2019-11-16 16:29:34 UTC
Former Hartford Mayor Carrie Saxon Perry, the first African American woman to lead a Northeast city, dies
By Rebecca Lurye
Hartford Courant |
Nov 08, 2019 | 11:02 AM
Former Hartford Mayor Carrie Saxon Perry, a social worker, civil rights leader and community organizer who rose to become the first African American woman elected to lead a major Northeastern city, died last year at the age of 87.
Her death went unreported and largely unnoticed for reasons that remain unclear. According to a death certificate on file at Waterbury City Hall, she suffered a heart attack and died at Waterbury Hospital on Nov. 22, 2018.
"As the saying goes, she was as comfortable in the boardroom as she was comfortable on the streets with the people,'' said John Brittain, a former neighbor and one of the lead lawyers in the Sheff vs. O’Neill school desegregation case. Brittain said he thought she was still alive — until he heard rumors of Perry’s passing last week.
“She brought a much more open and transparent government. She was a much more enthusiastic leader,” said Brittain, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia.
Over three terms as mayor of Hartford — when the job carried significant influence but before the city adopted a strong mayor form of government — Perry built on the civil rights bedrock of her predecessor, Mayor Thirman Milner. She advocated for national measures that would spur investment and ease the ache of deeply impoverished cities like Hartford, and ushered in a new era for LGBT issues. After serving as mayor, she later became president of the Greater Hartford Branch of the NAACP.
‘"We grew up in the civil rights movement,'’ said Milner, who had only recently of Perry’s passing. “I am very upset. It’s heartbreaking."
“She meant a whole lot to Hartford, especially to the young ladies in the city.”
When Perry raised her right hand to be sworn in on a December evening in 1987, it was a singular moment in city history that immediately pushed Hartford into the national spotlight.
“Corporate and community together, the grassroots and the newcomers, the homeless and affluent. We are all irrevocably tied together. Our destinies are intertwined. We survive together, or we perish together," Perry said.
The 56-year-old grandmother of four and former social worker had already organized tenants in Hartford, spent years as the head of a city group home, and served four terms as a state representative to Hartford’s northwest neighborhoods.
“The cornerstones of my administration were equity and justice, a redistribution of resources,” a 62-year-old Perry said in her concession speech after Mike Peters defeated her in 1993. “We have absolutely nothing for which we should be ashamed."
Born in Hartford on Aug. 30, 1931 to Mabel Lee “Tissie,” Saxon, Perry was raised in the city and educated in Hartford Public Schools.
She graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C. and later studied law there for two years. After college, she returned to Hartford where she worked for several anti-poverty and housing organizations and the state welfare department, directed neighborhood services for the Greater Hartford Community Renewal Team and sat on the boards of Planned Parenthood and Upward Bound. She ultimately found herself head of the Amistad House community home for girls, where a blend of self-described “laziness and busyness" drove her to wear hats every day — a tradition that became her trademark.
Perry made a first failed bid for the General Assembly in 1976, and then ran again in 1980 on a platform of tax and welfare reform, improving public education, and protecting of social programs for the poor. The longtime social worker bristled at the idea that disadvantaged young people should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps."
“I’m not for giving anybody anything, but I am for equalization and for giving people some kind of compensation so that they can compete," she reasoned. "Let’s face it, racism is still rampant.”
Perry burst into tears when she learned she had the blessing of the Democratic Party over her perennial political rival, I. Charles Mathews. With no opposition in the general election, she knew she was about to become the only black woman in the House.
Perry went on to serve as assistant majority leader and chair of the bonding subcommittee during her four terms as state representative.
In 1987, she made the leap to city politics, winning election as Hartford mayor.
She was inaugurated just two days after she and Mayor Thirman Milner attended the funeral of the first black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington. The experience gave her new perspective on the decision she’d made to run, and the responsibility before her.
“Surrounding me and the mayor were the glorious wealth of men and women of color who had made that agonizing, wondrous decision to commit themselves to the struggle for liberation, equality, and empowerment through public service," she told the crowd at her swearing in.
Perry inherited a city beginning to struggle economically and where gang and drug violence were steadily taking hold on their way to the epidemic levels of the early 1990s. She rose to national prominence as she argued for progressive measures like encouraging banks to lend in historically redlined neighborhoods — such as Hartford’s North End — and decriminalizing drugs.
