Samuel Cullers Housing Discrimination Case, 1954-1957

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Samuel J. Cullers (right) and Corneal A. Davis, Hartford Redevelopment Project Model. Connecticut History Online
Samuel J. Cullers (right) and Corneal A. Davis, Hartford Redevelopment Project Model. Connecticut History Online

In 1954 and 1955 the principal planner for the Hartford Redevelopment Agency applied to rent a two-room garden apartment from McKinley Park Homes in Hartford but was deceitfully informed that there were no more vacancies. This young man, Samuel J. Cullers, was African American and believed that he was being barred from the housing development on racial grounds. Cullers filed—and won—a discrimination complaint against McKinley Park Homes but the Connecticut Supreme Court later overturned the ruling. The court declared that there was “insufficient evidence” to prove that McKinley Park Homes discriminated against Cullers by failing to supply him with an apartment.

The Hearing and the Civil Rights Commission Ruling in Favor of Cullers

Samuel Cullers was born in Chicago Illinois and graduated from Fisk University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and economics in 1950. Right after graduation Cullers attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a John A. Whitney Fellow where he earned his masters degree in city planning in 1952. Shortly after, Cullers became the principal planner for the Hartford Redevelopment Agency as well as the City Plan Commission (“Samuel Cullers Appointed to Redevelopment Post.”). In 1954 and 1955, when Cullers filed a racial discrimination complaint after applying to rent an apartment from McKinley Park, it appeared that this highly accomplished city planner could not secure the housing he desired solely because he was African American.

On March 12, 1956 a public hearing called by the State Commission on Civil Rights in the case of Cullers vs. McKinley Park Homes was held a the State Capitol at 10 a.m. Attorney Cyril Coleman represented McKinley Park in the dispute, while Assistant Attorney General Raymond J. Cannon represented the Commission. The Connecticut Civil Rights Commission appointed a three-member fact finding board to study and file briefs on the case. The case stated that Samuel J. Cullers, an African-American Hartford resident as well as chief planner in the Hartford Redevelopment Agency, filed a complaint that he was denied entry into McKinley Park Homes twice because of his race. These occasions took place took place in 1954, and April of 1955. The commission entered the case because McKinley Park was under “publicly assisted housing,” receiving a tax abatement from the city. With this 10-year tax moratorium on its buildings, the development paid only $350,000 when the total assessment of the property was set at $513, 471.  Because McKinley Homes had another year to run its abatement during the time of Cullers complaint, this apartment complex was still subject to anti-discrimination policy under the Public Accommodations Act (“McKinley Park Told to Give Negro Home.”).

During the time of Cullers complaint there were no African Americans residing in the McKinley Park Homes. Manager of McKinley Park Homes, Diane Shumsky, denied that African Americans were unwelcome as tenants to the apartments stating, “Anybody can live in these apartments as long as they qualify.” On further questioning Shumsky explained that these qualifications had to do with the prospective tenant’s credit rating. At the hearing, Cannon presented evidence that McKinley Park submitted leases to two tenants shortly after Cullers was told there were no vacancies, which supported the claim of racial discrimination. Cullers visited the company on April 18, 1955 when a woman clerk told him there were no more applications available and later informed him that there were no apartments vacant, but on June 8 and June 20 of 1955 two tenants were admitted to McKinley Park Homes respectively. Although Cannon gave evidence that two tenants were admitted to McKinley Park after Cullers applied, Robert W. Gesecus, N.Y. president Presidential Management Corporation, which manages the McKinley development, said under cross-examination that there were no vacancies at the time of Cullers application. He also testified that personal interviews were necessary before applications were seriously considered. Although Cullers applied for an interview he did not receive a letter in return confirming his request, like other applicants had received. Gesecus claimed that he did not know why that was. When asked if the personal interview had something to do with determining the race of the applicant, Gesecus said it did not (“Hearing Ends in Case Charging Discrimination.”).

On June 19, 1956 the board of the Connecticut Commission on Civil Rights found that McKinley Park violated the Public Accommodations Act by refusing to rent an apartment to Cullers because of his race. The board ruled that Samuel Cullers of 101 Adelaide St., must be given an apartment at McKinley Park Homes, on Dauntless Lane, regardless of his race. After the ruling Cullers was enthusiastic about the decision and maintained his interest in renting an apartment at McKinley Park (“McKinley Park Told to Give Negro Home.”).

