Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
The National Archives released 1,582 pages on the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Hartford on March 6, 2014. Many pages are missing, of course, and many names have been redacted, especially those of about 45 confidential informants who operated from 1969 to 1972 on behalf of the Bureau in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Middletown and several college campuses. Frequently these snitches reported on private meetings of both the Panthers and other groups allied with them, including the Communist Party, the Blackstone Rangers and the Young Patriots. This article summarizes some (but certainly not all) educational and community work performed by the Hartford BPP. For while the Feds gobbled up the Panthers’ incendiary rhetoric, and both sides were obsessed with guns, Hartford’s black community supported the Panthers for their deeds, not their words.
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This project had the most immediate impact on poor kids. Panthers served up hot meals for 30 – 150 kids each morning before school. Butch Lewis remembers that every request for space from local black churches was denied. It was St. Michael’s. Roman Catholic Church on Clark Street that responded. Father Leonard Tartaglia, affectionately known as “the hoodlum priest” (after a movie of the same name) was an outspoken advocate for the city’s poor and working people. Butch and other Panthers would occasionally need to ”borrow” Fr. Tartaglia’s van for errands or to transport members. ”Father always acted surprised when he would find his van full of gas the next morning,” Butch recalls.
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Like the breakfast outreach, the Panthers mounted a program to distribute second-hand clothes in the community. Both these programs served Puerto Rican residents as well as black folks.
COMMUNITY ACTION VICTORY
One simple community organizing campaign caused FBI panic from Hartford to Washington DC. In 1968, Hartford officials promised the public housing tenants of Charter Oak Terrace that the overflowing Park River would be fixed. The river had caused the drowning deaths of several children over the years. By 1969 the tenants were still waiting. This time they picketed on Flatbush Avenue– in the middle of the street– with the help of the Black Panthers. The Hartford Police eventually broke up the nonviolent direct action but the parents promised they would be back.
Within a day the Charter Oak neighbors met with Governor John Dempsey who ordered an immediate repair of the weak bridge structure. Soon after, the river’s water level was lowered to its normal level of a few inches. It was a complete victory.
What none of the participants knew until the FBI files were released in 2014 was that the FBI was spying on the parents and sending “Urgent” teletype memos directly to J.Edgar Hoover. Because of the Panthers’ involvement, the Feds feared “Possible Racial Violence” as a result of this peaceful protest.
POLITICAL EDUCATION and OUTREACH
The Panthers originally relied on Mao’s Little Red Book for teaching members and residents. They eventually moved away from it and used the Black Panther weekly newspaper as a teaching tool instead. The Panthers offered “Community Discussion Groups” at private homes and frequently spoke to students at University of Hartford, Trinity College and Weaver High School.
The Hartford Panthers and their ally the Blackstone Nation sold hundreds of copies of The Black Panther each week, on the streets and on college and high school campuses. Like most alternative newspapers of the day, it provided news that the mainstream media would not cover. Statewide, as many as 4,000 papers were sold every week, despite frequent police harassment and arrests.
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For more than 100 years Hartford people struggled to use public spaces for public purposes. Young Panthers were harassed and arrested constantly by the Hartford police. Charges were always dropped or nolled. The young vendors kept coming back moved ranches out to downtown, where they pointed out that the underground “Hartford’s Other Voice” was sold without police interference.
Immediately after the 1969 summer disturbances, the Panthers sponsored a neighborhood meeting to let residents speak out about police violence. The forum was co-sponsored with the Urban Religious Coalition. Original footage is available at the Hartford Public Library, thanks to Butch Lewis’s personal collection.
It is clear from the FBI files and the local press that in 1969 the Panthers were patrolling the streets and discouraging neighborhood youth from escalating the violence. Despite false public pronouncements and informant stories that the BPP was inciting violence, the riots were sparked by fearful, unprepared cops who overreacted. The Hartford Panthers also played a key support role when Weaver High Scool students walked out in May, 1969 and again on April 29, 1970 after some faculty interfered with the showing of a Black Panther film.
NEXT: CONCLUSIONS WE CAN DRAW FROM THE SECRET FBI FILES