This year marks the third anniversary of New Haven activist Theresa Carr‘s death. The following was submitted by community member and former Spinsters Opposed to Nuclear Genocide (SONG) member Joan Cavanagh, a friend of Carr.
On Saturday, May 20, the City of New Haven and the friends and neighbors of Theresa I. Carr dedicated a white oak tree and plaque at Jocelyn Square Park (Humphrey, East, Walnut and Wallace Streets) in memory of this life-long activist for economic, social, political, and environmental justice.
A self-described “Marxist-Leninist lesbian feminist,” Carr passed away of metastatic breast cancer in 2014 at age 59. Her last words, spoken to a friend at her bedside two days before she died, were “Keep doing our work,” and are inscribed on the plaque.
At the ceremony, Alder Aaron Greenberg read a citation passed unanimously by the New Haven Board of Alders, “dedicating this white oak tree in honor of Theresa Carr’s strength, humor, clarity of mind and creativity that were a great gift to all who worked with her to plan and carry out nonviolent actions [which] not only called for peace and justice, but brought our own government to account for its disastrous and inhumane policies at home and abroad…She defended the rights of all beings [and] left fingerprints of grace on the lives of those that knew her.”
Carmen Mendez, neighborhood specialist with the Livable City Initiative, remembered Theresa’s spirit of cooperation and positive attitude in working with the city. She recalled that they first met when Carmen, who then worked for the Department of Public Works, distributed flyers about neighborhood clean-ups. Theresa was the first person to respond, and she spearheaded and continued to work on the project at Jocelyn Square Park “year after year after year. She was tireless.” Unlike those who complained about city inaction, she “always asked, ‘what can I do? How can I be of service? Do you need anything, Carmen?’”
Mendez spoke of the appropriateness of the white oak tree as a memorial: “This is a little tree now, but it will be a mighty tree. It will be tall and broad and it will shade a lot of people. I think of Theresa’s spirit as a very big, broad, and wonderful spirit… She touched us all and left us with a legacy.”
Nesta Allen, who now owns and lives in the house on Walnut Street with his family which Carr owned until her death, introduced his two young sons, Nesta and Shiloh, who will be the official tree-waterers. (The tree must be watered once a week for three years while it establishes its roots.) Although he never met Theresa, Allen said it was obvious that she was a “special woman, not only by what everyone has said, but from the vibration that you feel being somewhere that she used to reside.” He added “I am happy that my children have the privilege of watering the tree.”
Friends of Carr’s from all walks of her life, beginning with her days at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she founded a “Liberation Corridor” in the dorm where she lived, shared memories of their lives and work with her. Alessandra Nichols, who was Carr’s primary caregiver in her last year of life, introduced the event by reading an early Theresa Carr poem sent by Preston MacAndrews, Carr’s brother, the day before the dedication ceremony:
If I must be buried
Bury me not in the cemetery
Waste not the land of the earth so.
Bury me in the forests
Beneath a tree
And maketh it the six feet deep
But buy not a headstone for my grave
With your hands and love
Carveth upon a rock my name
And place it at my head
And when grass has grown over
The soil where ‘twas riled
Children mayhap will play above me
And if to their horror they find the stone
Write upon it so they will know,
That they have nothing to fear
During her years in New Haven, Theresa Carr worked with many groups including the New Haven Committee Against Repression, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Spinsters Opposed to Nuclear Genocide (SONG), the Women’s Pentagon Action and the Coalition to Stop Trident. Their resistance strategies often included arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience. She also served on the board of the New Haven Women’s Liberation Center and worked in her trade as a union carpenter.
Known for her creativity, with other members of SONG, she once painted a blank billboard in full daylight at the State Street exit off I-91 with the iconic image of a woman kicking a neutron bomb. During a trial of SONG members for actions against U.S. military intervention and funding of repressive regimes in Central America, the marble (male) justices on the steps of the courthouse on Elm Street mysteriously one morning wore purple headbands.
In 1981, Carr and her partner bought and rehabilitated a house on Walnut Street, which faces Jocelyn Square Park. Later, with Gerrie Adams and other neighbors, she spearheaded the renovation of the deteriorated city park and was awarded a certificate of appreciation by Friends of Jocelyn Square Park.
Theresa Carr traveled extensively and worked in many other communities. In Florida, she completed a master naturalist program, cared for stranded whales, and became an active member of the Key West Tara Mandala Buddhist Sangha community.
Her ashes have been scattered in many areas of the world, but some of them were brought home on Saturday and will help to nurture the soil at the base of the tree.