Steve Harris climbed the steps to the upper lobby of Hartford Stage. This was a night off for the cast and crew of Detroit ‘67, a theater production set during the civil unrest of late 1960s Detroit.
But Harris, a 71-year-old retired fire captain in Hartford, came to see the photo exhibit inspired by the play. It brought him back to those turbulent times.
“Hartford was….” Harris began to say. He paused. “Whew. … You know, we went from being kind of a calm, just working-class city — to a city that went crazy.”
Detroit, of course, wasn’t the only American city rocked by ‘60s riots. So as a history lesson and community initiative, the Hartford Stage curated a collection of newspaper photographs comparing the unrest in the Motor City to the upheaval in Hartford. The black-and-white images include archival photos from the Hartford History Center at Hartford Public Library.
Harris saw the white officers in riot gear, targeting African Americans. He peered at another photograph from five decades ago and identified community leaders he knew personally. When Harris came across the pictures of destroyed businesses, he mourned the shops in his neighborhood that caught fire or were looted, never to return.
“You know where Barbour Street is, right? There were two supermarkets, two bakeries… a clothing store,” Harris said. “It was a street of commerce. … The only thing left that came back was package stores.”
Harris has lived in Hartford his whole life, except for the few years he spent in the military. He joined in 1966, and sensed the tension in the air during a visit home before he got shipped off to Vietnam.
“You could feel it coming,” Harris said. The Black Power Movement was gaining momentum, and the Black Panther Party opened up a chapter on Barbour Street in Hartford’s North End, pushing for self-defense against police brutality.
“They talked about how we were being brutalized by the police, and we were … by some,” Harris said. As a young black man at the time, he put it this way: “If you got caught out of your place, you know, bad things happened to you in Hartford.”
When riots broke out in ‘67 in cities like Detroit and Hartford, Harris was in the Army. He didn’t recall hearing much about those confrontations. Back then, he was just trying to stay alive in Vietnam.
Harris came home from the war in 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis just three weeks earlier. Harris, who served in the infantry, got word in the trenches. Now Harris’s family was picking him up from Bradley International Airport, not quite a half-hour drive from Hartford.
“My mother looks at me and she says, ‘I want you to brace for something,’” Harris said. “‘There’s some things that have happened.’”
They headed down I-91. Soon, they approached one of the first exits to get into Hartford.
“And I looked out the window and I saw three state troopers,” Harris recounted. They had on gas masks and carried shotguns.
Past the exit, further down the highway, Harris could see smoke rising from the city. He didn’t know his neighborhood had already been damaged in 1967. But after King was killed, parts of Hartford burned to the ground. Peaceful demonstrations were overshadowed by looting and destruction.
Harris remembers feeling like he had traded one war zone for another.
“I could smell the tear gas and I saw people running, just running, back and forth across the street as we went passed,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to come home to a city I didn’t recognize anymore.”
Hartford’s Main Street was blocked by police in riot gear, Harris recalled. He thinks the only reason his family got through the barricade that day — to get to their home on Cleveland Avenue in north Hartford — was because he was in his Army uniform. Harris noticed something else, too.
“Well, first of all, my family was the first black family on Cleveland Avenue — for a long time,” Harris said. “So most of my neighbors — well, all of my neighbors — were white. They were either Italians, Irish, Jewish. And everybody just got along. But once I got over the initial shock of having to run this gauntlet to get home, the one thing I noticed was ... where are all the white people at?”
His white neighbors had fled, seemingly overnight, Harris said. North Hartford had become intensely segregated. It’s still like this more than 50 years later.
“Even as a young kid,” Harris continued, “I had an understanding about other cultures growing up in north Hartford. That’s gone. The only other folks in north Hartford besides us is Latinos.”
And the “street of commerce” that Harris remembered? It’s now part of a federally-designated Promise Zone for economically depressed areas.
“What troubles me is that we have a whole generation of young people growing up and all they’ve ever seen is this,” Harris said of the post-riot aftermath. “They’ve never seen Hartford — north Hartford — when it was prosperous.”
Yan Chen, an artistic assistant at Hartford Stage who helped curate the photo exhibit, listened as Harris shared his experience. She said reactions to the photographs have been visceral.
“I’ve heard audience members recounting their own personal memories, looking at these pictures, and saying how much has changed — or has it changed?” Chen said.
After the run of Detroit ‘67 at Hartford Stage, the exhibit will make its way through the city. Bridget Quinn-Carey, Hartford Public Library’s chief executive officer, said the exhibit will travel to all of the city’s library branches.
As a “son of the city,” Harris said he tells his grandsons what Hartford has been through.
“You should never forget what could drive folks to this,” said Harris, gesturing to the black-and-white photographs that captured a boiling point in society. “But we shouldn’t be punished for it for the rest of our lives, either.”