A Personal Realization

Print More

Mea Culpa. It’s a long story.

Growing up in New Haven, I attended public schools in a largely white neighborhood and had no Black friends. My family, I came to feel, lacked bias, and I recall that once, when the subject came up, Dad, who worked for the New Haven Railroad, commented that colored people were good people. He said “The ones I’ve known were porters in Pullman cars — competent, responsible, trustworthy men.”

In the Navy near the end of WWII, I was always surrounded by no one but white folks. (The US armed services welcomed Black recruits, but in totally segregated units. Gradual desegregation came much later.) When I was transferred by rail to another training base in 1945, I changed trains in Washington, D. C., and was astonished to see a sign that read “COLORED” over a drinking fountain. The “WHITE” fountain was nearby. That was my first taste of overt Jim Crow.

But some years later, when Hamilton Standard sent me to manage a propeller flight test at Lockheed, near Atlanta, it was no surprise that the friendly banter among the pilots and crew was laced with their natural racism. I took it as a fact of life without sharing the attitude.

And in 1960, when I bought a home in Suffield and the agent explained the “right of first refusal” in the deed, he said that if one of my new neighbors in the development were planning to sell, the clause gave the developer the right to take over the sale at the price being offered. He said that would protect the neighborhood from “those people,” explaining that he meant Blacks or Jews. Happily, such clauses are illegal now, but at the time, I accepted his explanation as the way things were, without complaint. (Many years later I attended my first Bar Mitzvah, for a Scout in the troop I helped lead who lived a few doors down the street in the same development.)

It pleased me when my young daughter told me about a guest speaker in one of her school classes, describing things like his age and attitude but never mentioning that he was Black, a fact that I happened to learn later.

But Samatar Wehelie, SHS 2018 and now a bright, articulate UConn student, told the crowd at the Black Lives Matter rally in Suffield on June 17 about how he, a Black-Middle Eastern mix, had been mistreated in the Suffield school system. And Liz Warren spoke of the racist abuse her twin boys had suffered in Suffield’s primary school. Principal speaker Keren Prescott of PowerUp Manchester told how her daughter, a member of the Manchester High School basketball team, had come here for a game at Suffield High and received vile treatment, including being called the n-word. Others spoke of similar treatment, and since then there have been more reports of personal experience with Suffield racism.

Another speaker at the rally, State Senator Gary Whitfield, is the chief deputy majority leader of the Senate. He was strong in his advice that we must not only avoid racism in ourselves; we must not allow it in our homes; we must speak up when others make racist comments; we, individually, must fight for racial justice.

So, Mea Culpa. I feel that my acceptance of “that’s the way it is” has been very wrong. In my declining years, I probably won’t have much effect, but I hope to communicate the need for more action to others.

In just the last few days, First Selectman Melissa Mack issued her plan for fighting racism in Suffield. Then Kristina Hallett, Amy Hawkins, and Liz Warren, the three organizers of ABAR Suffield (Anti-Bias, Anti-Racism), made a strong, detailed plea to the Board of Selectmen on July 15 demanding action even beyond Mack’s plan. One can hope that the re-invigoration of Black Lives Matter brought about by the recent spate of police racial brutality in many states (though clearly not in Suffield) will have its effect here in the reduction of personal racist behavior. Let’s all work toward that.

Lester Smith,
Town Historian

Comments are closed.