to save our water. In September 1971, the new Commissioner of the EPA, William Ruckelshaus officially supported the position of CSR.

In June 1972, CSR submitted a report to DOT with scientific experts voicing their concerns with the proximity of 291 to the water supply in the reservoirs. By federal law, DOT had to review the group’s report and submit an environmental impact statement to the federal government for approval.

CSR retained lawyers who filed suit against DOT stating it ignored Section 4 (F) of the 1966 Dept of Transportation Act which required DOT to say that there were no feasible and prudent alternatives to the use of parklands. The suit claimed that DOT did not look at alternatives to the interstate highway such as mass transit.

In August 1972, Kitowski and three CSR members traveled to Washington, D.C. to get national support for their fight. Kitowski presented a 300 page report by environmental experts to the Interior Department refuting the claims of Connecticut DOT. Federal transportation and environmental departments showed surprise at the amount of opposition to the 291 route, and requested more information. Possibly because of the previous state focus, the federal government did not even have accurate maps or information regarding the proposed route. The Department of the Interior said that DOT had to study the route again. Interior required DOT to hold another hearing back in Connecticut.

The third public hearing, in October 1972 at the old Hall Conference Center, drew 1,000 citizens. The Department of the Interior supported the route. The other three federal agencies did not. Republican Mayor Ellsworth Grant, the first speaker, reminded the DOT officials that he and the WH Town Council had passed resolutions opposing the highway three times and had authorized the Corporation Counsel to bring an injunction against the DOT to stop the construction. Officials made clear that federal law stipulated that if public land is to be used in development HUD, EPA, Interior and Agriculture have to be informed. CSR sent the transcripts, full of data on the threats to the area’s water supply, to Secretary of Transportation John Volpe.

With continued pressure to stop the highway, Gov. Meskill killed the plans on August 2, 1973, three days after his Transportation Commissioner, who supported the route, resigned. Tied to Meskill’s change of heart on the highway was a change in federal government regulations, allowing the state to shift the 90% reimbursement funds for this highway to other projects. The Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG) then dispersed the money.

In December 1974, the EPA honored Kitowski with its Environmental Achievement Award, the highest honor given by the EPA’s regional office. The regional EPA Administrator said her “actions have proved that responsible public participation can be the keystone of our environmental efforts.” Kitowski had willingly taken on the leadership of a citizen advocacy group, coordinating the campaign by using local government, public hearings, the courts, scientific studies, and the nascent environmental movement to successfully fight state and national government.

As a biker, advocate and historian, one of my favorite stories happened in 1972 when DOT Commissioner Wood criticized Kitowski for driving her car on Interstate I-84 to get to a meeting at his office. He insinuated that we all need these highways, even Kitowski! At the next meeting, Kitowski rode her bike, and carried it right into Wood’s office, proclaiming there were not provisions for locking it up outside. The Hartford Courant documented her commute with two photos in the morning paper.

The Agora Ballroom

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, August 2006. Thanks to Rachel Aron’s research paper, “The History of a West Hartford Hot Spot – The Agora Ballroom,” for bringing this topic to my attention. Her paper was a 2006 winner in the Noah Webster House’s Freeman and Mary Meyer Prize on West Hartford History. Her complete paper can be read at the House.

Teenagers in West Hartford often decry the lack of “things to do.” When they learn about the town’s Charter Oak Park, a horse race track, or Luna Amusement Park, they wonder why there can’t be fun around like that today. Recently, plans for a laser tag venue on New Park Avenue may provide entertainment for teenagers. In the 1970s and 1980s teenagers and young adults in town could go to Dexter Avenue for boxing matches, disco dancing and concerts of emerging rock groups from Bobby and the Midnights to The Clash to Santana to Joe Jackson as they made their way to stardom.

What was finally known as the Agora Ballroom at 165 Dexter Avenue, opened as a distribution warehouse for Royal Typewriter in 1963, built on top of the old West Hartford landfill (and near the present day Public Works Department). Royal stopped manufacturing typewriters in Hartford in 1968 and so the concrete rectangular building stood vacant for a while

The Columbia Music Hall opened in the building in September 1973. In its short time, it held both music and sports events. On August 17, 1973, promoter Manny Liebert announced that he would once again sponsor boxing in Connecticut, now that it was legal again, at the Columbia Music Hall at 165 Dexter Avenue in West Hartford. The facility had room for 900 parked cars and could seat 2,500 people. According to the Hartford Courant, the venue was situated right in the heart of the old Hartford sports scene, not far from Charter Oak Park where both harness and auto races were held.

The first bout on September 25, 1973 was the first boxing match ever to be held in West Hartford. The line up included a six fight card headlining with New Britainite Kevin Pentlow and D.G. Barber of Denver, Colorado. Liebert promised the undercard would have as many Connecticut boys as he could find. In April, a boxing line up included ex-Conard football player Howard Hall in his first professional bout. He won in two rounds over an opponent from Enfield.