"She was just contagious,'' said Elizabeth Horton Sheff, a member of the city council under Perry. "I remember her as the mayor who went out in the middle of the night and early morning to try to convince homeless people to go to warming shelters.''
“She came to me when she was building her coalition. I was not interested,'' Horton Sheff said. "The last thing I wanted to do was be a politician. Madam Mayor convinced me to get into politics. She brought me into the fray of Hartford politics.”
As a guest on one national news program in 1989, Perry told how Hartford was “in the eye of the hurricane” of the drug epidemic, a scourge that played a role in 80 percent of crimes committed in the city. Her stance drew sharp criticism from many in the city, but it raised Hartford’s national profile and gave her a greater platform to speak on broad issues like unemployment, racial profiling and police violence.
Perry was once the honorary chairwoman of a national telethon for black college students. She joined delegations of mayors to lobby Congress for urban aid, and traveled with others to Israel and the Soviet Union. When she was running for reelection in 1991, the Rev. Jesse Jackson stumped for her at Stowe Village.
In the spring of 1992, when the acquittal of four white Los Angeles policemen in the violent beating of Rodney King sparked riots and violent clashes across the country, Perry would be credited with helping keep Hartford calm. Addressing a crowd gathered on the steps of the state Supreme Court, she admonished downtown business people who’d evacuated their offices and shops when they saw 300 Weaver High School students protesting peacefully through the streets.
“(The students) marched into the city of Hartford while others marched out,” she told the crowd that night.
“She was way ahead of her time," recalled James Thompson, superintendent of schools in Bloomfield. Thompson, knew Perry as a college student when she helped him get a summer job and later, when he was a school principal in Hartford. He pointed out that Perry pushed for decriminalization of marijuana and gay rights.
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Perry formed the city’s first Mayor’s Commission on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Issues, worked on policy alongside a growing coalition of LGBT activists and organizers, and danced alongside them by night at city gay bars. Her administration also started work on a policy prohibiting discrimination in Hartford schools on the basis of sexual orientation, five years before Connecticut state law would do the same.
She also pushed for economic and structural reforms, including universal health insurance and city charter revision, recalled those who worked with her.
By the time she was voted out of office in 1993, Hartford — then led by a city manager and council rather than the mayor — was spiraling downward, frustrations with city government were growing, and Perry’s political moment had passed. Peters, a retired firefighter, won overwhelmingly.
“True to form, Mayor Perry lived on her own terms and wanted to leave us on her terms,'' said state Treasurer Shawn Wooden, who worked for Perry in city hall. "She did not want fanfare or to be the focus. I learned of her passing this past weekend and I’m deeply saddened.”
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After leaving office, Perry remained a voice of the black community in Hartford, becoming president of the Greater Hartford Branch of the NAACP in 2002. She led the chapter in pushing for better education and business opportunities for minorities, along with national issues of racial profiling, police shootings and unemployment.
She never gave up her trademark style, amassing a collection of more than 25 formal hats and several informal ones, like the floppy white gardener’s bonnet she wore to accept one of her mayoral primary wins.
They sat heavy on her 5-foot-2 frame — 5-foot-5 with the hat. They belied her relaxed nature and as mayor, her occasional attempts to blend into the background of neighborhood meetings just to listen.
It was likely that openness, the way she moved easily between community member and leader, that inspired the hundreds of letters that flooded Perry’s office each week. Between the typical complaints were countless pleas for help, for canned food, blankets, toiletries and money — plus a few marriage proposals to the divorced grandmother.
Perry worked such long hours at city hall that she once found herself locked inside at 10 p.m., after city security workers had gone home. She called police to rescue her and laughed herself to tears, telling them, “Jeez, I can’t get away from this place!”
Rick Hornung, a former aide, said she was happier in the neighborhoods, especially when she was driving the Lincoln Town Car the city provided mayors at that time.
“She loved driving that big, big car all around the city, and everybody stopped her whether they liked her or didn’t like her, agreed with her or didn’t agree with her,” Hornung said. “You could’t go a block with her driving without getting stopped two or three times. And she always stopped."
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at ***@courant.com.