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. S. cities could very well take place in their own town.

The ministers were reassured by police chief Garrett J. Farrell that “there was no likelihood of a dispute between white and colored residents.” Reports of a racial incident on Windsor street was probably “phoney” Farrell said, although in fact, the area was frequently the scene of disputes between police and black men at illegal gambling clubs.

Hartford’s black clergy used their pulpits to condemn wanton attacks on black communities in what became known as “Red Summer.” Even as their sermons were being heard, Chicago was in its sixth day of deadly rioting.

The violence had begun begun when Eugene Williams, a 17-year old black youth, was caught swimming outside of the “colored only” part of Lake Michigan. Williams was stoned by whites on the beach; he was knocked unconscious and drowned. The Chicago police refused to make any arrests.

Young black men around the city lashed out at the Jim Crow justice. White gangs and police answered with deadly fury. In all at least 50 people, overwhelmingly black, were killed. Another 500 were injured, and 1,000 black families lost their homes to arson.

For Hartford’s black leadership, the riots in Chicago and other northern cities were a premonition.The symptoms in Chicago were all present in their own neighborhoods: substandard opportunities, de facto segregation, and young people who were not willing to tolerate racist attutudes. It would only be a matter of time.


imageAlthough Connecticut saw no widespread violence that summer, local African American leaders and social service advocates were exposing intolerable and persistent living conditions that, some warned, were eventually bound to spark uprisings:

*Black families in Hartford lived in “the worst housing conditions in the country,” according to a 1908 New York tenement commission. A special Hartford mayoral housing investigation concurred, and provided specific solutions that were ignored;

*Pastor W.B. Reed of the Colored Men’s Civic League targeted racist exclusion from local labor unions as a major factor in keeping black workers in low-wage jobs. In 1918 he declared: “We are united to fight for a man’s place in the field of industry;”

*There was “practically universal prejudice” in Hartford aginst hiring black and foreign-born workers, according to the U.S. Employment Service. A federal spokesman pleaded with local employers in 1919 that these workers were “fairly good citizens” whose discontent would increase to the point that they would end up becoming Bolsheviks;

*Child mortality was reported to be an astonishing 180 per 1000 for black children, in contrast to 70/1000 for whites, according to a 1923 Yale Medical School health survey;

*Throughout the 1930s tuberculosis hit Connecticut’s black families the hardest. The TB death rates were 182/1000; white deaths were 35/1000;

*No black workers were employed at Pratt & Whitney, and only two found jobs in the region’s defense industry, according to a 1941 public health study. Not one black person was employed by five of Hartford’s top factories, according to a 1944 report. When black workers did find jobs in local companies, they were custodial.

Every new report or investigation, and every prescription for change, received lukewarm responses from local government and business leaders. Every decade, the problems got worse.


Mary Townsend Seymour (credit: Shoeleather History Project)

For the first half of the 20th century, Connectiut’s black communities concentrated on the steady work of improvement and reform. Those early civil rights pioneers fought entrenched attitudes and institutional bias in every aspect of their lives, with almost no help from local or state government:

-Mary Townsend Seymour organized black female tobacco workers with no labor laws to protect them and little labor support.

-Dr. P.H.C. Arms, a black physician, ran for mayor in 1906, but it took another 50 years for the first African American to win a city council seat.

-The Reverend Walter Gay, pastor of Union Baptist Church, told the Hartford Equal Rights Club that the campaign for women’s right to vote and the struggle for black civil rights were closely linked and should be taken up together, though only a few of the most radical women heeded his call.

-Ethel Thompson sued a Hartford hotel in 1945 when she and her family were denied a room, but lost because Judge Abraham Ribicoff ruled there was not enough proof.

-Mansfield Tilly and Warren Stewart, both skilled electricians and World War II veterans, had to fight building trade union opposition for five years until they were allowed to sign a union card.

These men and women, and many more, were often backed by black churches and relatively low-key civil rights groups. Even though their victories were small, they persevered.


Harlem Reneaissance poet Langston Hughes told the nation in 1951 that if the American Dream was deferred for black people, it could “dry up like a raisin in the sun.” Or, he warned, it could explode. The barriers to decent living were affecting the ever-increasing number of black people making their exodus from the south. Hartford’s black population had doubled from the time of the poet’s prediction, from 12,000 to 25,000 in the summer of 1965.

imageThat year a determined group of local leaders met with Hartford’s commission on human relations in one more attempt to demand urgent government action. The NAACP, the Catholic Inter-racial Council and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) once again laid out the problems facing the black community. A young group of upstarts, the North End Community Action Program (NECAP), was represented as well. Using the direct action techniques of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the south, NECAP had recently earned its place at the civil rights table.

At the March 11, 1965 meeting, the organizations reiterated to the city commission how there had been no progrress on Hartford’s segregated schools, poor housing code enforcement, or the pervasive job discrimination in both the public and private sectors. “Negroes are being deprived of basic rights,” said one leader.

There was a consensus among the groups that City Hall’s response to their concerns had been “a whitewash.” After three hours of repeating the demands that had been laid at the City’s doorstep, the community leaders left frustrated and angry.

“I hate to think of the demonstrations in Hartford which we’re going to have if we dont get some action,” said one member of the Catholic group.


