I’ve had the pleasure of attending, designing and leading several tours of alternative Hartford history over the years. The best source of this kind of wonderful info is Steve Thornton. His day job is with SEIU 1199, but by night he’s an amateur (only in that he doesn’t get paid) progressive/radical/labor historian of Hartford. Steve’s website, Hartford Homefront, features current activism, but also his Shoeleather History of Hartford. On June 21, Steve led a tour of the Charter Oak Avenue area of Hartford as a benefit for the CT Center for a New Economy, and while the distance was small, the amount of amazing history he uncovered was tremendous. What follows are some of the highlights:
It began at Charter Oak Cultural Center. After a short talk about Charter Oak’s history, we traveled east down Charter Oak Avenue. Steve of course mentioned the legend of the Charter Oak, but also uncovered a lesser known gem. Where the monument stands is actually Hartford’s smallest park. On Google Maps, Charter Oak Tree Memorial Park mistakenly occupies the much larger space of Betances playground. The monument is positioned at the west-most corner of the thin triangular park. Most of the park is on a fairly steep hill which runs adjacent to Charter Oak Place.
We eventually came to Betances School. Steve talked about the origins of its name. Betances was a Puerto Rican revolutionary and doctor from the 19th century. Over the doorway to the school is a fantastic embossed image of Betances breaking the chain of Spanish rule. Further down the road, Steve talked about the Polish influences of that neighborhood, in particular surrounding the church and the Polish National Home, which actually hosted plays from the Federal Theater Project in the 1930s. The one Steve mentioned in particular was Waiting for Lefty. Also performed in Hartford during that period, though elsewhere, was a theatrical adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. Lewis actually lived in Hartford for a time during the 30s. Popieluszko Court right off Charter Oak was named for a Polish priest who advocated for the Polish Solidarity movement while serving in Hartford. He was outspoken for labor and for peace and was ultimately assassinated.
Other highlights included the “Capewell Girls” strike – one of the first all women’s unions in the area. The Capewell Horse Nail Company factory is a huge building that has been supposedly slated for renovation for some time. Steve mentioned that it recently was boarded up “properly” which some say is a sign of progress. Capewell was also the site of the first “sit-down” strike, where workers struck at their work stations to prevent scabs from coming in. The factory building also has a neat, nearly hidden cornerstone with the company initials on it.
Also, and this was surprising (though perhaps this was a catalyst for what has become a thriving LGBT community in Hartford), Hartford was the first town in CT to pass an ordinance respecting the rights of gay and lesbian people, in 1979. Hartford was home to a homeless people’s union in the 1930s (and again in the 1980s) which actually won some significant gains. The 1930 incarnation actually had branches for different parts of the city, a women’s branch, an Italian branch, and boasted 2000 members. Hartford had a professional major league baseball team, the Dark Blues, which featured some future Hall of Famers, including Candy Cummings – a pitcher who is credited with inventing the curve ball. Dark Blues captain Bill Ferguson had the nickname “Death to Flying Things” because of his prowess in the outfield. Their field was on the grounds of what is now the Church of the Good Shepherd. The old parish house of Good Shepherd now houses the LGBT congregation, Metropolitan Community Church, one of several such open churches in Hartford.