1966+40 Years: A Look Back at Project Concern

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The following essay gives voice to the stories of Project Concern alumni as they look back their on the experiences as participants in Project Concern, starting in the 1966. The experiences of Project Concern alumni are both unique to individual and span communally over 40 years.

Map of greater Hartford area suburbs that agreed to accept Hartford students participating in Project Concern – 1966 Hartford Public Library, Hartford History Center, Hartford Times Collection and “Connecticut Takes the Wheel on Education Reform: Project Concern.”

Project Concern was one of the first voluntary school desegregation programs in the United States. Project Concern was founded in 1966 by Trude Mero Johnson and Dr. Alexander Plant of the Connecticut State Department of Education. The goal of Project Concern was two-fold: (1) to promote racial diversity in suburban school settings and their surrounding communities; (2) to provide Hartford students with a highquality education that was otherwise not afforded by Hartford public schools. To participate in Project Concern students from the Hartford Community were bused to suburban communities to attend school. 1

In 1996, after the “Sheff v. O’Neil” ruling, Project Concern was reorganized. Project Concern became “Project Choice” and, later, “Open Choice” and now acts as remedy to Sheff v. O’Neil in conjunction “with a system of regional interdistrict magnet schools” 2

Project Concern Alumni: Introduction to Project Concern

The participation in Project Concern was often without choice from Project Concern alumni. Project Concern alumni were directed to participate by their families and friends. Consequently, there was ambivalence expressed amongst Project Concern alumni as they looked back on their early experiences with Project Concern. Alumni equally expressed feelings of reluctance, indifference and excitement towards Project Concern.

The parents of Project Concern alumni often made the decision for their children to participate in Project Concern. The decision was based on the premise that Project Concern would provide their children with access to a quality of education that was otherwise not afforded by the racially and economically constrained Hartford school system. As remembered by one Project Concern alumnus, “the quality of education in Hartford was not anywhere near the quality of the education in the suburbs, and that’s why parents were trying to get their children out of cities.” 3

As the parents of Project Concern alumni often made the decision for their children to participate in Project Concern, many alumni had neither a comprehensive understanding of the program nor a choice to participate in the program. For Project Concern alumni participating in the program simply meant being bused to suburban communities to attend school. The parents of Project Concern alumni expressed doing so as necessary and an opportunity to be taken advantage of despite its potential for discomfort.

Project Concern alumni responded to insisted participation in Project Concern in a manner that was dependent on their age and the place in the timeline of their schooling. Project Concern alumni who entered the program in the later years of their schooling had already established themselves among their peer groups in Hartford and often did not want to have to be apart from their peers or friends. Resultantly, these individuals viewed Project Concern unfavorably.

Lawrence Satchell’s reflection of his early experiences as a participant of Project Concern exemplify the reluctance he and other individuals felt having had entered Project Concern in the later years of their schooling. Lawrence entered the Project Concern in middle school. He attended Assumption Junior Middle School in Manchester, Connecticut and then Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut, graduating in 1982. Lawrence recalls that his mother pushed him (as well as his siblings) to participate in Project Concern, despite his disinterest: “[My mother] thought a little different education style would benefit her children. So, she was the one who pushed us into it. I didn’t really want to go initially, because, of course I was leaving friends, and you know like that. But she pushed me into it.” 4 Lawrence, like many other Project Concern students, did not understand the program or its social or educational benefits. In consequence, he focused on being separated from his friends and initially approached Project Concern “negatively.” 5

In contrast to Lawrence and age equivalent individuals with similar early Project Concern experiences, Project Concern alumni who entered the program early in their schooling did not have a clear opinion of participation in the program. They were too young to understand the social and educational impact Project Concern would have on their lives. Chrishaun Langs, a Project Concern alumnus who attended West Hartford public schools until her pregnancy in the eleventh grade, recalls, “I was in first grade. It really didn’t matter. I mean at the time I was just told that I was going to a different school, but it was okay.” 6 In some instances, Project Concern alumni themselves made conscious decisions to participate in Project Concern and welcomed the thought of attending a new school in a suburban community. In particular, Brenadeen Marshall, who graduated from the Mary Immaculate School in New Britain, Connecticut in 1974, signed herself up for Project Concern. Brenadeen originally planned to attend Hartford High School. However, after a change in Hartford school zoning, her neighborhood high school switched to Weaver High School. Brenadeen had long favored going to the high school that her mother attended (Hartford High School) and was resistant to going to Weaver High School. The change in options for high schools prompted Brenadeen to look for an alternative to Hartford schools. At the time, Brenadeen remembered seeing “yellow buses rolling all the time, much earlier than the average school buses.” 7 She asked her friends, who would be leaving Hartford public school after elementary school, and peers in the neighborhood about the affiliated program—Project Concern. Brendadeen knew that her parents would not support her participation in Project Concern, so she went to the program office with a friend and filled out the application on her own. 8

Ultimately, whether the decision for Project Concern alumni to attend the program was made by the families of an alumni or the alumnus him or herself, the decision was seemingly made out of the conclusiveness that participating in Project Concern was in the best interest of alumnus.

