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Book To Celebrate City's West Indians

February 21, 2006
By MELISSA PIONZIO, Courant Staff Writer

Jamaican-born Doreen Forest remembers picking tobacco as a teenager in the fields of Bloomfield and Windsor. It was a hot, dirty job, she said, but working outdoors was more appealing to her than being inside a restaurant or a factory.

"I was 15 at the time. I think I made 40 cents an hour. I sewed the leaves together," said Forest, who is in her 50s now. "I think what I enjoyed the most was the friends. It was the people that we grew up with."

Those memories - and the pictures that capture them - are in high demand now. Members of the West Indian Foundation, the West Indian Social Club and other organizations plan to chronicle the history of Hartford's West Indian community through the publication of a book titled "West Indian-Americans in Greater Hartford: Images of the Past 1920 to 1970."

Plans call for the book, scheduled for release this fall by the Arcadia Publishing Company, to be a 128-page pictorial documentation. Members of the participating organizations are calling on the city's West Indian community to help.

"The challenge has been collecting images from individuals," said Keith Carr of the West Indian Foundation. "We have to ensure them that we are not going to hurt or lose the images. That has been a challenge."

Fiona Vernal, professor of history at UConn, is working on the project, helping to collect and scan photographs. She has collected about 45 images so far, she said, but hopes to obtain many more.

"I'm surprised at the lack of response," said Vernal, who plans to hold a scanning session in March at the West Indian Social Club. "When we talk about projects like this, everyone is always interested. They want to document the history, and everybody acknowledges how important it is.

"It's a logistical thing; people need to go up to their attics and find the images."

Vernal, who moved from Jamaica to New Jersey at age 12, was instrumental in helping the foundation with a previous exhibit titled "Finding a Place, Maintaining Ties: Greater Hartford West Indians," an oral history that opened at the Connecticut Historical Society in 2003.

For the book project, she said she will focus on the pioneers of the West Indian community; those who came to Hartford early and were instrumental in creating its neighborhoods and forming the many social clubs and community organizations that still exist.

David Kahn, executive director of the Connecticut Historical Society, said he looks forward to continuing the relationship the society has with the West Indian community. He hopes people who have images, but don't know what to do with them, would consider donating them to the society.

If not, the images can be scanned for use in the book and then filed at the society as a reference for future interest.

"My guess is images will emerge as part of this process that none of us have ever seen," Kahn said.

"I'd be very surprised if we don't see some very interesting materials that come out of people's closets, drawers and attics. People may not think that picture of their aunt is important, but it's part of the process getting the word out that these images have historical value."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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