Editor, The Cheshire Herald:
The article dated June 27 —“Blast from the Past” column — is certainly a timely article considering the events going on today stemming from the tragic death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
The front-page article in the June 11, 1970 edition of The Herald referred to a group of local teenagers and their visit to the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, accompanied by the First Congregational Church’s youth pastor, Richard Sherlock. Well, I was one of those teenagers and I can attest that this was a day I will never forget.
It was a day that I can honestly say changed my life forever. Prior to this day I had probably met as many people of color that I could count on one hand. Cheshire was a much smaller town in those days and there were but a few families of African American descent, living among Cheshire’s nearly all-white community. New Haven at that time was in the national spotlight for the murder of Black Panther Alex Rackley a little over a year earlier. Nine members of the Black Panther party were arrested after an FBI raid on their headquarters on Orchard Street in the Hill.
The jury process was in progress for their trials around the time of our visit. None of us knew what to expect, living in a secluded town and a far more secluded world than we live in today. It was common to hear people refer to neighborhoods like “The Hill” as war zones, battle grounds, etc. as well as referring to the people that lived there with names I will not repeat. Many of our parents were quite concerned for our safety.
But a funny thing happened that day. Everyone we met were friendly and nice. We walked freely throughout the Hill. We stopped to talk to random people we had met. No one tried to rob us. Our experience was quite the opposite. We were all very enlightened and were anxious to share our experience.
Shortly after our outing, I gave a short speech at a Sunday service at the First Congregational Church, of which my family were members. I had spoken about our findings and my firsthand impressions of our day. While most of the parishioners congratulated me on a good speech, some others openly displayed their ignorance.
“Don’t want them living next to me” was one of the comments I recall. Well that was another revelation that effected my young life as to just how much racism was inbred in people. People I knew and had respected. I had no idea. I think my rose-tinted glasses broke.
Today, I drop my wife off at Yale, to her job, in the morning and drive through the Hill to my place of employment in West Haven. Every now and again I still hear someone say, “Wow, you are brave to go through that neighborhood.” So, I tell them what I see: People walking the dog, bringing the recycling out to the curb, going to work, waiting for the school bus. … I am so grateful for what I experienced that day in 1970. The simple act of meeting and talking to people made me realize that we are not so different from one another.