Project Concern Alumni: Extracurricular Activities, Transportation and Inclusion

Project Concern alumni who were able to experience their respective Project Concern schools and surrounding urban communities beyond the school day looked back on their experiences with positivity. Extracurricular activities led Project Concern alumni to feel included in suburban schools and communities as well as gave alumni the opportunity to build and strengthen relationships with their peers. Notably the ability to participate in extracurricular activities was linked to access to transportation. A lack of transportation forced Project Concern alumni to discontinue extracurricular activities.

Harford students participating in Project Concern arrive at Spaulding School in Suffield, Connecticut on the first day of school. They are greeted by the school’s principle, Edwin Humphrey - September 4, 1968. Hartford Public Library, Hartford History Center, Hartford Times Collection and “Connecticut Takes the Wheel on Education Reform: Project Concern.”
Harford students participating in Project Concern arrive at Spaulding School in Suffield, Connecticut on the first day of school. They are greeted by the school’s principle, Edwin Humphrey – September 4, 1968. Hartford Public Library, Hartford History Center, Hartford Times Collection and “Connecticut Takes the Wheel on Education Reform: Project Concern.”

Project Concern alumni often voiced that they did not mind riding the school bus despite its possible 2-hour span. During bus rides they often were able to fostered friendships with others participating in the program—especially in instances in which Project Concern participants took part in extracurricular activities.

Project Concern alumni participated in a variety of extracurricular activities as an extension of their schooling in the suburbs. Alumni, both male and female, participated in school sports (including basketball, football, volleyball, track and field and cheerleading) as well as school clubs (including dance and glee clubs) and attended school dances, movie nights and carnivals. Project Concern alumni also had the opportunity to participate in Brownies, and later Girl Scouts, as well as take drivers education courses.

When enough students stayed after for extracurricular activities, Project Concern would send an after school bus to transport participants home to Hartford. However, some Project Concern alumni remember using public transportation (public buses and cabs) to return home to Hartford after participating in extracurricular activities. In instances in which transportation wasn’t readily available Project Concern alumni stayed at the homes of friends from their respective Project Concern schools or emergency mothers. Emergency mothers were individuals in the community who would allow Project Concern alumni to stay with them overnight. They had clothes readily available for alumni for the next day and saw to it that alumni caught transportation home the next day.

Cheryl Shelton, a Project Concern alumnus who participated in the Project Concern program in Plainville, Connecticut from the start of her schooling, recalls positive experiences spent with the friends she made at schools. Specifically, Cheryl remembers instances in which Plainville schools held school dances that she and other Project Concern students wanted to attend. Cheryl stayed at the homes of friends before school dances. At her friend’s homes Cheryl “[ate] dinner, washed and changed and then [went] to the dance.” 9 After the dances, Cheryl would be picked up by her friend’s parents who would make the necessary plans for Cheryl to return to her home in Hartford. Cheryl looks back on these experiences as being “fun”: “it was fun getting into a different atmosphere and [interacting] with different people.” 10

Interestingly, despite Project Concern alumni frequenting the homes of their school friends, they rarely had school friends visit their homes. Cheryl Shelton, who grew up in Stowe Village, a Hartford project, explains that her location within the city of Hartford reflected her decision to abstain from having friends at her family home: “I would never bring anyone who with me in the projects. It was kinda rough. So I never brought anyone home.” 11 Cheryl’s sister, Marcia Shelton, who attended Project Concern participating schools in Manchester until high school, adds that the one time that the family did have her friends from the suburbs for a birthday party, the family hosted the party at her grandmother’s house because she was embarrassed by the family’s home in the Projects. 12 The reluctance of Project Concern alumni to have their friends at their homes is indicative of the social and racial barriers between the communities and subsequent lives of Project Concern alumni and their suburban counterparts.