A few months later, as Watts, Chicago and other cities were burning, 300 Hartford people gathered in a north end parking lot. On the warm August night, NECAP director Charles Turner told the crowd that the uprisings in these cities were triggered by the same conditions that Hartford’s poor faced. One sign in the crowd read “Turn Left or Be Shot.” It was an order that the National Guard had just given to protest marchers in Watts, were martial law had been declared and dozens of black people had been killed.

The NECAP-led crowd then marched down Main Street to City Hall. Thirty police officers had been bused in to meet them. As Turner and others attempted to bring a symbolic black coffin to the City Hall steps, they were blocked by a line of police. After trying to cross the line and sit on the steps, Charles Turner and eight other marchers were arrested.

Word traveled fast through the north end that night and soon a crowd gathered at the original rally site. The police blocked access to the area. A few bottles and rocks were thrown into the streets and 14 more people were arrested.

imageFor the next five years Connecticut cities braced for so-called “race riots.” Hartford’s events were the most widespread.

*On July 12, 1967, the arrest of a black teenager for allegedly swearing at a waitress triggered police brutality charges. Four nights of rock throwing, broken windows and arson ensued. One well-known black conservative blamed “engineers of violence” who were supposedly directing the street disturbances.

One of those “engineers” was 22-year old David Bradshaw, who was randomly scooped up by police and thrown in Seyms Street jail. Bradshaw had just come back from a southern voter registration drive. While at Seyms Street awaitng trial, he spent his time organizing inmates for a brief nonviolent strike to improve the filthy jail conditions.

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

–Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. March 1968

*On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He joined the list of martyrs like Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner; all nonviolent civil rights activists cut down by racist violence.

Those who stepped into the Hartford streets on subsequent nights were labelled a “mob.” A walkout by 400 Hartford Public High School students was probably the largest spontaneous reaction to King’s death, but it received only a fraction of the news coverage. A Weaver High march of 150 students down Albany Avenue reached Consitution Plaza, home of the Chamber of Commerce and the site of the displacement of hundreds of low-income families. Apparently, no news organization made the connection between the students’ anger and their highly symbolic target: earlier that year the Chamber recommended a $3.5 million cut in the Hartford school budget.

*The “Labor Day Riots” of 1969 began when a white motorcycle gang, disturbed that Puerto Rican families were moving into their turf, harassed local Hispanics. From the community’s perspective, the Hartford Police were doing nothing to stop the gang’s nightly raids, and in fact in some cases, brutalized protestors.

From June to August, police escalated their violent tactics in response to almost every “racial” situation. They began to carry shotguns, shooting at least two white bystanders by mistake. Police used tear gas and dogs to break up groups of young people. Some of the tear gas spread hrough nearby apartments. One police officer was injured by a gas cannister shot by a fellow cop during the confusion.

*On September 1st, the black and Puerto Rican communities rose up after 16 year old Dennis Jones was shot and killed by West Hartford police on August 29. Fifty people were injured in clashes with police; many stores were torched. By September 5th arrests had reached 500; the Haddam CT jail was used for the overflow.

imageEach police incident threw gasoline on the fire. Black and Puerto Rican youths, unemployed and angry, fought back. As local NAACP president Wilber G. Smith had warned the Chamber of Commerce, there were 3,000 businesses in Hartford that offered a mere 200 summer jobs to young people.

*From March to July, 1970, five black or Puerto Rican men were killed by Hartford police. None of them were part of a riot:

-Gary Hansley and William Casey were both shot and killed in separate instances after being stopped for alleged minor offenses (a purse snatch, a traffic violation).

-Abraham Rodriguez and Efraim Gonzalez were both unarmed when they were killed by police. Rodriguez was shot after a car chase. A coroner’s investigation found the police officer criminally negligent. Gonzalez was killed by a “stray” police shotgun blast while he was walking with his brother. An 11 year-old girl was struck by shotgun fire that entered through her apartment window. After an admittedly “incomplete” police investigation, no officer was ever identified as the shooter.

An ad-hoc group of 78 Hartford-area Catholic priests and nuns condemned the killings, demanding a return to “human life taking precedence over property rights.” Four decades later a similar demand would be chanted in Ferguson, Missouri– and on the streets of Hartford– after the 2014 fatal police shooting of 18 year-old Michael Brown: “Black Lives Matter.”


The white power structure in the city, and indeed the nation, never reached consensus on either the causes of, or the solutions to urban revolts. Nowhere was this more clear than the polar opposite positions taken by Thomas J. Dodd and Abraham A. Ribicoff, Connecticut’s two U.S. Senators– both Democrats–during the 1960s.

Senator Ribicoff believed that the cause of riots stemmed from “100 years of neglect” of the black community. Senator Dodd called riots “an incipient civil war” with whites as the target.

Abe Ribicoff said “Black Americans are now presenting the consequences to the nation” of that neglect. Tom Dodd insisted that riots were the work of “black extremists” who were controlled by Red China and Fidel Castro.

Ribicoff cited the $30 billion a year spent on the Vietnam War, which siphoned off money badly needed by the cities. Dodd declared the U.S. was “strong enough” to prosecute the war and run the country at the same time.

imageSen. Ribicoff pledged to submit $1 trillion in funding for a housing program and full employment. Sen. Dodd authored “riot control” legislation that would increase the penalty to 20 years in prison for agitators who crossed a state line to incite a riot.

The two men, much like the rest of the nation, could not have been further apart.

(An earlier version of this story was published in

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