The Shoeleather History Project

Stories from Hartford's Grassroots

Join Us on May 18 to Commemorate the First Hartford Visit of Frederick Douglass!

  The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass first spoke in Hartford on May 18, 1843 under the “open sky sanctuary” of the First Church on Main and Gold Streets. Help us … Continue reading

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Connecticut’s Longest Labor Strike

The Colt Firearms factory has been producing guns since the 1800s, from pistols to Gatling guns and now, M-16 automatic weapons.  The Colt name is known worldwide. Workers at Colt … Continue reading

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Telling People’s History: Interview with Steve Thornton

Steve Thornton has been an activist in Hartford since moving there in the 1970’s after graduating from the University of Connecticut. He worked for many years for the Hartford-based health … Continue reading

February 3, 2017 · Leave a comment

How Should We Remember World War I ?

How should World War I be remembered? Connecticut libraries and historical groups are now gearing up for this year’s 100th anniversary of April 6, 1917– the day we entered the … Continue reading

February 2, 2017 · Leave a comment

What Would Jay Gould Do About Police Unions?

  When railroad mogul Jay Gould beat the Knights of Labor in 1886, he revealed his strategy. “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other … Continue reading

February 2, 2017 · Leave a comment

It Can’t Happen Here

On Oct. 27, 1936, Connecticut theater-goers watched  It Can’t Happen Here, performed by the Federal Theater Project, one of the New Deal’s progressive jobs programs. The Nobel prize winner Sinclair … Continue reading

November 22, 2016 · 2 Comments

Children of the Original Wobblies

Connecticut produced plenty of courageous members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Some of their children and grandchildren are still around, and they have good memories. As Utah Philips said, a long memory is a dangerous weapon…

August 20, 2016 · Leave a comment

With Black Lives at Stake, Words Matter

  Quiet down, class.  It’s time to review some definitions.  This time, let’s focus on current events: “Black Lives Matter.”  Here’s a phrase that has been incorrectly defined with increasing … Continue reading

July 28, 2016 · 2 Comments

Texas Millionaires Booted from a Company Town

Waterbury, Connecticut is a company town, but in 2013 union members and neighborhood activists won their two-year battle to change that. The “Brass City” is not the industrial fortress it … Continue reading

July 25, 2016 · Leave a comment

The Gilded Age: Sons of Hartford’s 1%

The boys at the Hartford Wheel Club had a great idea: they would organize a party and dress up like poor people! And so on January 20, 1893 the “Hard … Continue reading

July 2, 2016 · Leave a comment

We March with Jesse Jackson to Rebuild America

Hartford and Bridgeport have long been known as the poorest cities in the country, but there is another statistic that completes the poverty picture. At the state’s southern tip is … Continue reading

July 2, 2016 · 1 Comment

“Our Mission is Not Violence But Freedom”

On a warm summer day in 1955, fifteen domestic workers– maids, cooks and chauffeurs– packed into a small apartment in a Hartford public housing project. It was a Thursday, the … Continue reading

June 25, 2016 · 2 Comments

Theater for the 99%

On stage at Bridgeport’s Park Theater in the fall of 1944 stood “Republico, The Little Mechanical Man.” He was an empty-headed dummy that the stage barker described as “handy, dandy, … Continue reading

June 25, 2016 · Leave a comment

On Memorial Day, No Business as Usual

I took this photo with my Instamatic on October 15, 1969. I was in Hartford at the anti-war demonstration known as the Vietnam Moratorium. That day, 90,000 people at protests … Continue reading

June 4, 2016 · 2 Comments

Everyday Heroes Fight for Patient Care

  If it is true that the test of a society is how well it cares for its most vulnerable people, then Bridgeport’s health care workers can be proud of … Continue reading

June 4, 2016 · Leave a comment

“Something to Show for Our Work: The Unemployed Organize

Brainard Field may well be the country’s first municipal airport. Located in a former cow pasture in southeast Hartford, Brainard opened in 1921. The era’s greatest aviators– Amelia Earhart and … Continue reading

June 4, 2016 · Leave a comment

Steam Punk History: Low-Tech Storytelling in the Digital Age

Uncovering history is one thing; presenting it effectively is another. Even in the digital age, there are “low tech” methods that can be used to aid greater public understanding of important people, places and events.

