Telling Local People’s History
Andy Piascik Interviews Hartford Activist Steve Thornton
Steve Thornton has been an activist in Hartford since moving there in the 1970s after graduating from the University of Connecticut. He worked for many years for the Hartford-based health care workers union, New England District 1199, and has been involved in many organizations and campaigns in the city over the last 40 years. He also has a keen interest in local people’s history, and some years ago started a website, to popularize that history. Shoeleatherhistory- project.com is a real jewel of Hartford’s people history, with stories ranging from one-time resident Mark Twain to local sit-down strikes and the work of the city’s chapter of the Black Panther Party. Thornton also writes local history for the website of the Bridgeport Public Library and connecticuthistory.org as well as local publications and websites. He is a past contributor to Z and author of A Shoeleather History of the Wobblies.
PIASCIK: How did you first get started writing about the people’s history of Hartford?
THORNTON: Well, I rejected American history when I was in high school in the late 1960s because I was questioning everything I was being taught: respect for authority, patriotism, the infallibility of elected leaders. To me, history was the tale of old white men who were given credit for all that was supposed to be great about the United States.
Then I read Herbert Aptheker’s History of the American Revolution. It was a revelation I had no idea there was another side of the story. It really fascinated me that there was a completely different way to look at the forces that actually shape history. The ordinary people who do extraordinary things. That book became an entirely new education for me, on many levels. I could see the world with new eyes, so to speak.
It helped me understand the Vietnam War, civil rights, anti-colonial struggles, almost everything. I say almost because what I was discovering was thin on women’s history and the gay liberation movement, both of which were on the verge of coming into their own. I don’t think you can be a true activist or organizer without this alternative view of the world, and I’m so thankful for it.
What kinds of sources do you tap for the stories you write?
After Aptheker, I was reading Labor’s Untold Story by Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais. There was just one simple sentence about my city, Hartford. It referred to Palmer Raid prisoners in 1919 being kept in punishment cells they called “hot boxes.” That was like finding gold. For the first time, I made the connection that the big moments in radical history didn’t just take place elsewhere, in the big cities, it was also right here on the ground I was standing on.
From there, I started with a formula. If something big had taken place around the country, or in the world, I would look to see what was happening at the same time locally. So it started with newspaper searches at the library.
For instance, when The Birth of a Nation—the original 1915 film—was being shown in New York, I figured that it was shown in Hartford a short time later. Controversy followed the movie everywhere, Hartford included. I learned the names of the black preachers and the respected African American leaders who asked the mayor to ban it. From there I could learn more about the power structure of the city at the time, and more about the African American neighborhoods.
Then I went to the old city directory, which listed the streets and everyone’s residence, all the local businesses and the local trade unions. This showed me where in town these folks lived and who lived near them.
Next I might go to some scholarly works, books, and articles, about early cinema, or early race relations, to give my story some context. I watched the whole movie on YouTube, for instance. Disgusting, but important. In some cases I traveled to other Connecticut towns to find their newspapers or books. Sometimes my search led to the Tamiment Library at NYU or the Schomburg Center in Harlem.
As I am researching all of this, other items pop up. They become subjects for new stories. With Birth of a Nation, I began to track the growth of the Ku Klux Klan in Connecticut and then the Anti-Lynching Crusaders, which was an NAACP creation and had a local chapter.
I have also realized that I have to talk to people for their stories while they are still with us. I have done this with Wobblies, long-time feminists, Puerto Rican elder activists, and especially with local Black Panther Party members.
You certainly have unearthed a lot of Hartford history that many people who live there probably don’t know about. Would you say that a great deal of people’s history is waiting to be discovered?
Yes, and there are so many stories that are being lost to time. You can only save a portion of it, but every fragment helps. Every big event or movement in U.S. history is connected to a similar local story, no matter how tenuous that thread is. I think you have to love reading hours of microfilm to really dig deep.
Once the history is uncovered, and interpreted, then the question is, how can I get more people to learn it too? That’s why I set up my original website. I also speak at meetings, rallies, and various events where I have some relevant information.
Also, I write op-ed pieces. I don’t have anything profound to say about topical issues, but history does. So when Donald Trump starts sounding like a fascist, I ask myself, where else have I heard this nonsense? Well, the newspapers and politicians of 100 years ago were just as vile when it came to the Irish and other immigrant communities. Locally, in the 1930s, people were buying into Americanized fascist rhetoric. Then I’ll put that together to show there are similarities today and maybe lessons to be learned.