Though Project Concern alumni had numerous positive experiences with extracurricular activities, some alumni reported that the lengthy traveling, in any capacity, from Hartford to the suburbs and back affected their ability to participate in extracurricular activities. Cheryl Shelton attested to this: Cheryl’s mother was disabled and her father absent. While her grandfather was sometimes available to drive back and forth to the Plainville schools and community, the drive was 20 miles and what Cheryl described as “tough”. 13 When Cheryl was a young girl, a cab service was made available to make the commute to and from Hartford for her extracurricular activities. However, the cab became too expensive (and the public bus too far for the commute). As a consequence, Cheryl was not able to continue with cheerleading after a year and a half of participation. Cheryl, and students who was presented with a similar situation, believed that had they been able to participate in extracurricular activities, they would have been better integrated into the suburban communities in which they attended schools. 14

Project Concern Alumni: Balancing Two Identities and Lifestyles

Hartford students participating in Project Concern students – 1967.Hartford Public Library, Hartford History Center, Hartford Times Collection and “Connecticut Takes the Wheel on Education Reform: Project Concern.”

Throughout their participation in Project Concern alumni found themselves balancing two identities and lifestyles. As Project Concern alumni look back at their experiences, they often found that with age and, consequently, schooling their opposing identities and lifestyles became more apparent with age. That is, Project Concern alumni developed a hyper awareness of their identities as they recognized a cultural divide between the Hartford community their respective Project Concern schools and communities; experienced blatant racism; and formed relationships and friendships with their peers inside and outside the Hartford community.

Project Concern alumni expressed that participating in Project Concern was a balancing act between their identities and lifestyles in the Hartford community and in their respective Project Concern schools and communities. Antonio Champion, a Project Concern alumnus, compares the balancing between the Hartford community and Project Concern schools and communities to being bilingual: “you can speak two languages at the same time or three, and you understand the nuances between each of them and you [are] able to appreciate the nuances between them.” 15 As an individual who “spoke the languages” of both the Hartford community and Project Concern schools and communities, Antonio remembers himself developing an identity and a lifestyle that was dependent on his surroundings. Antonio was accustomed to the culture of his Hartford community. However, he knew the educational and social advantages of participating in Project Concern and felt it necessary to make adjustments in his interactions with his peers in the suburban community and with the community itself. 16 Importantly, in some instances, the changing of identities and lifestyles of Project Concern alumni between the Hartford community and their respective Project Concern schools and communities reflected both a need and a desire to fit in.

Video: Antonio Champion speaking about balancing two identities and lifestyles. 17

Project Concern alumni created a separation between their identities and lifestyles in the Hartford community and in their respective Project Concern schools and communities in reflection of an awareness of the racial and social differences between the former community and the later. Notably, the awareness of differences for Project Concern alumni developed with the progression of age and schooling.

Zyretha Langs, an alumnus who began participating in the Project Concern program during her elementary schooling, expressed that being apart of Project Concern “wasn’t a big deal” as she “didn’t have a concept of racial identity.” 18 However, as Zyretha’s schooling progressed in West Hartford public schools, she began to notice racial barriers between herself and her peers in the suburban school setting. Specifically, Zythera observed that the only minorities attending West Hartford schools were those that attended the schools as participants of Project Concern and, as students grew older, there was a prevalent divide in culture between Project Concern and West Hartford students. In consequence, Zythera felt isolated in the West Hartford school setting and was hesitant to engage in friends with her white peers. 19 The awareness of racial barriers was a product of the progression of age schooling was common amongst Project Concern Alumni and resulted in feeling of exclusion in Project Concern schools and communities. Feelings on exclusion were in contrast to those of inclusion felt from participating in extracurricular activities.

Feelings of exclusion were sometimes legitimized by blatant acts of racism in Project Concern schools and neighborhoods. These were acts mostly demonstrated as an exclusion of Project Concern alumni in extracurricular activities. Cheryl remembers a blatant act of racism during her Project Concern schooling in West Hartford: A peer of Cheryl’s in West Hartford hosted a sleep over. Cheryl wanted for her invitation to the sleep over but it never came. The individual hosting the sleepover told Cheryl she was not invited as “her parents did not like black people.” 20

Some Project Concern alumni expressed feeling as though they had two sets of friends—one set of friends in the Hartford community, the other in their respective Project Concern Schools. Other Project Concern alumni felt as though they did not have friends solely from the Hartford community, there friends were either members of their respective Project Concern schools and communities or fellow participants in Project Concern. Project Concern alumni also perceived themselves as outsiders, though generally accepted. A number of Project Concern alumni recall themselves being called “white” and “oreos” by their peers in the Hartford community and chastised for their speaking in what is noted as proper English. 21In other instances Project Concern remember themselves as being “placed on a pedestal”, as if their participation in Project Concern made them a better version of their peers in the Hartford Community. 22

