Refugees in New Haven learn about history of slavery in US
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Growing up in Bogalusa, La., Charles Warner remembers segregation and the terror of the Ku Klux Klan.
He remembers the day his father’s arm was mangled in an industrial accident in a paper mill when someone turned on a piece of machinery as a group of black workers were cleaning it. Warner remembers that black workers always had the most dangerous jobs in this one-company town.
Warner, the former longtime director of instruction for the New Haven school system, proudly talked about the Deacons for Defense and Justice, Bogalusa-area men who would climb into trees with guns and rifles to protect their families when a warning went out about the Klan. They provided armed security to civil rights activists and their families, including Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to the area.
In the roundtable discussion at the Dixwell Congregational Church United Church of Christ, Warner said three civil rights workers who were registering people to vote in the 1960s were killed 20 miles from his grandmother’s house.
Warner and other members of the church, the oldest African-American Congregational church in the world, came together to share their memories with five young women refugees who recently started new lives in America under the auspices of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services.
Having studied the Civil War, Jim Crow and the long violent aftermath leading up to the civil rights era and beyond, the five came together for an intergenerational talk with people who experienced segregation firsthand, mainly in the South, or whose parents did.
It was part of their preparation for a weeklong pilgrimage to cities and towns in the South where major civil rights events unfolded. Since August, they have been meeting weekly, focusing on civil rights with speakers brought in to discuss African-American history, as well as training on non-violence.
The five, who will travel with two chaperones from IRIS and three other adults, left by bus on Saturday and are scheduled to return next Saturday on a trip funded by donations.
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It was arranged by the two IRIS staff members, Laurel McCormack, case manager coordinator, and Ashly Makar, community liaison .
Given their own personal situations and desire to learn, McCormack said the self-selected group of five, who are part of IRIS’s youth leadership program, are open to new experiences.
“They have insight that few people have,” McCormack said.
Gladys Mwilelo, 20, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thanked participants for sharing their stories.
“I tried to put myself in their shoes,” said Mwilelo, a student at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
Learning the history of discrimination in America, Mwilelo, like the other young women, said she was shocked.
“It was hard for me to take in,” she said. It was something no one spoke about before she got to America.
“I read a lot about the Civil War. Now I understand more. It is just powerful when people come together and share,” Mwilelo said.
She thanked them for “putting a light in my life explaining how I can change things.”
Having left the fighting in the Congo, she said her family, which included nine children, spent nearly 13 years in Burundi until they could get visas to the United States.
Mwilelo said it was hard leaving everything behind, first in the Congo and then Burundi, and starting all over again. She said she empathizes with the trauma of people in America experiencing discrimination.
Noor Roomi, 18, from Iraq, said her family fled to Syria to escape the violence in her native country, but returned when the fighting in Syria intensified. Roomi said discrimination is along religious, rather than racial lines in Iraq.
Like her other friends, she was surprised by the African-America story, but said she is pleased to take advantage of the opportunities in America. A graduate of Hillhouse High School, she plans to attend Gateway Community College to study nursing.
The Rev. Frederick J. Streets, pastor since 2011, told the guests the history of Dixwell Congregational and its involvement in social justice issues.
Founded in 1820 by 24 former slaves and Simeon Joceyln, they left the Center Church for their own their own worship space after the parishioners relegated the black members to the balcony.
Dixwell Congregational helped fugitive slaves and emancipated slaves, was a station on the Underground Railroad and assisted with the defense of the captives on the Amistad.
It was Streets who filled in the gaps in the new Americans understanding of the 246 years of slavery in United States and the millions of people affected.
“Two-hundred years ago, people were being bought and sold at Long Wharf,” he said of the pier at New Haven Harbor.
He told them slaves were not considered fully human, that during Reconstruction, all the gains after the Civil War were lost; in the early 20th century, hangings were used to frighten the black population.
In one of the museums, he warned, they would see pictures of men and women hanging from trees as white people nearby picnicked.
Streets, before he became the pastor at Dixwell, was chaplain of Yale University from 1992 to 2007 and continues to teach at its divinity school.
Jean Bowen, another church leader, told the young students that when she went to Grambling State University in Louisiana , its president had to give the leaders of the adjacent town, a day’s notice if black students wanted to come there to shop.
When the students objected, he told them he lost his dignity in the process, but it helped him provide amenities and good food at the college from the white merchants.
Bowen, 83, who was head of the New Haven Child Development Centers, talked about her father, who returned from World War II as a master sergeant , but like many African Americans found roadblocks to registering to vote.
Bowen said it took 15 days to get registered as the clerk just kept telling him to come back later.
“They demeaned him in front of his wife and children,” she said, but he persevered because of the importance of voting.
Jan Parker, the daughter of former Connecticut Treasurer Henry (Hank) Parker, and Jan Parker, also a political leader, reminded the students to alwaysvote, as it will affect every aspect of their lives. She told them to get involved in politics to help improve the human condition.
Carroll E. Brown, president and founder of the West Haven Black Coalition and a member of Dixwell Congregational, was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but grew up in Seattle, Wash., before moving to West Haven in 1962.
Brown said West Haven is the most racist town she has ever lived in. “It is like living in Mississippi,” Brown said.
She said her Seattle neighborhood was completely integrated. Brown said people in West Haven need to speak up and recognize what racism is.
Leslie Ohta, whose church in Glastonbury helped settle a refugee family working through IRIS, said she is part of many social justice organizations and wondered why the majority of participants are white.
Streets said healing for those who are victims of racism comes with the support of family and churches.
“Some are still trying to heal, but they hold back. It is difficult for people to share,” he said.
Streets said Andrew Young, Martin Luther King Jr’s right-hand man, still cries when the conversation turns to the civil rights hero.
Jill Snyder said after her family moved to West Haven in the late 1960s, someone spray-painted a racial epithet on their house. She said her father did not take it off as a way to show the kind of people who lived in that neighborhood. She said eventually, someone came in the middle of the night and removed it.
Snyder said she remembered one other thing, this time involving a high school counselor . When she went to pick up material on colleges, she was told not to bother as her family could not afford to send her. She told the counselor her family would make that decision.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t still doing it,” said Snyder, who went to UConn and later earned a master’s degree.
Divine Mahoundi, of the Republic of the Congo, who is a senior at Hillhouse, said what divides people in her country is politics and for her family, that made it dangerous for them to stay.
Aline Mbaga, 18, who came here from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just graduated from Hilhouse. She said they left on one week’s notice because it was so dangerous. Mbaga said she shocked to discover America’s racial problems. “I was told it was the land of the free,” she said.
The other students are Asia Mongolare and Dayana al Mashhadani.
Despite the seriousness of their inquiries, McCormack said she expects they will have fun. “They are generous with us and generous with each other. You can’t help but fun.”
But Warner, whose experiences covered one of the most dangerous chapters in this troubled history, was not optimistic about the immediate future.
“I think we are going backwards,” he said.