At the same time, there was boxing, it was also a music hall. In the second week in September they hosted Quicksilver, one of the original San Francisco Bay Area groups. On September 22, 1973, jazz musician Herbie Mann held a concert there.

It was also a venue for local folk singers. Six local singing groups held a folk concert on January 8, 1974 to raise money for arts groups in the area. On January 12, the venue hosted three groups, Slade, a hard rock band from England, NRBQ, formally the Wildweeds from Windsor, and Brownsville Station, a hard rock band from Madison, Wisconsin. Todd Rungren sang in April of that year.

In February 1974, the Music Hall hosted The Charles Brothers Circus in an attempt to raise money for summer school for children from Charter Oak Terrace, right around the corner. Two hundred people watched the indoor circus.

It was even the site in January 1974 for West Hartford’s Mayor Catherine Reynolds to draw the Connecticut Lottery winner: Mrs. Bernice Schwartz of Haynes Road won $75,000.

In December 1974, a group of six called Starship Enterprise bought out the Columbia Music Hall and changed the name to the West Hartford Music Hall. They lasted only until November 1975 when it changed to Finnocchio’s East, a gay bar.

For a brief time from November 1975 to June 1976, the nightspot Finnocchio’s was an attraction for the gay community. Its New Year’s celebration was called the “First New Year’s Gayla Party” and featured the Arthur Blake Review. According to ads in the Hartford Courant, the Review was so popular that it was held over for four days. An attempt by entertainer Ivan Valentin to perform “Leading Ladies of New York” with his troop of female impersonators was shut down by the Connecticut state liquor commissioner in the spring 1976. Connecticut state law prohibited entertainment at a liquor establishment where men dressed as women or women dressed as men. Valentin said the show was shut down mainly because it attracted a largely homosexual crowd. Others argued that the show was seductive and dealt in sexual content.

By June of 1976, the entertainment venue turned to disco and fell on hard times. In 1977 it became the Hard Rock Café, with no connection to the chain of Hard Rock Cafés. By 1979, management changed the name again to Stage West.

In 1982, it became the Agora Ballroom, part of a chain of nightclubs based in Cleveland. The Agora was very popular and advertised free admission before 9:30 and 75 cent drinks. Ads enticed people to come hear Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Max Creek, Cryer, and the Dregs. In 1982, when the drinking age was 18, the Ballroom advertised “1st Drink Free with College I.D.”

The drinks were inexpensive, but part of the charm of the Agora was the tailgating in the parking lot. Attendees partied before they went in, went out to their cars at intermission and then partied again after the show ended. A stamp on their hand allowed for re-admission. The Agora parking lot became an important social gathering place. In the industrial area of town, this seemed not to cause a public nuisance, even when the Ballroom was open to 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends.

In its first few months, Joe Jackson, Bonnie Raitt, Pousette Dart Band, Willie Nelson, and Gaelic Rocker Rory Gallagher held concerts there. Over the course of its six years, The Ramones, X, Peter Gabriel, Ozzy Osborne, R.E.M., U2, Metallica, Aerosmith, Husker Du, The Grateful Dead, Twisted Sister, King Crimson, Men at Work, Stray Cats, and the Average White Band all performed.

In the middle of the night in July 1987, the Agora was destroyed by vandals. It was thought to be an inside job, included stealing sound equipment, using chainsaws to cut posts holding up the balcony, and spray painting the walls. No one was ever arrested for the damage, and the venue never recovered.

Max Creek saw the Agora as a home base. They went back and performed after the vandalism and they believed the Agora Ballroom was “the best place to hear live music” in the area. The managers hosted a wide variety of music and bands which “defined the times,” including The Band, Missing Person, John Cippolina, and Peter Tosh. It also served as a spot, like the Webster Theater in Hartford today, for local and regional bands to get their start.

According to Mark Mercier of Max Creek, it was “in many people’s minds, the best place in the area to hear music, and since then, no place in Connecticut and western Massachusetts has come close to what it was. We had a wonderful time playing there.”

This nightclub provided a venue for emerging groups and entertainment for those in the region that was edgy and fun. My guess is that teenagers in town couldn’t wait until they were old enough to go to the Agora.


Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, April 2011

On January 27, 1971 Republican Deputy Mayor Arthur Fay proposed stricter controls on dumping in West Hartford. Since November 1957, West Hartford had incinerated about 60,000 tons of solid waste per year, about one ton per person per year, and about 4 pounds per day. By 1971, the town government knew that the landfill was almost full and the incinerator would need to be replaced.

Fay’s proposed town ordinance would require residents to separate newspaper from trash for recycling and would assess businesses a $5 dumping fee.