Conclusively, Project Concern alumni looked back on their participation in and experience with Project Concern with both fondness and a critical lens. Project Concern afforded alumni opportunities that were otherwise not available in the Hartford community. Project Concern alumni were pushed into diversity that resulted in a hyperawareness of their identities as minority individuals living in the Hartford community as well as an advantageous vulnerability in relationships and friendship with individuals in suburban communities who were unlike themselves. When Project Concern alumni looked they backed remember were they came and how far they went for diversity and inclusion.


Works Referenced / Cited

Bernadeen Marshall, interview by Dana Banks, home of Bernadeen Marshall,      March 8, 2003.

Cheryl Canino, interview by Grace Beckett, office of Cheryl Canino, November 8, 2002.

Cheryl Shelton, interview by Arthur Hardy Doubleday, telephone, November 11, 2002.

Chrishaun Langs, interview by Lauren Gutmann, office of Chrishuan Langs, February 14, 2003.

Gurren, Amanda. “Connecticut Takes the Wheel on Education Reform: Project Concern.” ConnecticutHistory.org, http://connecticuthistory.org/connecticut-takes-the-wheel-on-education-reform-project-concern/.

Lawrence Satchell, interview by Leon Gellert, Trinity College, November 18, 2002.

Marica Shelton, interview by Amanda Lydon, Trim Fashions of Wethersfield, November 15,2002.

Paul Little, interview by Dana Banks, West Hartford home of Paul Little, November 8, 2002.

Renita Satchell, interview with Jack Dougherty and students, Trinity College classroom, November 5, 2002.

Sheff Movement Coalition. “Forty Years of Project Concern and Project Choice.” Video Documentaries, Paper 1, 29:20. January 1, 2008. http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_media/1.

Trinity College. “Forty Years of Project Concern and Project Choice.” Vimeo video,            29:43. 2008. https://vimeo.com/26118805.

Zyretha Langs, interview with Hilary Cramer, Capital Region Education Council (CREC),November 7, 2002.




  1. Sheff Movement Coalition. “Forty Years of Project Concern and Project Choice.” Video Documentaries, Paper 1, 29:20, January 1, 2008, http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_media/1.
  2. Sheff Movement Coalition, “Forty Years of Project Concern and Project Choice.”
  3. Renita Satchell, interview with Jack Dougherty and students, Trinity College classroom, November 5, 2002.
  4. Paul Little, interview by Dana Banks, West Hartford home of Paul Little, November 8, 2002.
  5. Paul Little.
  6. Cheryl Canino, interview by Grace Beckett, office of Cheryl Canino, November 8, 2002.
  7. Bernadeen Marshall, interview by Dana Banks, home of Bernadeen Marshall, March 8, 2003.
  8. Bernadeen Marshall.
  9. Cheryl Shelton, interview by Arthur Hardy Doubleday, telephone, November 11, 2002.
  10. Cheryl Shelton.
  11. Cheryl Shelton.
  12. Marica Shelton, interview by Amanda Lydon, Trim Fashions of Wethersfield, November 15, 2002.
  13. Cheryl Shelton.
  14. Cheryl Shelton.
  15. Sheff Movement Coalition, “Forty Years of Project Concern and Project Choice.”
  16. Sheff Movement Coalition, “Forty Years of Project Concern and Project Choice.”
  17. Trinity College. “Forty Years of Project Concern and Project Choice,” Vimeo video, 29:43, 2008, https://vimeo.com/26118805.
  18. Bernadeen Marshall.
  19. Bernadeen Marshall.
  20. Cheryl Canino.
  21. Sheff Movement Coalition, “Forty Years of Project Concern and Project Choice.”
  22. Sheff Movement Coalition, “Forty Years of Project Concern and Project Choice.”

