When students walked through the doors at the old Winchester Community School, they were welcomed by teachers who knew them — their strengths, their challenges, and their aspirations — Barbara Tinney recalled, telling her old neighborhood’s story the way her neighbors would remember it.
She remembered how one teacher committed herself to ensuring every student’s proficiency in reading before the end of the academic year.
“Proficient!” she stressed.
She reminisced about daily sojourns to grab lunch back home and afternoons spent in dance, musical, and athletic after-school activities alongside her peers. At Winchester (now closed, its successor merged into the Wexler-Grant School), children were “an end unto themselves,” Tinney explained.
“You don’t hear about the laughter of children in the backyard of Winchester School,” Tinney worried. “We don’t control our narrative. Our narrative is being written by others who don’t see the strength that still resides in our community.”
On Sunday evening, Tinney, who today runs New Haven’s Family Alliance, and others who hail from Dixwell told the story themselves, on the first of a series of neighborhood walking tours and panels scheduled for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, which opened this weekend. A&I tours of Wooster Square and Downtown will follow, base don new books and web tour prepared by the Ethnic Heritage Center. (Read more about the Dixwell tour and the larger project here.)
Though the U.S. Supreme Court ordered schools to racially desegregate in 1954, Tinney stipulated that more than 90 percent of Winchester’s student body was African-American back then — arguing that the Winchester was “still a segregated school” even in the post-segregation era.
In her youthful naivete, Tinney assumed that all New Haven schools mirrored Winchester’s predominantly African-American leadership. Now, looking back, she guessed that Winchester employed more than half of all African American teachers in the city. She could recall only one Caucasian educator, a third-grade teacher.
She underscored the fact that Winchester defied the terms now used to label the experience of African American children in New Haven: “disadvantaged” and “traumatized.”
Jaqueline Bracey, another panelist Sunday, emphasized that history must serve as a learning experience and criticized the neglect of African American heritage in schools.
“Other people tell our history. I grew up very secure in a happy home. We knew that we were rich in love and community,” said Bracey, who echoed Tinney’s sentiments about misrepresentations of the experiences of black youth in New Haven. “I think that everyone has to tell their own story.”
Bracey, a Winchester graduate who introduced herself as “a Dixwell girl,” emphasized that the Dixwell Community or “Q” House,served as a home for the neighborhood’s children, providing a legacy of leaders and role models for African American youth. The community center often served as a familial hub, as it offered seminars for parents in addition to its youth programs before it closed in 2003. (New Haven is in the process of building a new Q House.)
Bracey described this neighborhood community as “simply another member of the family.”
After the conclusion of the first panel, the thirty attendees filed into the impending drizzle out of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Masons, which was formerly Goffe Street Special School for Colored Children, New Haven’s first school for African American children.
In a huddle of neon umbrellas, Rhoda Sachs Zahler Samuel, the tour’s coordinator, reminded the group that Dixwell “was not solely an African American neighborhood.” In addition to Irish policemen, the area hosted a vibrant Jewish community, including a synagogue and multiple Jewish business owners, earlier in its history.
Edward Cherry, Connecticut’s first licensed African American architect and a panelist who led the tour, pointed at various modernist buildings where demolished community centers and neighborhood businesses had once stood before the urban renewal process.
Though Cherry acknowledged that the regeneration of the neighborhood’s design was, in many ways, “an asset” to the city, it also took community spaces and business that could have been saved.
Cherry raved about Bazooka’s, an ice cream shop with ridiculous banana splits that he frequented in his childhood.
“That’s part of New Haven that’s no longer here,” Cherry said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“This is all very sad!” one attendee exclaimed.
“Oh yeah,” Cherry soberly replied.
During the tour, a few groups of teenagers were gathered along Dixwell Avenue, the district’s major retail street. In a silent moment, the teenagers matched the tour group’s gazes with looks of perplexity. Neither group acknowledged the other, and the tour moved on.
The tour group filed into the basement of the Varick African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, New Haven’s first black congregation, for the second panel. A floor above the attendees’ heads, Booker T. Washington had made his final public speech in 1915 a month before his death.
Deaconess Geraldine Poole recalled a lookout in a nearby building where runaway slaves hid at a checkpoint along the Underground Railroad.
Helen Ogundipe, another panelist, lauded the legacy of Hannah Gray, an African-American seamstress and laundrywoman, who left her fortune to the establishment of a retirement community for impoverished African American women Now, the 20-bed complex supports men and women of all colors.
The home was forced to close in 1996 due to financial woes Then the Rev. Anthony J. Davis of the Varick African Methodist Episcopal Church raised enough money to allows the residence, which has historically doubled as a hub of community philanthropy, to reopen in 2010.
As she inquired about the current relationship between the Hannah Gray Home and the Dixwell community, Bracey recalled holidays where she and other children brought cheer to elders at the residence, a pillar experience of her youth. As a supervisor at the Q house, she often brought “youngsters” to serve the house’s residents.
After the event, attendees reflected on how the neighborhood has changed. Willy Collier, a trustee at the Varick AME Church, described how the neighborhood has quieted over time. He questioned whether the replacement of the old Elm Haven public-housing high-rises into the low-rise Monterey Place development.
Both Bracey and Tinney grew up in those towers, or “projects,” as they referred to them, in a rejection of the mainstream term.
“Now they call them ‘complexes,’” Tinney bemoaned, which drew a few chuckles from the audience.