(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2002
By Wm. Frank Mitchell
Stories of Connecticut enriched my youth. As a child in Cleveland, I spent sick days at my grandmother’s. The days had a similar rhythm, and some act would always trigger a story that involved her nine siblings, the family she and her husband created, and Hartford — a city she claimed had been the beginning of everything. It was hard to tell whether the sentiment was based on the power of place or of people, but either way those stories made Hartford a subject for my future study. Connecticut was always too far away for a quick bike ride — I mapped most distances by bike trips then — and Hartford’s a Never-Never Land. Other kids longed to visit Disneyworld, King’s Mountain, the Grand Canyon, or Colonial Williamsburg; I wanted to go to Hartford, the city I knew from family stories.
In these stories the capital had a deep, enchanting history rich with baseball stars, local theater groups, renowned musicians, impassioned community leaders, fiery preachers, steadfast deacons, and a continuously evolving employment structure that miraculously financed the inner life of the African-American community. On our family visits I tried to confirm the details by assiduously pursuing other versions of familiar stories from anyone with memories. Usually this brought new rounds of stories with frequently overlapping details and the same hopelessly enchanted spirit. My frustration in this search was the primary test of narrative that theorist Hayden White describes as the problem of translating knowing into telling.
These characters, in their semi-related parables, sages, and allegories, could teach a greater lesson. Despite their personally reflective nature, the stories had the resonance of history, but everything I knew about history — from my elementary school texts — suggested it required national issues and actors in pageants that resolved to assure our compliance in the Pledge of Allegiance.
My family’s stories shared moral lessons, carried common themes, and had messages that regularly reappeared regardless of which family member was doing the telling. They affirmed an “everyday people” notion of an ordered society and offered a glimpse into ways of surviving in a world that was, for African America, often quite disorderly.
Nearly everyone I asked had a story about someone’s meeting with a major elected official, usually the governor, and each of these stories had folktale overtones. The meetings generally brought some benefit to the community. And in one case, family story, state history, and folk myth merged to produce a genuine moment.
The case was that of Hartford native Betty Powers. In 1946, she was the president of the student senate at Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, a Black college established to aid former slaves during Reconstruction. Bennett’s president, Dr. David Dallas Jones, had his own connection to Connecticut. Raymond E. Baldwin, a friend from his undergraduate alma mater, Wesleyan University, had been elected Connecticut’s governor. Baldwin, distantly related to Amistad trial lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin, had shown sensitivity to racial issues in his professional as well as his personal life; soon after a meeting with the Rev. John C. Jackson of Hartford’s Union Baptist Church, the governor had proposed the Connecticut Inter-racial Commission, one of the first state civil rights organizations in the country.
Dr. Jones invited Governor Baldwin to address the community at Bennett’s annual Founder’s Day program on November 8, 1946. Baldwin reported on the Commission’s three successful years of advocacy in the areas of employment, housing, and quality of life for Connecticut’s African-American residents. He also championed the new opportunities for young women in a post-war nation. Baldwin assured the Bennett audience, “Never has there been a greater opportunity than now for the talents and abilities of women. During the last war, women showed their versatility in many fields, heretofore, closed to them.”
Inevitably, the event ended with publicity obligations, and the Sunday, November 17, Hartford Daily Courant ran a photo of Baldwin greeting Powers, with his military aide, Major General Kenneth F. Cramer, in the background. A short caption identified the student and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred H. Powers. The headline announced “Governor Greets College Girl.”
In this picture the elements converge: the personal story meets the state icon in a folkloric episode. But nothing truly fits. How does this episode make sense in the marginally shared world that Black and white Americans inhabited?
Dr. Jones’ prominence in middle-class Black networks made Bennett a popular higher-education choice in post-World War II Connecticut. And though other young women from Connecticut besides Powers attended Bennett, the college remains a surprising venue and its Founder’s Day ceremonies and odd occasion for the governor’s participation.
The Bennett College event, one of the few documented appearances Baldwin made before an African-American audience, should indicate more than serendipity. A contemporary pundit would expect the politician to deliver a race-based position paper, offer gratuity to campaign donors, or conduct other state business, but for this governor, the Bennett visit was apparently a simple opportunity to salute an old friend. Evaluation of the visit’s wider significance then is properly assigned not to pundits or academic historians, but to Betty Powers, her friends, her family, and others who saw the picture and disseminated the story.
In their study, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen interpret data on the place of history in Americans’ daily lives. In conversations with African-American respondents, Rosenzweig and Thelen found that the most popular historical narrative was one in which group struggle — through the sacrifice of everyday people — triumphed over white supremacist oppression. They were surprised by many of the optimistic readings, the broad acceptance of the idea that time plus struggle equals progress, and the willingness to see evidence of that progress in the tumult of the 1960s. While it is difficult to claim this vision as uniquely African American, it is possible to agree that many people would share that the trajectory of African American history reinforces these views. For a time Powers’s friends and family did talk about the Baldwin meeting as a symbol of personal achievement, political importance, and, finally, communal good. It fit a narrative pattern by which community history was shaped and shared.
This event and others like it may never qualify as political history, but they are the basis of solid public history. They form the intersection of personal stories, public accounts, and documentary evidence and have the potential to engage, educate, and entertain a wide audience because, as stories, they conform to familiar narrative types.
These days I live close enough to ride my bike to Hartford, which means that while I see my old Never-Never Land frequently, it has different realities. The kinds of stories have not changed, but the numbers have grown. Everyone I meet has a picture, a medal, a letter, or voter registration card that affirms historical agency. Everyone is a historian — and many were activists, too. These personal narratives embody a compelling urgency from an audience of everyday people who wish to see these stories represented meaningfully. Every family drama will not be portrayed as a unique moment in history, but the answer to the “knowing and telling” puzzle is in recognizing and accepting patterns and resonances that make culturally specific idioms translatable between audiences. The culture-coded formats and stories can be great guides to representative, popular, and appreciated history projects. I now have a more traditional Never-Never Land, but I still expect to see as many representations of these stories as the local museums, historical societies, and other institutions can handle. That fits my narrative.
Wm. Frank Mitchell was curator of The Amistad Center for Art & Culture.