May 7, 2016 · Leave a comment

The Rebel Girl on May Day

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn celebrated May Day with Connecticut textile workers on May 1, 1912. This little-known speech was a special moment, uniting the radical idealism of the Industrial Workers of the … Continue reading

April 30, 2016 · Leave a comment

Fascism in Fashion

Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy during the 1920s and he is credited with developing modern- day fascism. For many people, the ideology did not carry a negative connotation … Continue reading

April 22, 2016 · 1 Comment

Speaking Under an Open Sky: Frederick Douglass in Hartford

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass had significant ties to Connecticut. He visited Hartford many times, spoke to appreciative crowds, and dined with elected officials. Douglass had his portrait taken by … Continue reading

April 22, 2016 · 2 Comments

Young Boot Blacks Struggle to Survive

A story circulated in Hartford toward the end of the 19th century about a young boot black who worked on a steamship. Perhaps he found the competition on dry land … Continue reading

February 27, 2016 · 1 Comment

The Teenager Who Saved the Amistad Capitves

James B. Covey was only fourteen years old when Josiah Gibbs found him working on the New York docks. Gibbs was one of the Connecticut abolitionists determined to free the … Continue reading

January 8, 2016 · Leave a comment

Puerto Rico, Our Experiment in Colonialism

Puerto Rico is in a severe economic crisis, and Connecticut shares some of the responsibility. After all, we made the island what it is today: a colony. Not a colony in … Continue reading

January 8, 2016 · 1 Comment

Refugee Crisis, Then and Now

The good people of Connecticut are terrified that society will be overrun by the dangerous, ignorant foreigners and their strange religion. Politicians fan the flames of prejudice to increase their … Continue reading

November 28, 2015 · Leave a comment

Hartford’s City Mother

The small plaque in the south corner of the State Capitol identifies the names of early 20th century Connecticut women who campaigned for the right to vote. One of those … Continue reading

November 13, 2015 · 1 Comment

Deeds, Not Words: Emmeline Pankhurst Speaks to Hartford

The British campaign to win the vote for women was led in large measure by Emmeline Pankhurst. She spoke to a Hartford audience in 1913 (see below). Her presentation is … Continue reading

November 8, 2015 · Leave a comment

Original Wobbly

I met the daughter of Pierce T. Wetter in August. Pierce was an original Wobbly. He was arrested in 1917 in a nationwide roundup of more than one hundred IWW … Continue reading

November 7, 2015 · 1 Comment

Beatrice Longman Breaks the Mold

Connecticut has no shortage of war memorials and statues featuring prominent business and political leaders. The celebration of the state’s ordinary working people, however, is almost nowhere to be found. … Continue reading

September 29, 2015 · 1 Comment

Remembering Butch Lewis

One friend of Butch’s called him the Pastor of Hartford’s North End. “A pastor is a shepherd, and everyone came to Butch with their problems.” With other Vietnam vets Butch started the Black Panther Party in Hartford. He never became a politician, never used his reputation for fame.

September 29, 2015 · Leave a comment

Kalos Society: Early Gay Liberation

Hartford’s first gay liberation group decided that ‘coming out’ meant direct action and if necessary, confrontation with the police. On September 3, 1971, eleven Kalos Society members were arrested while … Continue reading

September 16, 2015 · Leave a comment

Community Survival: Black Panther Programs

On May 1, 1969, Hartford’s Chamber of Commerce flanked Mayor Ann Uccello as she held up a broom on the city hall steps. This photo op for the press was … Continue reading

September 15, 2015 · Leave a comment

Another Look at the “Negro Governors”

Were the ceremonial “Negro Elections” a harmless practice, or way to diminish Connecticut’s complicity in slavery?

August 16, 2015 · Leave a comment

Rock and Roll vs. Racism

In 1955, the most racially integrated public space in Connecticut might have been the rock & roll concerts at Hartford’s State Theater. Despite the widespread discrimination against African Americans in … Continue reading

August 12, 2015 · 1 Comment

“The People are Indestructible:” UE General Strike in Hartford

Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool Company President Charles W. Deeds addressed several hundred embattled scabs and supervisors in the company cafeteria. He told them of his plans to put the … Continue reading

July 6, 2015 · Leave a comment

Class Struggle Comics: Winning a Strike!