1970 Lumpkin v. Dempsey: Activism in the Court

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Lumpkin v. Dempsey: Activism in the Court

Mae Willie Lumpkin during an interview in 2014 Source: Trinity College Digital Collection
Mae Willie Lumpkin during an interview in 2014
Source: Trinity College Digital Collection


          Most people who live in Connecticut are aware of the significance of Sheff v. O’Neill. However, one case that many do not know about is its predecessor, Lumpkin v. Dempsey, which was a major civic rights driven case filed in 1970. Some nineteen years before Sheff, this case provided the model for arguments against the effects of segregation. In the wake of what some consider the golden age of the civil rights movement, the late 1960s, this case extended the activist spirit to the courts in an effort to seize equality in public education. Although the plaintiffs’ case for desegregating schools and school districts was strong, the moral underpinnings of their arguments were radical relative to those in the statutes they were pitted against. Thus, the desegregation they hoped to achieve was not conducive to the extreme conservatism that was the norm of the time. Despite its failure, this case remains important for its activist assertions and spirit.

        The named party for the plaintiffs’ class action suit was Mae Willie Lumpkin, a mother of nine who resided in the North End of Hartford. 1 As a neighborhood native since the age of eight, she was keenly aware of the state of public education in Connecticut’s capital city. 2 More importantly, however, she was also aware of the state of education in the surrounding suburbs from friends of hers who had been able to move to the suburbs, and experience public education in those towns. 3

         At the time, Hartford, and Mrs. Lumpkin’s North End in particular, was a bastion of concentrated poverty. The impoverished conditions the Lumpkin family lived under were based on segregation of people of color, mainly African-American, to low-income housing opportunities in this section of the city. 4 A history of redlining and racism had placed people of color into a residential situation in which escape was extremely difficult. Housing prices in suburbs were much higher, and thus worked as a barrier to the mostly African-American and Latino, low-income earners in the central city of Hartford. The truly disenfranchising aspect of this concentration of poverty and historical segregation was the public school funding situation, which stipulated that public schools would be funded by the property taxes of their corresponding jurisdictions, and would thus serve those who lived in those areas. What resulted was the separation seen by Mrs. Lumpkin. The suburbs, which had an average of 5 percent minority enrollment, were investing much more into their public school systems than the central city, which had an average of 50 percent minority enrollment. 5 By this mechanism, low property values in the city left public schools highly under resourced in comparison to their suburban counterparts. Effectively, this led to a vast discrepancy in the quality of education.

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PHOTO: Maps of Hartford and its surrounding suburbs showing the correspondence between Hartford’s concentration of families below the poverty line (top) and it’s concentration of “black” residents (bottom). The corresponding colors show that both poverty, and a high concentration of “black” residents existed in Hartford SOURCE: Social Explorer

        The Lumpkin children noted that education quality was not just based on a direct relationship to money, but also to the type of environment and culture that poverty and poor education had fostered. The second youngest, and self-described “best looking” daughter, Kenyetta, remarked on her experience much the same way the other children did. There was an expectation of failure in the community and even among school faculty. She specifically recalled an incident in which a teacher told her, “most likely when you grow up you’re going to spend the rest of your life in jail.” 6 Resource starved communities that had only themselves to rely on had developed a very cynical outlook on life prospects that permeated the education system, and affected the desire to learn and achieve to a great extent. The youngest sibling, Terrance Lumpkin, echoed a similar notion while describing the level of internal conflict that occurred in the community. Students would fight to take each other’s bread money as a common occurrence. He said that this same strife showed itself in the classroom. To this point he stated, “the classrooms are a product of the community,” and would show that same level of strife, which would detract from the academic experience from within. 7

             A busing program called Project Concern was underway in an attempt to desegregate schools by busing Hartford students to schools in the suburbs. However, this was executed using a lottery system, so it did not reliably move an appreciable percentage of students to quality education institutions. Despite its poor effectiveness, Mrs. Lumpkin applied to the program with the hope that her children could attend school in the adjacent town of Manchester, which was often called “Klan-chester,” due to its extremely white population. The white concentration of the town correlated with its high property values and wealthy residents, which were indicative of the high quality public education that was available. In the year 1970, when the plaintiffs filed the case, an average of 30 percent of families in the North End of Hartford were below the poverty line, while this same statistic measured only 3 percent in Manchester. 8 The Lumpkins and their neighbors felt the effect of this discrepancy. Therefore, Mae Willie Lumpkin determined she needed to find a way to move her children into those resource-laden schools.


Percent Black

Poverty Levels
PHOTO: (top) This is meant to show the difference in the number of impoverished families (dark = more) in Hartford and in Manchester in 1970. || (bottom) This is meant to show the difference in the number of “black” residents (dark = more) between Hartford and Manchester. SOURCE: Social Explorer


            The opportunity to engage these problems was presented to her when she was invited to join a single mother’s club by a lady named Connie Johnson, a representative of the Hartford Public School system that had teamed with young lawyers to think of solutions to the problem of resource disadvantage. 9 Because of her interest in these subjects, she jumped at the chance. It was by this association that she would eventually find be identified as a key plaintiff for the class action lawsuit brought against the highest officials in Connecticut.