Appeal to Connecticut Superior Court: Ruling is Overturned

After the court ruled in favor of Cullers on June 19, McKinley Park homes appealed the board’s findings to the Connecticut Superior Court. Superior Judge John P. Cotter did agree that Cullers’ rent application was dealt with in a way that “creates a suspicion” but that the findings must be based on “substantial and competent evidence, not on a mere scintilla of evidence.” Judge Cotter points out that Culler sent his first application in 1954 by mail and made other contact through telephone. The fact that Cullers did not appear in person, Cotter argues, gives evidence that McKinley Park Homes was most likely unaware of his race. When Cullers did visited the company office on April 18, Judge Cotter said that from the evidence it seemed like Cullers was already “apprehensive and suspicious” that he was being barred on the basis of race when he entered the building. Furthermore, Cotter argued that based on the actions of the woman clerk, “we cannot infer an intent to discriminate against Cullers.” Based on this argument, Judge John P. Cotter overturned the Civil Rights Commission ordering McKinley Homes to rent an apartment to Samuel Cullers on the reasoning that there was insufficient evidence of bias (“Evidence of Bias Ruled Insufficient in Rent Case.”).

Cullers vs. McKinley Park Homes was not an exceptional case of racial housing discrimination, as there is much evidence of other instances of discriminatory practices that African Americans living in Hartford faced during the 1950s (“Where can a Negro Live?”).  This case makes it evident that during this time affluent African Americans were confronted with housing discrimination, not just lower class African Americans, and that even after anti-discrimination laws were put in place, African Americans continued to be challenged with housing barriers.

Works Cited

“Crime and Courts.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1987): Jan 1 1957. ProQuest. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

“Evidence of Bias Ruled Insufficient in Rent Case.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1987): Nov 6 1956. ProQuest. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

“Hearing Ends in Case Charging Discrimination.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1987): Mar 27 1956. ProQuest. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

“McKinley Park Told to Give Negro Home.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1987): Jun 19 1956. ProQuest. Web 8 Oct. 2013.

Rotberg, Robert. “Where can a Negro Live?” The Hartford Courant (1923-1987): 16. Aug 25 1956. ProQuest. Web. 13 Sep. 2013

“Samuel Cullers Appointed to Redevelopment Post.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1987): Jan 16 1957. ProQuest. Web 8 Oct. 2013

One thought on “Samuel Cullers Housing Discrimination Case, 1954-1957”

  1. Your opening paragraph is verbally strong and shows how the judicious use of detail can help to draw the reader into the past by painting a vivid, rather than generic, picture of the moment (e.g., Cullers wasn’t simply looking for a place to live but for “a two-room garden apartment”). The essay also does a fine job of helping readers to understand what an abatement is and how that related to the legal obligations placed on McKinley Park Homes. One aspect of your argument that needs sharpening is the assertion in the opening paragraph that the property management “deceitfully informed” informed Cullers that there were no vacancies. Your analysis should provide evidence of why you, as a historian, agree with the initial ruling and find fault with the Supreme Court’s finding of “insufficient evidence of bias.” In terms of organization, grammar, and clarity of expression, some refinements to prose are needed. For example, in addition to missing punctuation, the syntax of the following sentence implies that Cullers was born and received his college degree in the same year: “Samuel Cullers was born in Chicago Illinois and graduated from Fisk University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and economics in 1950.” A clearer formulation would be: “Samuel Cullers, who was born in Chicago, Illinois, graduated from Fisk University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and economics in 1950.” Likewise, although Cullers inquired about openings in 1954 and 1955, the following structure implies he also filed suits in each year: “In 1954 and 1955, when Cullers filed a racial discrimination complaint after applying to rent an apartment from McKinley Park….” Did he? Additionally, watch for repetition as well as shifts between past and present tense. I am presuming that the Hartford Courant is the only source for your research because other avenues did not prove fruitful? Lastly, consider that a stronger conclusion would not only show that other African Americans of the time experienced housing discrimination (as you have done) but might also address the fact that the two different rulings on the Culler’s case suggests the difficulties of documenting and proving subtler forms of racial bias. Might the burden of proof be one reason why anti-discrimination laws alone did not eradicate unfair practices? As it stands, many readers who examine the evidence put forward by the entry might simply conclude that the verdict of Supreme Court seems reasonable enough. Kudos on an interesting, informative essay.

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