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Resilience in the face of racism: Exhibition at Lyman Allyn in New London focuses on the extraordinary lives and impact of five local people

The title explains the exhibition's focus succinctly. "Stories of Resilience: Encountering Racism" at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum does, in fact, center on those things: the racism faced by African Americans and the resilience they have called upon to surmount the obstacles put in their way.

The stories are told by four extraordinary people who live in southeastern Connecticut now, as well an historic figure.

Donetta Hodge was a small child visiting her great aunt in Arkansas when the KKK set fire to the home. She saw the men outside the house but had no idea who they were and what was going on. She was quickly spirited away by relatives, as the building burned.

Hodge, born in 1948 Kansas, moved at age 5 to New London. She put herself through college, earning an MBA. She was recruited by Sonalysts, where she worked in auditing, financial accounting and administering the company's affirmative action program. She serves on the Sonalysts' Board of Directors. She continues to advocate for educational programs to break down racial bias.

Florence Clarke experienced racism growing up in 1940s South Carolina — among the instances, a white girl she had been friends with told her in kindergarten that they couldn't play together anymore because she was a N-word — and as an adult. For example, Clarke, who moved to Connecticut in 1968, noticed her white friends at a restaurant here were served with different dishes than she was.

Clarke became the first person in her neighborhood to go to college, graduating from South Carolina State University. She was active in the civil rights movement and recalls a protest where police turned fire hoses on the protesters.

Widowed at age 44, she worked at Electric Boat to support her daughters. She taught in southeastern Connecticut schools, too, and she studied theology and organized the Clarke Memorial Church in 1996 in memory of her husband, George R. Clarke, Jr.

Lonnie Braxton was born in 1948 and raised in Mississippi, the son of sharecroppers. Braxton eventually moved to Connecticut and, while working at Electric Boat, he pursued his bachelor of arts and law school degrees.

He became an attorney but still faced racism. Two times, a judge assumed he was the defendant in a case and not the lawyer. And he found a KKK card left in a bathroom at New London Superior Court.

Braxton is now senior assistant state's attorney in the Juvenile Court in Waterford.

Merle J. Smith became the first African American to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy, in 1966.

While he received a warm welcome from academy staff and most cadets, one cadet told Smith if they were going to integrate at the academy, they were going to start with the Confederate flag and do it "the old-fashioned way." Smith relayed the story to one of his football teammates. A group of football players confronted that cadet and stood up for Smith.

Smith became the first African-American sea service officer to receive the Bronze Star and went on to became general counsel for Electric Boat, one of the first black general counsels for a Fortune 500 company.

He is included in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

These are just small samplings of the histories of these four accomplished individuals that are collected in "Stories of Resilience: Encountering Racism." The show not only details their "determination, bravery and strength in the face of personal and systemic racism," but it also puts a spotlight on their impressive achievements.

It boasts photographs, artifacts and interviews that can be screened on a TV in the hall outside the gallery.

Also featured in the show is someone who has long since passed: Ichabod Pease, who was born in 1755 into slavery on Fishers Island before being emancipated. Later in life, he opened a school for "colored children" in New London.

A program bringing people together

"Stories of Resilience: Encountering Racism" was developed from the Strochlitz Holocaust Resource Center of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut's Encountering Differences program.

The Encountering Differences program connects students with African Americans in southeastern Connecticut as a way to educate young people and to combat hate in response to mounting racial tensions.

It's modeled after the Jewish Federation's Encountering Survivors program, which connects high school students with Holocaust survivors or children of Holocaust survivors.

Jerry Fischer, who retired last year as executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, says, "The beauty of the program for me is the personal interaction." With the exhibition, people won't have that, but, he says, "they're going to come away with stories that I hope will stay in their brains, and the objects will reinforce (those stories)."

Hope and perseverance

Braxton, Clarke, Hodge and Lynda Smith, Merle's wife, discussed their experiences in the video that runs as part of the exhibition, at a standing-room-only public lecture, and in interviews with The Day.

One of the subjects they touched on was the idea of resilience. Hodge says that being resilient "allows you to understand you're not going to let anybody define you." Her accomplishments have come through perseverance.

Braxton likewise says the secret is not to give up; determination, tenacity and grit are key. His parents instilled in his sister and him the understanding that failure can be a great gift; failure helps a person develop that necessary grit.