The idea for the ordinance came out of a proposal to build a new regional incinerator for West Hartford, Newington, Rocky Hill, and Newington at a cost of $27 million. Fay believed this new incinerator could be delayed for 10 to 15 years, by implementing a paper-recycling program. At the time, 46% of the town’s waste came from corrugated boxes, magazines, newspapers, and paper bags.

And, for business, of the 250 tons of trash produced each week, 200 tons was recyclable. But, business leaders questioned Fay’s statistics and claimed it was costly to separate their trash and take staples and tape off the boxes. Fay retorted that “more money is spent by industry in advertising their concern for ecology, than on their performance in demonstrating their concern.”

In September, the ordinance was tabled with only Fay voting in favor. Local businessmen had grave reservations about the dumping fees and the strict regulation of refuse collection that the ordinance prescribed. Leaders from Wiremold, Chandler Evans, Pratt & Whitney, Jacobs Manufacturing, Dunham Bush, and Holo-Krome all believed that further study needed to be made. They argued that businesses would move out of town if the ordinance were passed.

By May 1972, Fay reintroduced his ordinance with changes for residents. This ordinance made residential newspaper recycling participation mandatory. Residential garbage would not be picked up if newspapers were mixed with the trash. The bi-weekly newspaper-recycling program had had moderate success over the year. Town garbage collectors picked up about 30 tons of newspapers per week from private residents. Fay felt that with required recycling, the town could move to weekly recycling pickup. Fay’s ordinance was passed in June, requiring weekly newspaper recycling. Fay chose to drop the dumping fees from the ordinance and West Hartford’s Town Council adopted a mandatory residential newspaper-recycling program in May 1972.

In 1972, Fay was eager to get to the 50 tons of cardboard produced by business that was thrown away each week. Fay continued to remind townspeople that putting the paper in the incinerator cost $6 per ton and for every ton of paper recycled, 17 fewer trees needed to be chopped down.

The Council left businesses out of the recycling program. Their concern about the cost of cleaning up their contaminated corrugated boxes led them to lobby to stop the ordinance. At the same time, the Chamber of Commerce started to survey the recycling potential of town businesses. Councilman Brian O’Meara called for the creation of a joint committee of business leaders and town administrators to take a cooperative approach to recycling efforts.

By June 1973, Fay encouraged voluntary participation on the part of businesses. By October 1973, Fay claimed that the town recycled 60 tons of newsprint per week, about 60% of the newsprint in town. West Hartford sold the paper to recyclers and paid less in incineration fees. At that time the State Department of Environmental Protection was just starting a statewide recycling program and looked to West Hartford as a model.

In February 1975, Democratic Town Councilor Daniel Blume proposed an ordinance that would end newspaper recycling. The recycled newsprint market had declined and Blume claimed the recycling cost too much.

Barbara Blechner, leader of the Environmental Quality Committee of the League of Women Voters helped lead the fight to keep newspaper recycling in place. The League issued an eight-page report to change the way recycling was picked up. In East Hartford, Bloomfield, Newington and Norwalk special units were attached to regular garbage collection trucks so that newspapers could be picked up at the same time as garbage. In 1975, the town’s landfill was close to being filled, requiring the town to take some trash out of town. So the pressure was on to solve the problem.

The League saw the issue as a more global problem than the Town Council. According to the League, to make 1000 tons of low grade paper from virgin pulp was 3,400 times greater than to make the same paper out of recycled material. The League also understood that the cost to address waste problems not only including burning the trash, but also the fringe benefits and debt cost of collection and transportation of the waste.

By 1976, Republican Mayor Nan Streeter continued to encourage recycling. The Town Council issued a proclamation on March 16, 1976 declaring March 21 to March 28 “Recycle Newspaper Week.” Streeter, an avid member of the League, wrote that because the town believed that a healthy environment was vital to life, and that the incineration of newspapers increased air pollution, and the town collected newspapers, that residents should increase their efforts to recycle newspapers over this week.

In April 1975, Democrats on the Town Council rescinded the paper-recycling ordinance. The ordinance gave the director of the Department of Public Works the authority to establish recycling rules. The League of Women Voters strongly favored continuing the recycling ordinance. The League published a mimeographed script entitled “West Hartford Trash — It Won’t Go Away — Where Will it Go?” dated October 5 and 6, 1976. This marked the culmination of a long study by the League of Women voters on the issue of Solid Waste Disposal in West Hartford.

But Democratic Councilor Blume continued to argue that the recycling program cost the town too much money. Proposals included having residents take their bundled papers to one of the 5 fire stations in town or changing back to bi-weekly pickup. Republicans questioned his numbers and believed that the 50% of those who recycled weekly would not stop. They held onto the recycling program.