            At the time, Connecticut law provided for a great deal of local autonomy for cities and suburbs alike. In 1960, the abolition of the county system took effect, granting even more power to city and town officials. This also had the effect of turning cities and towns into functional city-states, and the presiding culture reinforced this style of local governance. State government officials, well aware of this culture of local autonomy, were strong in defending and reinforcing it as a gem of the state. Political rhetoric of the time expressed the strength of local government as being responsive to the residents of those towns, and in turn being the most appropriate level of government in which to serve the state as a whole. City and town governments would be a legitimate system by the people, for the people, and would thus serve their interests. 10For towns that had enough resources among their population, this was a highly effective system, and it served many suburbs well. Some would even go on to create public education systems that would rival private institutions in terms of education quality. This was the normative idea that would buttress the case for the defense in Lumpkin, and it proved to be the greatest enemy to the Lumpkin family and families like them.

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PHOTO: Image of the State’s Defense Memo motioning for the joinder of named suburbs as parties in the defense. SOURCE: Trinity College Digital Collection


            The State of Connecticut would leverage this traditional view of governance at every turn in their defense from the accusations of plaintiffs. In building the legal coalition that would be placed in court, the defense vigorously stated that the legal proceedings would be fundamentally flawed if even one of the suburbs named as part of the solution by the plaintiffs were not granted an opportunity to take part in the case. Counsel for the defense posited that Connecticut state laws, which afforded such a high bar of autonomy cities and towns, would be broken if they were not given this opportunity. Citizens, and especially children of these towns had done nothing legally wrong, and thus should only bear the burdens that may possibly result from the case if they had a chance to defend themselves. 11 Their particular argument was analogous to the autonomy demanded in the phrase “no taxation without representation,” and was used in an attempt to preserve the amassed wealth and benefits that resulted from privileged history and present.

            Unfortunately, for cities like Hartford, the residents of which had been subjected to decades of racist de jure and de facto corralling into concentrated poverty under the masquerade of housing choice, this afforded autonomy was not so fortunate. In Hartford, autonomy did not mean the ability to serve one’s community in abundance, but instead meant the inability to access abundant resources. They were, in effect, locked out.

            In response to this, Douglas Crockett, a young, unseasoned attorney would come to lead the class action suit for the plaintiffs. 12 The organization he worked for, Neighborhood Legal Services Program saw the cause of segregation as “the fact that the school district lines were coterminous with the town boundary lines.” 13 Knowing the history of redlining and blocking out based on race and socio-economic background, which he noted were essentially contiguous terms, these boundaries were the vestiges of a government that could be held responsible for their maintenance.

            With the help of revered organizations like Boston’s Center for Law and Education, and the NAACP’s Inc. Fund and law team, Crockett sought to argue for the court to order the state reform the public education system so broadly that they would create a completely new school district infrastructure. 14 To support this, they cited the only laws that could trump those of the state. By applying the concept of the 14th Amendment to this case, the plaintiff counsel was able to supersede the provisions of the state’s laws with the dominance of Federal statutes. Namely, that of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which forbids states from enforcing any legislation that functions to deny anyone equal opportunity under the law. 15 Even more so was the precedent they set for testing this type of protection, which they claimed to be one of “effect.” This “effect” test legitimized all of the data they had found in terms of income disparities and the correlating education results disparities between the city and its named suburbs.

              To add, the plaintiffs asserted that “the fundamental guarantee of equal treatment at the hands of the State cannot be thwarted by the fragmentation of decision making.” 16 This, they posited, was a result of the supremacy of Federal law over local stipulations or even state law. Thus, by framing the issue as one of civil rights at the highest level of the definition, namely equal protection under the law, counsel was able to place blame on the state’s flawed policies.

