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Making Room For History

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 neighborhood.

"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 NRZ.

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 said.

"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. 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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