Then in 1977, the state DEP ordered the town’s incinerator to close and the town could not avoid its solid waste issues. At this point, West Hartford bought into the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority and trucked its wastes out of town. In that same year, Councilor Bob Farr urged schools to begin their recycling program. Farr believed that the town could save money with the program and that students would learn the habits of recycling and bring those good habits home. The progress in institutionalizing school recycling continues to today.

In 2010, West Hartford produced about 38,000 tons of solid waste, about 3.5 pounds per person per day, a decrease from 1971. At the same time, Town Manager Ron Van Winkle estimated that the town will recycle only about 7,200 tons of waste — about .6 pounds per person per day or 240 pounds per year, about 15% of the total waste produced. As of January 1, 2010 the town uses single stream recycling with automated dumping which has increased recycling. Even that rate of recycling will save the town over $100,000 by reducing fees for non-recyclable waste.

Solid waste disposal is as expensive today as it was 40 years ago. But as landfills have closed, the push to reduce waste increases. Every individual can take their lead from Art Fay and the League of Women Voters to do their part to reduce, reuse and recycle. How many households can put more in their recycling bin than in their garbage?

Democracy and School Renovations

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, March 2012

On February 21, 1973, 350 parents and their children marched from Trout Brook and Farmington Avenue up to the Town Hall on South Main Street to protest a proposed $15 million school renovation program. The marchers from Smith, Whitman, and Morley schools were worried about potential school closings and changes to their schools. Protesters from Wolcott, Elmwood and Beach Park schools also marched.

When they arrived at the Town Hall, they circled the Noah Webster Statue calling for Mayor Ellsworth Grant to appear to speak to them. Three Democratic Town Councilors showed up in support and State Representative Chuck Matties showed up to observe the protest.

Why would parents oppose renovations to their aging school buildings in the early 1970s when the state offered a 50% reimbursement rate, the unemployment rate was at 6% and the school system was seen as one of the best in the state?

As for any protest, there are multiple causes and this public display of displeasure with local government fits that bill. Declining enrollment, aging school buildings, a new philosophy of “open classrooms,” a call for neighborhood schools, fear of security, democracy on the neighborhood level, a determined school board chair, and a superintendent with big ideas all came together to cause unrest.

West Hartford’s population peaked in 1970 with about 70,000 residents and then lost about 10,000 over the next decade. What residents wouldn’t have known in 1971, was that five elementary schools and two junior highs would be closed over the next decade as the school population declined as well.

In 1971, Superintendent Charlie Richter moved to renovate all 19 town schools over the next three years. Charter Oak and Morley Schools were in the first of three phases and were characterized as overcrowded and without adequate facilities. Both schools were over 40 years old. Charter Oak had been built without a gym and both schools lacked many large rooms that could be used for multiple small group or single large group instruction.

By January 1972, Board Chairperson Madeline McKernan argued that the real reason for renovation was to “equalize facilities in the 13 elementary schools.” McKernan argued for more space for art, music, science labs, pupil series, teacher work areas, and some resource centers. The Board wanted to renovate eight schools at once in this first phase so that parents at specific schools were not able to push their agenda over that of another school. The eight schools in the first round were Bugbee, Braeburn, Whiting Lane, Charter Oak, Morley, Plant and Sedgwick Junior Highs and Conard High School.

By early March 1972, the plan had already shifted to focus on schools in the southeast sector of town. A joint Town Council-Board of Education building committee came up with a plan to replace Elmwood (1928), Smith (1915) and Charter Oak Schools (1929) with a single facility built to educate 1,000 elementary students.

According to Albert J. Marks, committee chair, this school would only be built if the parents of the children in the three schools liked the idea. Board of Ed chair McKernan said the committee believed the new school would cost little more than the estimated $1.5 million to renovate the three elementary schools.

Both Marks and McKernan agreed that the plan would have many advantages. It would cut administrative and upkeep costs. There could be more efficient staffing with full time art, music and physical education teachers. “The latest education concepts” could be more effectively built in a new school. The three unused sites could be turned over to the town and become income producing. Building the large school on a “house system” would help retain a small-school feeling.

At the first presentation, the joint committee asked PTA representatives from each school to take the information back to their schools. According to Marks, “If the town doesn’t want it, it doesn’t go. I want to make that very, very clear.”

Almost immediately, parents from the Elmwood School reacted negatively to the plan. Quickly Supt. Richter readjusted and suggested that Elmwood have the option of doubling up with Wolcott School, while Smith joined with Charter Oak. The Board already had a plan to build a 14 room addition on Wolcott and it would probably only take a few more rooms to take on Elmwood’s students who lived in a small district with a school that needed too many renovations to fix.

Fears of security raised their ugly head as well. The crowd applauded a woman who said that she would not allow her children to go to a school at Sterling Field because “there are certain sections there of people who are apt to be violent.” In the summer of 1970 there were problems there, allegedly from Hartford teenagers who lived in the Charter Oak Housing Project just over the Hartford line. Elmwood parents voted to consolidate with Wolcott.