              In a case-defining final argument, the plaintiffs’ case also implicated the surrounding suburbs of Windsor, South Windsor, Bloomfield, Newington, Glastonbury, Wethersfield, East Hartford, West Hartford, Rocky Hill, Farmington, Plainville, Avon, and Manchester. 17 In order to do this, they relied on the fact that appropriate, legitimate desegregation efforts, which the state had charged itself with in Sections 10-4, 10-4a, and 10-4b of the Connecticut General Statutes, could not be statistically achieved in Hartford, or any other town, without the involvement of surrounding suburbs. 18

             This case was advancing through the court system toward trial with strength, and was garnering a lot of attention. All at once, however, it was tragically derailed by a decision in the case of Bradley v. Milliken in Detroit, Michigan. This case, being tried in the Supreme Court, was of a nearly identical model to Lumpkin, and its passage through lower courts had served as the basis for much of the argument given by the plaintiffs. Unfortunately, in 1974, the Supreme Court held that despite the effects of white flight to suburbs, and the resulting concentrated poverty in the inner city, the suburbs could not be held accountable for education discrepancies on the basis of race, unless it could be proven that education officials in suburbs were actively discriminating against students from other cities or towns. 19 The precedent set in Milliken infamously halted the proceedings of the Lumpkin case, as it established a precedent that would not place the suburbs at fault, thereby sinking the class action suit that the Mae Willie Lumpkin and so many other Hartford residents found hope in.

             The failure of this case also flew in the face of the moral underpinnings of the Lumpkin case. Where the defense saw legal precedents and autonomous living to be in the right, the plaintiffs saw a necessity for involving oneself in the lives of others with the obligation to be a force for positive change among oppressed, deprived people. It served to reinforce the acceptability of racism, segregation, concentrated poverty, and the grotesque effect on school children that came from these phenomena.

              While it may seem pointless, this case was still incredibly important. Many years later, the plaintiffs in Sheff v. O’Neill would point to this case as an inspiration and a model for their own assault on the same societal flaws. More importantly, however, this case should be remembered for its assertion of social justice. What this case lacked as a legal loss, it made up for as an activist demonstration. While the case lasted for four years, the Lumpkin children remarked that they took their mother’s fighting spirit into life with them, even though they did not know of the case as children. Lumpkin v. Dempsey stands as a symbol of the desire for justice, and the determination to strive for it.

PHOTO: Mae Willie Lumpkin (front) and Elizabeth Horton Sheff (second from the right) at a Lumpkin family event in October 2014 SOURCE: Gina Chirichingo

Works Cited

Brief in Support of Defendant State Officials’ Further Motion to Order the Joinder of Persons as Parties Defendant (United States District Court for the District of Connecticut October 2,1973).

Chirichingo, Gina. Mae Willie Lumpkin at a Lumpkin Family Gathering. 2014. Hartford.

Crockett, Douglas, and Raymond Marcin. “Lumpkin Et Al. v. Dempsey Et Al. Complaint.” Lumpkin Et Al. v. Dempsey Et Al. Complaint., 1970.

Mae Willie Lumpkin and Family, Oral History Interview on 1970s Lumpkin School Desegregation Case (2014). Directed by Jack Dougherty. Performed by Mae Willie Lumpkin, Kenyetta Lumpkin, and Terrance Lumpkin.

Douglas Crockett, Oral History Interview on 1970s Lumpkin School Desegregation. Directed by Jack Dougherty. Performed by Douglas Crockett. Trinity College Digital Collections, November 17, 2014.

Memorandum Outline on the Proof Plaintiffs Will Establish (United States District Court for the District of Connecticut November 10, 1972). Reply Brief of Defendants (United States District Court for the District of Connecticut August 25, 1972).

Trinity College. “US Demography 1790 to Present.” Social Explorer. 2016. Accessed April 21, 2016. https://www.socialexplorer.com/6f4cdab7a0/explore.



  1. Mae Willie Lumpkin and Family, Oral History Interview on 1970s Lumpkin School Desegregation Case (2014). Directed by Jack Dougherty. Performed by Mae Willie Lumpkin, Kenyetta Lumpkin, and Terrance Lumpkin.
  2. Mae Willie Lumpkin
  3. Mae Willie Lumpkin
  4. Trinity College. “US Demography 1790 to Present.” Social Explorer. 2016. Accessed April 21, 2016. https://www.socialexplorer.com/6f4cdab7a0/explore.
  5. Memorandum Outline on the Proof Plaintiffs Will Establish (United States District Court for the District of Connecticut November 10, 1972).
  6. Kenyetta Lumpkin
  7. Terrance Lumpkin
  8. Social Explorer
  9. Mae Willie Lumpkin
  10. Brief in Support of Defendant State Officials’ Further Motion to Order the Joinder of Persons as Parties Defendant (United States District Court for the District of Connecticut October 2, 1973).
  11. Brief in Support of Defendant State Officials’ Further Motion to Order the Joinder of Persons as Parties Defendant
  12. Douglas Crockett, Oral History Interview on 1970s Lumpkin School Desegregation. Directed by Jack Dougherty. Performed by Douglas Crockett. Trinity College Digital Collections, 2014. November 17, 2014.
  13. Douglas Crockett
  14. Douglas Crockett
  15. Memorandum Outline on the Proof Plaintiffs Will Establish
  16. Memorandum Outline on the Proof Plaintiffs Will Establish
  17. Brief in Support of Defendant State Officials’ Further Motion to Order the Joinder of Persons as Parties Defendant
  18. Memorandum Outline on the Proof Plaintiffs Will Establish
  19. Douglas Crockett

1969: What Did Hartford Schools Need?