Clarke says, "I have to have hope — that's the only thing that's kept my going this far. ... Hope is in my DNA."

Merle Smith has Parkinson's and related dementia, which Lynda Smith says was a result of his being exposed to Agent Orange during his time in the Vietnam War. She thinks the greatest example of his resilience has been fighting the disease.

"When they went to Vietnam, they really didn't know or understand Agent Orange then, and now they do understand how devastating the effects of Agent Orange are. It's been a real challenge dealing with it, but in spite of it, Merle still exhibits a strong sense of character, grace, humility and perseverance," she says.

That all is in the context of his amazing career in the Coast Guard, which included being the first black Coast Guard officer to command a U.S. federal vessel in combat and receiving the Bronze Star, both for his service in the Vietnam War.

Contributing factors

Lynda Smith believes that part of the reason Merle was able to accomplish so much at the Coast Guard Academy and in the Coast Guard was that he came from a military family.

His grandfather was a sergeant major in the Army, and his father was a colonel in the Army. Smith lived in Germany and Japan and so was used to being a minority and the child of a senior ranking military officer. He knew what it was like to be under a microscope, but Lynda Smith says, "His dad did an incredible job of teaching Merle to follow the rules, (that) you can't make mistakes, you have to do your best, because everyone is watching you as a minority."

She notes that another reason for Merle's resilience and success has been "his strong belief in himself, that it's not what people say about you or think about you, but it's who you are and what you do — to just let your performance speak for itself," she says.

She adds, "Merle in his time at the Coast Guard Academy and his career in the Coast Guard exemplified what the Coast Guard stands for: honor, duty, loyalty, respect and service."

Poll tax receipts

Among the items on view in "Stories of Resilience" are a basket Clarke's grandmother made and a quilt that women in the community created for Hodge's ill grandmother.

Showcased, too, is a poll tax receipt for Braxton's mother from 1963 Mississippi. "Braxton's mother held her Poll Tax Receipt in high regard," the exhibition text states. "It represented a disproportionate percentage of a poor African American's income and was difficult to obtain. The system was designed to deny African Americans the right to vote, thus silencing their voices."

Braxton's stepfather, Levye Chapple, was active in voter registration in Mississippi. The exhibition features the Democratic National Convention credentials given to Chapple in 1952 for the convention, held that year in Chicago. As the exhibition notes, the credentials "enabled Chapple to attend the convention, a privilege denied to African American in Mississippi."

No wonder, then, that Braxton has fought for voting rights over the years. As the exhibition notes, "While poll taxes or qualifying exams are no longer legal, he sees voter suppression as another attempt to deny minorities their voice."

A challenge coin from Obama

Smith's challenge coins are highlighted in "Stories of Resilience." The coins are a military tradition that are bestowed on someone as an acknowledgement of achievement or outstanding service or to reinforce unit cohesion.

Smith's challenge coins include two from U.S. Coast Guard commandants and a presidential coin that President Barack Obama gave to Smith in recognition of his being the first African American to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy. Obama came to the academy in 2015 to speak at that year's graduation, and a photo of Obama and Smith meeting is on view as well.

Also featured is the Academy's Pioneer Award, which Smith won and which was later renamed after him.

The exhibition's future

Fischer says that, with this exhibition, he wanted to put on record the stories of these individuals. He hopes the show will continue after its Lyman Allyn run and travel to libraries or regional museums.

Braxton says it has been a gift to have Fischer put this program and exhibition together.

"His main intent was to make sure that certain stories were not forgotten, that people would get a chance to interact with each other. I think that his attempts to do that went far beyond anything any of us had imagined when we said, 'Yes, we will help,'" Braxton says.

Hodge says that, ultimately, she hopes that the exhibition will help to reduce racism.

"I think sometimes the more people know, the attitude then tends to change. They're not so quick to define individuals, particularly if they know something about them."

Braxton references something his parents used to say.

"My parents would tell my sister and me that you may not be able to light the world, but if everybody was to light their corner, the world is lit," he says.

If you go

What: "Stories of Resilience: Encountering Racism" 

Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London

When: Now through April 11; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $12 adults; $9 seniors; $5 students; $7 active military personnel; and free for kids under 12, for members, and for New London residents

Contact: (860) 443-2545, lymanallyn.org

 

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