By the end of March, the joint committee believed it had a solution, with both Smith and Charter Oak parents appearing to favor consolidation and a new school for 700 students at a cost of about $1.8 million. Though some Smith parents wanted the new school built on the Smith site, the 50% state reimbursement could not be used there because the site was so small.

Smith teacher Ralph Worth told the audience that the acoustics were terrible, the heating erratic and the atmosphere depressing. He added that the Smith staff completely supported consolidation.

However, when the plan was brought to a vote, only 26% of the parents voted and there was no mandate. Charter Oak parents voted for renovation, Smith parents were split, and Elmwood parents supported consolidation with Wolcott. At Charter Oak, the biggest fear seemed to be losing Sterling Field.

By November 1972. The Board decided to close Smith School and expand and renovate Charter Oak. At the same time the Board backed a plan to build a new Morley School on the site of the old St. Agnes home on Steele Road.

By this time, parents at Smith organized a Save Our School committee that organized the protest march. Morley School parents organized a Concerned Morley Community group because they did not want a new school on Steele Road. The Smith group sought a referendum on the entire $15 million bonding ordinance.

Board Chair McKernan continued to try to fix the schools. New charges that the plan was an attempt to get rid of neighborhood schools reflected a fear of busing in the time of volatile school integration battles being waged all over the country. McKernan argued that it was impossible to have all students walk to school in this town. McKernan continued to focus on the long range plan for the system in which “every child in this town has a right to an equal educational opportunity and that it should make no difference where any child happens to live and go to school.”

On June 5, 1973, West Hartford voters went to the polls and defeated the $2.6 million bonding ordinance by 3 to 1.

Just two months later, Superintendent Charlie Richter resigned under pressure because, according to the Board, he was out of touch with the town.

It wasn’t until December 1974 that the Board finally approved plans to renovate Charter Oak, Smith and Morley schools. In 1975, the estimated cost had risen to $4.7 million. The renovations were completed in 1976.

Inequities of Athletic Opportunities for Girls

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, July 2002

I can still see point guard Patty Gruzden, long hair streaming behind her in her green Talcott Junior High uniform, dribbling down Sedgwick’s basketball court after a steal and going in for the lay up. She was a tenacious, feisty, quick and truly competitive 7th grader in my first year teaching and coaching in West Hartford.

I started at Talcott Junior High in 1977, five years after Title IX became law. I coached the girls’ junior varsity field hockey and basketball teams. We had a six game season playing home and away at Plant, Sedgwick and King Philip. One of the greatest satisfactions as a coach was feeling the excitement and accomplishment of those 12 and 13-year-old girls from Elmwood as they entered the gym at Sedgwick, feeling confident they could compete.

In 1979, due to declining enrollment, Talcott and Plant were closed and the 9th grade moved to Conard High School. I coached freshman field hockey and JV softball. Based on my own observations and a study done by the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1997, these student athletes gained confidence, had higher self-esteem, and were less likely to get in trouble in school, use drugs, or participate in risky sexual behavior. But, West Hartford dropped competitive sports in the middle school in that same year.

What implications did West Hartford’s dropping competitive sports in the junior high/middle school in 1979 have on girls over the next 20 years? A cursory view of the statistics in the year 2000 would say: very little. In 2000, 47% of girls at Conard participated in a sport.

But, a closer look at the statistics, and the changing population in West Hartford over those 20 years reveals a far more complicated and disturbing story. A recent master’s thesis by Tom Moore, a history teacher and football and girls lacrosse coach at Conard, raises a host of concerns.

When Title IX became law in 1972, Conard did not have any official varsity sports for girls. Title IX mandated that the school offer competitive sports for girls that would be comparable to the boys. Teams in swimming, field hockey, basketball, track and field, and tennis were the first sports offered to girls.

Around the same time that Title IX became law, the population in West Hartford began to change. The population of the town peaked in 1970 at about 70,000. Over the next decade, the population decreased by 10,000 and the demographics of the town changed as more immigrants and people of color moved to town. This was part of a larger national trend as northern cities lost population at an even higher rate, and a new immigration law in 1965 opened the doors to more Asian and Latin American immigrants.

As the town’s population declined, the socioeconomic makeup of the town began to change. In 1972, the Piper Brook Housing Project opened in the southeast section of town. This was the first low-income housing for non-senior citizens in town. For the first time, low-income families could find apartment housing in West Hartford. From 1958 to 1970, Conard’s minority enrollment was less than two percent. According to Moore, five African Americans, three Asian and two Hispanic students graduated from Conard out of a total of 6,583 students during that time period. In 1973, one Hispanic girl, the only student of color, graduated with 495 others.