What are some of your favorite discoveries from Hartford history?
I’m working on the Easton family, African Americans who were free people back to the 1700s. Hosea was an early abolitionist who started a church in Hartford that was targeted by racists. His son Sampson was just an ordinary guy, but by scouring the papers I found out that he made banjos and had a number of jobs. He also did some pretty heroic things. When John Brown was executed in 1859, Sampson climbed to the top of the Hartford State House and draped the Lady Liberty statue in black cloth. Another Easton was a very famous stage performer and banjo player. He was virtually unknown here, but in Australia and other countries he was incredibly popular. All together, they were a very righteous, accomplished family. I have also been able to write about visits to the city by famous figures who spoke to hundreds, sometimes thousands of people: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Emma Goldman, Frederick Douglass, James Connolly, Emmaline Pankhurst, Eugene Debs, Carlo Tresca, and many more. The fact they were here, and what they had to say, is inspiring to me.
In addition to uncovering untold stories, you also puncture popular mythology.
Sometimes it’s not about discovering new stories but reinterpreting the history people think they know. This is tricky, since I have been a union organizer all my adult life and am not a historian or an academic. But if you believe that the “white man” theory of history is flawed, then it follows that the things we learned are also flawed. You have to dig deep, be honest, and lay out the facts in a credible way.
Samuel Colt the gunmaker is one case. He’s the best known figure from Hartford. His old factory is now a national historic park. He has a reputation as a great man, brilliant, and an innovative leader but, in fact, he was a horrible person. There is an entirely different narrative that can be pieced together, one I would argue is more accurate than the myth built around him. Colt sold guns to the Confederacy after the Civil War began. He fired workers who didn’t vote in elections the way he wanted them to. He was a bigamist whose kid was pawned off on his brother John. The brother committed murder and Colt defended him and probably gave John the knife he used to kill himself in prison before they could execute him. And on and on. This is someone to honor?
There’s a great deal of breadth in the subject matter of your website beyond the important history of the local labor movement and the black freedom struggle. Do you consciously include articles about art, culture, sports, and even Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, the insurance investigator with the action-packed expense account?
Hah. We are both Johnny Dollar fans from old-time radio. He was based in Hartford To answer your question, yes, I am finding that culture captures the political mood of people in different time periods, and it provides insight as to what their influences were.We may know the Federal Theater Project was a great, if short-lived, New Deal program. It’s easy enough to find out what was on Hartford stages back then, even though I don’t think there has been a book written about it. They performed a theater version of It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. They staged Orson Welles’ popular version of Othello with an all-black cast.
Since starting the website, you’ve expanded to doing Radical Hartford walking tours. What do they consist of?
The tours are a lot of work to pull together, and they also take some luck. I start with one or two events I have found. Then I determine a route, maybe 90 minutes long. I start learning about the history of an abandoned factory, an old school, a plaque on a church. Somehow it has worked. My last tour covered one or two connected Hartford streets. The stops include stories about Native Americans, Puerto Rican revolutionaries, a sit-down strike, and tenant organizing. Also a radical Catholic priest, Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty, and the work of a local Unemployed Council during the Great Depression. I include quotes from those involved in the original events. The participants in my tour read the quotes at each stop, which is fun and breaks the monotony of my voice. I’m about to introduce the old Viewmaster kid’s toy to add pictures and context to particular stops. You can make them by uploading photos to an on-line service. After all, the landscape changes and sometimes there is nothing of the incident left to point out. It’s all very low-tech.
What suggestions would you give someone who might like to start a website like yours dedicated to people’s history in a town or city where they live?
First, write a handful of stories that you can take the time to polish. You don’t have to be a professional writer, but you want the stories to catch the reader’s interest right at the top. Mine have been 300 to 1,500 words each. Shorter is better, I think. Then find a platform that is easy to use.
You will find the largest viewership is when you post your story around a holiday or other important date. There are unlikely sources that reveal significant information. I have used declassified FBI files to learn about their spying on the Black Panthers, on Malcolm X’s many visits to Hartford, and even Paul Robeson’s local concert after he was blacklisted. It is especially satisfying to be able to use this material against the same power structure that hides our history from us.
Andy Piascik writes for Z, Znet and many other publications and websites. His novel In Motion was published earlier this year.