On the 5th anniversary of their strike victory, District 1199 nursing home workers from Spectrum Healthcare explain what it took to win..

July 4, 2015 · 1 Comment

High School Students Teach Elders About the Free Press

Marcus Manselle was a Weaver High senior from Hartford who published the student newspaper The People’s Press. He was first to report that faculty and students began a picketing campaign … Continue reading

May 6, 2015 · Leave a comment

Carl Sandburg, People’s Poet

At one time, nationally-acclaimed poet Carl Sandburg was so popular in Connecticut that even his goats made the news. After his death in 1967, some of Sandburg’s herd was sold … Continue reading

April 17, 2015 · Leave a comment

Selma, Not So Far Away

Father Leonard Tartaglia was sometimes called Hartford’s “Hoodlum Priest.” Like the 1961 film of the same name, Tartaglia ministered to the city’s poor and disenfranchised. He challenged institutional racism wherever … Continue reading

March 13, 2015 · Leave a comment

The Woman in Red

If she hadn’t worn her red dress to the picket line, Amelia Sabich might have lived a normal, quiet life. But then, she would never have inspired thousands of workers–including … Continue reading

March 10, 2015 · Leave a comment

The Language of the Unheard

“No Danger of Race Riots in Hartford, Police Officials Say.” It was August 4, 1919. Hartford’s African American ministers feared that the white mob violence raging through dozens of U. … Continue reading

March 3, 2015 · Leave a comment

Yanquis or Yankees?

Are we yanquis or yankees? In my small state of Connecticut (pop. 3.5 million), we have been both. From the Dutch word janke, the English translation was popularized by Mark Twain … Continue reading

January 5, 2015 · Leave a comment

Confronting Police Violence, from Ferguson to Hartford

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots…I must say that a riot is the language of the unheard.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., … Continue reading

November 26, 2014 · 2 Comments

Bonus Veterans: An Army Without Guns

It was a warm Sunday night in Hartford on August 7, 1932. Several dozen men and women–exhausted, dirty, hungry– trudged into the city after a hard trip from Washington DC. … Continue reading

November 19, 2014 · Leave a comment

We Irish Are A Working Race

The angry Irish laborers marched from Hartford to East Hartford across the covered bridge that spanned the Connecticut River.  They converged at the  home of their boss. As a contractor … Continue reading

November 15, 2014 · 1 Comment

Jail Sit-Down Strike: Prison Rights Are Human Rights

Instead of returning to their cells for the night, 145 inmates at Hartford’s Seyms Street jail have organized a nonviolent sit down strike. They’re fed up with the poor treatment … Continue reading

November 11, 2014 · Leave a comment

Puerto Rican Youth Liberate Their Space

Just after dark, a dozen young Puerto Ricans approach 21 Kennedy Street, an abandoned building near Keney Tower. Within minutes they are inside, establishing the space as a liberated area … Continue reading

October 23, 2014 · Leave a comment

Breaking the UPS Race Barrier

One by one the young protestors approach the United Parcel Service (UPS) parking lot on Locust Street. It is May, 14, 1965. In unison, they sit down at the lot’s … Continue reading

October 22, 2014 · 2 Comments

Labor History, Family Histories

My grandmother Nellie Grace arrived in Boston from Ireland in 1909. On the ship manifest she was described as a domestic servant. Many people’s relations have come from similarly humble … Continue reading

September 15, 2014 · Leave a comment

Gay Pride, Straight Prejudice

Nancy Buckwalter and Tony Norris expected 150 people to show up at the Old State House for their event. Instead, over 300 lesbian, gay and transgender activists spent a hot … Continue reading

July 2, 2014 · 2 Comments

Mark Twain: Nation Building at the Point of a Gatling Gun

June 19th marks a significant incident in Connecticut history. Yet no one celebrates it. (No, I don’t mean Juneteenth, which is the African American community’s commemoration of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.) … Continue reading

June 19, 2014 · 1 Comment

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