By 1980, 4.5 percent of the graduating class was black, Asian, or Hispanic, and by 1981, 10 percent. By 1991, the percentage grew to 20 percent and by 2000 was 35 percent. Today Hispanics make up the largest percentage of minorities at 14 percent.

How have these demographic changes played out in sports participation? West Hartford has succeeded in providing high school girls the opportunity to compete, but the statistics show that young women of color and particularly African American and Hispanics have not benefited from Title IX in an equal way.

The great majority of the participating minority females were of Asian background. They make up as much as half of the cross country and volleyball teams and participate in a rate higher than their 9 percent of the population. With the exception of cheerleading, since 1990, only two Hispanic girls earned varsity letters out of 2,138 letters earned and both of those came in softball.

What factors, beyond pure individual choice, would make it so that less than 10 percent of Conard’s female athletes from a background other than Caucasian participate in sports? Why should this be of any concern for the schools where many believe the priority should be academics, not athletic competition?

Conard girls who play sports are high achieving students, according to Moore’s study. In the year 2000, 83 percent of the female athletes made the honor roll. Between 1973 and 2000, 1,201 students were inducted in the National Honor Society. The NHS draws about 10% of the senior class. Of this group, 70 percent were female. Since 1986, over 60 percent of the senior girls who won varsity letters were members of NHS.

The peer group that plays sports, though, seems difficult for African American and Hispanic girls to enter. For the most highly competitive sports of soccer and softball (only 60 percent of those who try out for softball make it), it is possible that they are not able to play competitively before high school to have the skills to make the team. Since 1979, West Hartford Public Schools have offered no competitive sports for middle school students. There are opportunities for girls to play on teams before high school, but only for those with the money to pay and parents available to cart them to games.

These findings present policy implications for the school system. The main thrust of Title IX is to provide equality between boys and girls, but the ideal of Title IX is equal access for participation.

An unintended consequence of the current West Hartford policy, according to Moore, gives girls whose parents can pay for them to play in town and travel leagues before high school, a real advantage when they try out as freshmen. West Hartford’s pay for play rule may also keep some students from trying a new sport. Though money is available for scholarships, many students do not access it. Sports seem to have added to a division in the student body by race and economics, an unplanned result of Title IX.

Can the town establish policies that produce sports teams that mirror the ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity of our schools that we are so proud to celebrate?

Moore suggests that the town drop pay for play. He makes a case for the power of black and brown coaches as role models. And he suggests mandatory participation in at least one after school activity each year for every student.

But it seems like high school is too late. Why not bring back sports teams at the middle school? Even the amount of time students spend in gym has declined in the past few years. The new magnet middle school would be a great place to pilot a program, which made sports an integral part of the school day. If sports help develop confidence and risk-taking behavior which seems to improve academic performance, as Patty Gruzden showed me 25 years ago, shouldn’t all students have access to these opportunities?

Controversy Over the New Town Hall

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, February 2003

West Hartford’s town government has a big stake in the vitality of the town’s center. The Town Council wants the center to have a healthy mix of retail, office space, and the requisite town buildings. Trying to balance these competing interests from 1970 to 1984 seemed like an unending task as the town dealt with the opening of Westfarms Mall, closing the Whitman School and the old Hall High, and a town government that needed more office space.

When Hall High moved to North Main Street in 1970, there was not a plan for the former school building on South Main Street. Some of its space was used for a variety of town offices and services. By 1972, it was clear that West Hartford was outgrowing its current Town Hall and the Town Council grappled with how to handle this space crunch. To address these concerns, the Council appointed a “Center Resources Committee” to study and plan for a larger Town Hall, to research the best use for the former Hall High School and to make recommendations about the Town Hall Annex. In their 1973 report, the Committee recommended demolishing Hall High (the current Town Hall) and the Town Hall Annex to make room for commercial development.

Republicans, who controlled the Council, recommended building a three story town complex on Norfeldt Field, at the corner of Boulevard and Trout Brook, to house the Police and Fire Departments and the Circuit Court.

It was not until mid August 1973 that architect Stanley Fisher proposed renovating the former Hall High into a new Town Hall at a public meeting. Fisher believed the town could save $3 million out of the $5.5 Million it would cost to construct a Town Hall addition and erect a public safety complex.

Republicans, led by Mayor Ellsworth Grant, supported the controversial public safety complex. But in October of 1973, Grant threw his support behind renovating the old Hall High. Single-handedly, Grant stopped planning on a proposed Town Hall addition. Democratic council member Catherine Reynolds, called Grant’s actions “arrogant.” As the Council elections heated up in late October, challenger Thomas Pikor, suggested an alternative plan that would include the recently closed Whitman School. He proposed that Hall High be rented out for office space.

The Democrats gained the majority on the Council in the ’73 election and moved to squash Grant’s plan and went on to hire an architect to study an addition to the Town Hall. Republicans wanted to use the old Hall High as the Town Hall, leaving Police and Court facilities in the Town Hall. Town Hall would use part of the high school building and lease the other offices for revenue.

