50 Years Later, Pioneer’s Mug Shot Lands On Award
by Jacob Cohn | Jun 13, 2011 1:14 pm
Posted to: Black History
When someone showed Lula Mae White a mugshot Saturday night, tears came to her eyes. It was her own picture—taken 50 years ago.
“It’s my mug shot,” White told the audience. “I don’t know where they got it.
“They” were organizers of a tribute dinner to honor New Haven’s African-American role models.
The police in Mississippi originally took that mug shot—and threw White in jail—after she joined fellow “Freedom Riders,” students who went south to fight Jim Crow laws during the civil rights era, in a protest aimed at desegregating a bus station waiting room.
The organizers of Saturday night’s tribute dinner put that mug shot on a plaque they gave to White. White, 72, received the George Sweeney Trailblazer Award, named for New Haven’s first black firefighter. The award was given by the New Haven Firebird Society, an organization of African-American firefighters.
Saturday’s Scholarship Fund and Honorary Awards Dinner at Cascade Fine Catering in Hamden, cosponsored by the Firebirds and the New Haven Guardians, an organization of African-American police officers, featured the presentation of scholarships to ten promising local high school students. Besides the scholarships, several awards were presented to members of the community who had served it exceptionally.
White received perhaps the loudest applause of the night. Several speakers referred to her courageous acts. The keynote speaker, Judge Robin L. Wilson, said that White “has blazed the trail for many future generations.”
“She risked her life during the height of segregation for social justice and gave her life to that cause,” Wilson said.
A graduate of Hillhouse High School in New Haven, White decided to join the fight against segregation in 1961, while a student at the University of Chicago, after seeing footage of the firebombing of a bus in the South. After traveling by bus to Jackson, White took a seat in a bus station waiting room designated as “whites only.” She was arrested and charged with breach of peace, and spent July and August of 1961 at the infamous Parchman State Penitentiary in Mississippi.
After leaving school White became a teacher herself and taught for 28 years in New Haven schools. She has remained active as a labor organizer and was jailed again for striking during New Haven teachers union negotiations in 1975.
“When you commit to these things, you lose time with your family, you make a lot of enemies,” said Lt. Gary Tinney, president of the New Haven Firebird Society. Tinney said he met White through the New Haven People’s Center and was surprised to meet a Freedom Rider in the New Haven community.
“There’s so much history that we miss because we’re not aware of it,” Tinney said.
In an interview, White said that African-Americans have made “some progress” since her trip to Mississippi, “but not as much as I’d like to see.” She added that the black community, and the United States as a whole, faces chronic economic and social problems that are “not as visible as white/colored signs” and harder to fix.
“It’s not race that divides us. It’s money,” White said.
White said she hopes that the students receiving scholarships will be inspired to “become active in their communities.” After accepting the award White addressed the students directly, imploring them to “never forget where you came from.” White also praised the election of an African American president, which she said she thought she would “never live to see.”
Tinney said he felt that what White and her fellow Freedom Riders did was important not only because of their courage and willingness to sacrifice, but also because the movement brought together people of all races and backgrounds in the fight for justice.
“It was a group of diverse people from all over the country who said ‘Enough’s enough,’” Tinney said.
Bea Dozier-Taylor also expressed her belief that White’s story will inspire young people. Dozier-Taylor, a graphic designer and owner of the bookstore A Walk in Truth and BlackPrint, designed the program for the dinner. She said White’s story reflects the “struggles and challenges” that African Americans have faced and that it was important to take lessons from history.
“History always has relevance,” Dozier-Taylor said. “The question is, what relevance will we bring to it?”
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What a great story! Thank you for telling Ms. White’s story, and featuring the awards dinner. And thank you to the organizations which hosted the awards ceremony. I agree that Ms. White’s courage and commitment are an example for all of us. We cannot sit by and watch injustice happen, and watch wealth and power be consolidated by a few to the detriment of the rest of us. Thank you, Ms. White. You are an American hero!
posted by: Nakia Brown on June 13, 2011 6:17pm
Having been a student of Ms. White’s, she is truly an amazing lady. It is wonderful to see her recognized for her courage. Kudos to you Ms. White.
“received the George Sweeney Trailblazer Award, named for New Haven’s first black firefighter.” The award was given by the New Haven Firebird Society, an organization of African-American firefighters
This is NOT accurate info. James Curry was the FIRST African-American New Haven firefighter. His mother owned the Curry Candy Store on Dixwell Ave. near the Monterey Club. A very sucessful Afro-American owned and family operated business. She was not alone, the Nelson Hotel was Afro-American owned. It was located on Dixwell Ave. near corner of Charles St. As many other Afro-American owned business were located on Dixwell Ave at that time. It pains me to read that George Sweeney was the first. Mr. James Curry also owned of a lucrative package store on Whalley Ave. across from Dwight St. area. Another first, George Fitch was THE first police of color in West Haven. The New Haven Firebird Society did not do their home work.
I don’t know Lula White personally but appreciate learning more about her story and role in history.
The article refers to her years as a teacher in New Haven. During those years, Ms. White was a Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellow a number of times and developed curriculum units including the following: