Group Planning New Home For African American Cultural Center
May 20, 2005
By JORGE AMARAL, Courant Staff Writer
Nestled between the Hartford Public Library's Upper Albany
Branch and the Artists Collective, the annex of Hartford's
old Northwest School has remained vacant for nearly two decades.
But a group of community leaders and organizations is now working
to renovate the building and reopen it as a new home for the
John E. Rogers African American Cultural Center. The project
is expected to take $3.5 million to complete.
The museum would feature the collection of the Rogers cultural
center as well as artifacts, paintings and writings that focus
on Hartford and Connecticut. The center would also have meeting
space for community groups.
The Rogers center was established in 1991 to inspire pride and
empower the black community of Connecticut with knowledge of
its own unique history and culture. The historical and educational
institution has featured exhibits on history, holidays, individuals,
artwork, artifacts, sculpture and inventions. It also offers
educational seminars, discussion groups, story hours and the
celebration of special holidays and events. Until now, it has
been housed in the Hartford Dental and Medical Center.
The project is a collaboration of a diverse group of Hartford
neighborhood organizations, including the Rogers center, the
Upper Albany Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, the Upper Albany
Development Inc., the Hartford Public Library, the University
of Hartford, the Artists Collective, and Smith Edwards Architects
and Capital Restoration Inc. as well as the city of Hartford.
Clyde Billington, co-director of the cultural center effort,
said it is significant that the wide variety of groups have come
together to plan a center that will benefit the Upper Albany
"Boundaries mean nothing. You can't say something that
is just beyond your boundary doesn't matter. What happens across
the street affects us too," Billington said.
Billington, a former state representative, is the chairman of
the development committee of the Upper Albany NRZ and chairman
of the Upper Albany Development Corporation. His co-director,
John B. Stewart Jr., is chairman of the site committee of the
Rogers center and economic development chairman of the Blue Hills
Billington said the center would benefit all of Hartford and
embrace the diverse populations of the neighborhoods.
"We have a large West Indian population, Hispanic population,
black population and white population, but no one's voice is
stronger than anyone else's. ... It's a multicultural thing, " Billington
"America needs to know each other's history," Stewart,
who was Hartford's first black fire chief and was majority leader
on the city council.
With the library branch, the Artists Collective, Fox Middle
School and the commercial centers along Albany Avenue, the cultural
center will complete a project akin to the Learning Corridor
near Trinity college.
"When John Stewart came to me with the idea, I knew that
was the missing piece of the puzzle," Billington said.
Billington especially hopes the cultural center will help provide
role models for young people and make them interested in becoming
involved in the neighborhood. The cultural center was named after
Hartford resident John Rogers, the first African American superintendent
of a post office in Connecticut. Rogers became regarded as a
consultant in black history to the University of Hartford and
Greater Hartford Community College, now called Capital Community
College. He died about 25 years ago.
"John Rogers stood for African Americans learning their
culture, and learning who they are, and what they are," Billington
said. "He was fast-walking, fast-talking, and everybody
loved him," said Billington.
The task force is planning to apply for funding from the Hartford
Foundation for Public Giving and other sources. This money will
serve to fund the first phase of the project, which will include
clearing debris, repairing the slate roof and windows and beginning
the initial design and estimate of costs associated with the
restoration of the building.
After the first phase, the task force plans to develop a financing
and fundraising program to raise money to complete the project.
The community will be included in the fundraising efforts.
The second phase would include restoration of the old school,
restoring its exterior, addressing environmental and structural
issues and making it accessible to disabled people. The third
phase would fit it out as a museum.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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