In late 1974, the Center Resource Committee made a formal recommendation to have an architect conduct a study of municipal facilities.The architects were asked to study the various buildings and their potential uses. No action was taken on these plans.

The next time these issues hit the press was 1976. The Town Development Task Force replaced the Center Resource Committee. In response to the Task Force’s recommendation of a $4.4 million renovation of the former high school, Republican Mayor Ann Streeter argued that while they wanted to preserve the building, the cost was too high and the commercial potential of the lot would be a valuable asset to the town.

Members of the Task Force voted overwhelmingly to build a new Police/Court facility and to renovate the Whitman School as a community center and approved plans to renovate the Town Hall after the police and court moved out. However, they did not make a recommendation about the fate of the Hall High building. Not one of these recommendations was adopted and again, no action was taken.

In fact, by 1980, the former Whitman School reopened as the Police/Court building. This freed up space in the existing Town Hall.

After many more years of wrangling, and yet another task force, headed by Democrat Richard Mulready, a recommendation to renovate the former Hall High building came before the Town Council for a vote. Kaestle Boos, a local architecture firm first submitted a plan in 1981, but that plan never reached a vote. Two years later, in June of 1983, a similar plan of theirs was adopted by Council. Fall elections changed the composition of the Town Council with the Democrats seizing control. The new mayor, Kevin Sullivan, Deputy Mayor Chris Droney, Councilors Joe O’Brien and Republican Robert Gross united against the design and cost of the plan adopted by the previous Council. Supporting the Hall renovation plans were Republican Minority Leader and former mayor, Chuck Matties, Marjorie Anderson and Myron Congdon and Democrat Mims Butterworth. Democratic member Chuck Felson would cast the deciding vote.

Matties and other supporters of the plan, wanted to move the school offices to Town Hall and sell the Steele Road school administration building. In his call for the council to move on a plan in August of 1984, Mr. Matties said: “Over the past 15 years, every conceivable question has been asked and answered at least three times… I don’t particularly care what decision we make. Just so long as we make a decision. This has been dragging on for 15 years, and we’ve got to do something.”

In August of 1984, 12 years after the first discussions, the Town Council voted to renovate the former Hall High for the Town Hall. Three Councilmen, a Democrat and two Republicans, spoke in opposition to the plan. The Chamber of Commerce and the West Hartford Taxpayers Association threatened a referendum against the $8.5 million plan. However the referendum never materialized. Three years later, the newly renovated Town Hall opened with some fanfare.

In May of 1987, right after town offices moved to the renovated old Hall High, Councilwoman Madeline McKernan proposed selling the old town hall for commercial use. Proposals to renovate the Town Hall for an education center were $3 million, one million more than budgeted. The Superintendent and the Board of Education were happy with their headquarters on Steele Road, and a sale seemed like a way for the town to gain some tax revenue. The proposal was voted down and in 1990, the school administration moved into the old town hall.

In 2003, town planners considered adding on to the Town Hall, moving the education offices there, and making the education building commercial space. With the center commercial space at a premium, this may become a viable option.

West Hartford citizens who remember the wrangling over the old Hall may wonder about the value of one more citizens’ center task force, but as we’ve seen before, democracy can be a messy process. A number of factors including the economic downturn in the 1980s, the decline of school age children, closing of schools and yet the increase in the education budget, a series of budget referendums, and a lack of a united front by the council majority all made the decision about the town hall drag on for years.

Just recently, a citizens’ task force to decide on the proper site for a new middle school started and finished its business within six months for a project worth over $20 million. Bipartisan support, deep support for the schools, and a growing school population all led to this efficient decision. Allowing citizens a hand in these town decisions can empower the community while it can also divide the town. Discussions like these provide a healthy forum that allows for a participatory democracy, no matter how untidy.

Racial Unrest at Talcott Junior High, 1975

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, May 2010

On Monday, October 13, 1975 at a Talcott Junior High school fair, a white youth “bumped” an African American student, and told the student to move out of the way. The black student retaliated by throwing an acorn at the white student who made a threatening move. The altercation escalated as the two boys had a fistfight and the African American youth’s cousin, a participant in Project Concern busing program from Hartford, joined in. A teacher broke up the fight.

The next day, white students harassed African American students both on the way to school and within the school. Talcott Junior High Principal Michael Stephanian called police in on Tuesday and Wednesday to protect students.

On Wednesday, as a group of African American youths walked east on New Britain Avenue toward their homes on Piper Brook, white youths taunted them from across the street. Police on the spot interrupted the incident and dispersed the two groups.

