Lessons from the past must inform racial balance debate

FI-Letter-to-the-EditorTo the Editor

In his interview for Greenwich Library’s Oral History Project entitled “Reflections on Being Black in Greenwich,” Alver W. Napper retells the story of Crispus Attucks, the young black sailor who found himself unknowingly at the crossroads of history.

Attucks was shot and killed in a volley of British gunfire, along with four other colonists; the Boston Massacre, as the shooting came to be known, would become a rallying cry for Independence and a celebrated part of American history. “…[T]he fact that a black man was one of the first to shed his blood for the independence movement is very significant to us,” Napper tells the interviewer.

But there is another reason why Napper shares the story. Attucks was buried in Granary Burying Ground in the same grave as the other victims. Out of the bloodshed of the Boston Massacre came a moment of unity; the men who had died for their cause were memorialized as heroes regardless of their skin color.

The Crispus Attucks Community Center, which Napper served as president from the years 1943-1955, began as a recreation center for the town’s African-American population. “I take it that there were no integrated recreational facilities at that point, were there?” the interviewer asks Napper. “No,” Napper replies, “I think that was a time in the history of this country when integration was sort of a bad word, especially in the town of Greenwich, which is really a servant-master town.”

Napper was speaking in 1973, long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Napper tells story after story of a town comfortable with division. On his first day in Greenwich in 1938, he was denied a room at the YMCA, the man at the front desk telling him, “There’s [a] colored minister who lives three blocks that way.”

There were those restaurants that you simply didn’t go to. “You could go in,” Napper says, “and they’d just ignore you.” He also remembers hearing rumors of secret Klan meetings in Bruce Park and recalls an incident where a cross was burned on Arch Street to warn a black family that they weren’t welcome there.

Then there are the stories that show just how much racist beliefs colored perception. During his time as president of Crispus Attucks, Napper had to go to schools in the area and ask guidance counselors to stop telling black students that they couldn’t go to college.

Another time, when Napper was going over the budget with a member of the Community Chest, he was asked what the point was of allocating $150 to bring in guest speakers. “We are trying to teach our people good citizenship, good housekeeping, education, and so forth,” Napper replies. The man tells him, “I think you’re going to make these people much happier if you give them more chicken dinners and more dances and less of the speaking stuff.” All Napper could say was, “Yes, sir.”

Looking back from 2014, Napper’s stories seem distant, something to read about in history books; the old cars, tweed suits, handlebar mustaches—people who seem as far removed from ourselves as characters in a Civil War epic. Yet this distance can also give us perspective on the way posterity will view the town in another 40 years.

Greenwich has found itself embroiled in a dispute with the state over the racial imbalance of its elementary schools. Anyone who has attended a Board of Education meeting this past year can tell you the passion and ire this issue—along with the resulting discussion of the achievement gap—has raised among town residents. This is as it should be. The changes proposed will have profound effects on Greenwich Public Schools, and as such, should be debated at length.

But buried in stories like Napper’s is a cautionary tale. When asked whether discrimination in Greenwich was an economic or racial issue, Napper remembers the controversy over building the first public housing development in Greenwich. “I recall in connection with the early days, there was some consideration being given for public housing in Greenwich, and of course, that was very, very strongly opposed, because people said…if you bring in public housing, why that means you’re going to have more poor people, and more blacks, and that’s going to change the character of the town.”

At the subsequent public hearing, the opposition dominated the meeting; the few people in favor of the measure were “shouted down,” according to Napper’s account.

The town eventually abandoned the proposal, though the same debate would resurface over the building of Armstrong Court. Recent Board meetings have had a similar quality; the opposition focused on achieving their aims, rather than addressing the underlying issues. Worries over changing the “character of the town” have resurfaced as fears of changing the town’s neighborhoods and schools.

America was founded on the notion that the many interests of such a diverse country would somehow work in tandem, a chord reverberating as a musical whole, not simply a collection of notes cancelling out each other. While Madison famously defended the Constitution as a safeguard against the “tyranny of the majority,” there remains a danger of a well-organized opposition—not simply to policy, but to the very expression of ideas that may offer a solution that has yet to be foreseen.

The Crispus Attucks Center was closed and moved to Community Centers, Inc.’s (CCI) central location in 1986, though it lost its status as an independent organization when it was placed under CCI’s umbrella in 1955. At the time of the merger, Napper saw it as town politics: a good organization stripped of its power at the hands of a well-organized opposition.

The Crispus Attucks Center later becomes, in Napper’s words, “a sort of subdued, paternalistic organization that’s overseen by people who can guarantee that the black people are going to be headed in the direction that these whites determine, and are going to receive the kind of program they fashion for them.” What began as an organization focused on liberating the black community from the chains of a “servant-master” town becomes a tool for the majority, a victim of its own mission to challenge the status quo.

Of course you could argue that the organization had served its purpose, and there was no longer a need for a recreation center focused on the needs of the black community. But perhaps the lesson here is how important it is to allow the smaller voices to be heard, the ones we shout down because they bear a message we don’t want to hear. Perhaps then we can find a solution that serves the town as a whole, and not only those who can yell the loudest.

As towns like Greenwich unearth their history, they may find stories similar to that of the Crispus Attucks Center. As long as these stories remain buried, far from the exigencies of the everyday—debates about homework and AP classes—we will continue chasing our tails, a vicious circle that offers no way to meet the demands of the future.

Only when we turn our attention to the past can we move forward—maybe then the real Crispus Attucks can rest peacefully in his grave, content with the knowledge that the rev olution he played a part in starting is finally complete.

Mike Belanger

The author is a teacher at Greenwich High School. It represents his own views and not the school district’s.

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