African American students at Talcott were from both West Hartford and Hartford. By 1975, Hartford students in the Project Concern program, which began in 1966 with elementary school students, attended junior high and high schools. The housing known as the Piper Brook Apartments, developed through federal money as affordable housing, opened in 1972 and many African American families moved to these apartments. By October 1975, Talcott had 601 students and 35 were African Americans, about 6% of the school’s population.

In a meeting covered by a Hartford Courant reporter on Thursday, October 16, at Mr. and Mrs. Louis Thuilard’s home at 125 Hillcrest Avenue, the African American parents contended that their children were afraid and felt it necessary to carry weapons to protect themselves from the white students, some of whom were from Conard High. Some parents decided not to send their children to school on that day, fearing for their safety. Det. Kenneth O’Brien from the police youth services division, Patrolman Arnold Bockus, Human Rights Commission member Reverend David Kern, and Pearl Dash of the Department of Children and Youth Services, and the NAACP attended the meeting.

A spokeswoman for the African American parents, Mrs. Louis Thuilard, asserted that school officials had not responded as quickly or as positively as they might have. Parents perceived that racial tension was “mushrooming,” and they believed that administrators were not doing enough to curb the tension.

Principal Michael Stephanian believed that the incident had been blown out of proportion, claiming that the disturbance was just a problem between two individuals, not a symbol of larger racial problems in the school. He became heated when pressed and further claimed, “The eruption of this problem in light of our past history is staggering.” He said that parents had not notified him and that his staff was trained to be sensitive to problems at the school.

Conard Principal Doug Christie, brought together the Conard students involved in the scuffle to discuss their issues and believed he had opened up a dialogue between the students.

While Principal Stephanian downplayed the incident, African American parents kept their children home on Thursday and Friday, October 16 and 17.

In a meeting at Talcott Junior High, the next day, about a dozen African American parents demanded that their children from Piper Brook Apartments, be bused to Talcott until fears about racial tension subsided.

The meeting, held in a classroom at the school, led to still another meeting on October 21 when town officials said they would answer the question about bus transportation. Those present at the meeting showed how seriously the town administration took the incident. Supt. Paul Burch, Board of Education Chair Elizabeth Stevens, Principal Michael Stephanian, Conard Principal Doug Christie, and several Town Council members attended. From outside of the school system came Rev. David Kern from West Hartford’s Human Rights Commission, Pearl Dash, Rick Lanz, a representative of the Bridge, a spokesman from Education/Instrucción (a Hartford Civil rights group), and Det. Kenneth O’Brien. Those parents who attended the meeting asked for:

  • Recognition that communication between the school and town officials had to improve.
  • The administration to see the incident as more than that between two individuals; town officials needed to consider its attitudes toward the needs of “the town’s minority residents.”
  • The NAACP to follow the matter.
  • School officials to hire a permanent employee who would be a “visible black with some responsibility” to act as a minority children’s advocate in the schools.

Louis Thuilard from Piper Brook contacted the Human Rights Commission and considered filing a complaint against the town for denying his children an equal education.

While the meeting was going on, the situation at the school seemed calm. At dismissal, uniformed and plainclothes police officers hovered in the school parking lot and adjoining areas to watch for trouble.

African American parents vowed to keep their students home on Monday, October 20 and Tuesday October 21 as well. The Police Chief, Francis G. Reynolds, pledged that the police would be at the school to ensure the safety of their children, but the parents did not believe their children would be safe.

On October 21, parents decided to send their students back to school on Wednesday, October 22, ending a four-day walkout when school officials promised bus service for a month to and from Hillcrest Avenue for the 40 students, both black and white, who lived east of the railroad underpass. Thuilard supported the move, saying he was “encouraged” at this “first step” to deal with the racial tension at Talcott.

Parents and school administration both realized that establishing the bus route was a first step. Thuillard pledged that he and other parents would talk to school officials about “long range solutions. I’m hopeful and encouraged,” he said, that “we’ll get as much participation from white parents as possible.”

Superintendent Paul Burch pledged bus service for one month and then a reassessment after a new Board of Education took office in November.

At the same time, Ida McKenney, West Hartford resident and a Human Rights Commission member, blasted the Commission for their lack of response to the “Talcott issue.” She believed that proactive attempts to integrate could have stopped the physical harassment before it started. She asked the Commission to investigate problems at Talcott in September and they refused to put it on their agenda.

When West Hartford’s population became more diverse in the 1970s, students forced town officials, educators, and parents to react. In 2010, with an achievement gap that belies the ability of African American and Hispanic students, perhaps an African American or Hispanic student advocate, like parents demanded 35 years ago, would help students negotiate their environment in a more effective way.

About this book

Copyright © 2018 by Tracey M. Wilson. Life in West Hartford is freely available online at and distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Readers may share the work for non-commercial use, by including a source credit to the author.

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Print copies of this book are available for sale from the publisher, the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, in West Hartford, Connecticut. Proceeds of sales benefit the Society