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Hartford was in chaos by the end of the Civil Rights Movement. With racial tensions reaching a climax with the Black Panthers being hunted down by the FBI and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s recent assassination, people thought that a race war was imminent. Nevertheless, in 1969, Butch Lewis, a member of the Black Panthers, took part in interviewing a variety of Hartford residents from different racial, ethnic, social, and occupational backgrounds as a means of allowing Hartford to give voice to its own problems. While many issues were called into question, the failing Hartford school system emerged in every conversation with students, a principal, and even a superintendent of schools, from students to a principal, and even a member of the Hartford Board of Education. However, though these individuals discussed their views on the reasoning behind the failure of Hartford schools, it was their overarching advocacy for community and communication tying together their solutions for the schools. It was obvious that it would take more than any one actor or power to save the Hartford school system from collapse.

Screenshot 2016-04-15 at 6.58.40 AM
Two high school girls, blonde student (left) and brunette student (right) (Source)

     We start with two high school students, one blonde and the other brunette, who are first asked what they think the “real purpose” of school is. The blonde high student started the response by simply stating that schools create people that will be “another little…wheel to make the whole machine move”. Though short in words, the blonde student’s recognition of the deficit of schools teaching students meaningful lessons outside of career preparation summarizes one side of the arguments in these interviews: Students are not being given a relevant education they can feel invested in, thus they are disinterested. The brunette student elaborates this point by echoing the blonde student’s boredom with the education being provided to her. This student sees schools as a way of learning, but not what she wants. She is taught what the schools and society tell her to learn, leaving no room for discussion of a difference in opinion. The successful students had been “trained and they’re tamed and they’ll do the work…” But,, in order to win at the game the school apparently plays with its students, people need to play it instead of trying to find a way out of it. But instead of complying, the brunette explains to the interviewer that her most significant learning her experience has nothing to do with a “geometry or history or anything”, but instead developed from a moment of defiance against a teacher–Instead of following order to pick up a piece of paper, as students usually did when told to, the brunette student questioned the teacher and her ability to pick the garbage up herself, earning her a visit to the Dean of Girls. Perceived as an act of insubordination, the brunette student was suspended. The administration placed blamed on her, forcing her to apologize to the teacher she defied, instead of listening to her pleads to be humanized: “I don’t care about your standards, I don’t care have the same values as you, just listen to me you know, just let me be a person”.

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Medel Bair, Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools (Source)

     The two high schools girl’ concerns had not fallen on deaf ears: Medel Bair, the superintendent of schools in Hartford, agreed with the girls that students were losing faith in schools, but, as he elaborates in his interview, the reasons behind the loss of faith in the school system originate not from teacher incompetence, but a lack of communication from the different players that should be contributing to the Hartford children’s education. Bair, having been superintendent in wealthy cities such as Lexington, Massachusetts and Carmel, California, had no experience within cities such as Hartford, where the exodus of white families to the surrounding suburbs contributed to the decrease of white students in Hartford schools and the increase of minority students, in this case black and Puerto Rican students. With this shift in population, Bair states, he “found the pressure people – the people who wanted good schools – moved out of the city. They now lived in West Hartford, they lived in Simsbury, they lived in Glastonbury, and the net result was that we don’t have people who know how to put the pressure on the superintendent of schools”. Thus, Bair begins to separate and distribute the blame the two high school girls placed on the school system.

     It is not just the schools that needed to change, the community and its people must have wanted the schools to improve and place enough pressure on Hartford schools to create change. This pressure, he continues, must come from the leaders of the community, eventually reaching Bair himself and when the community becomes unsatisfied with the superintendent, he will be fired. It is as this point he “ought pin a medal on and say I’ve done a good job”, saying this with an underlying tone of awareness that he is an obstacle that parents must face in order to improve the schools. Echoing the two high school girls, Bair explains that students are losing faith not in education, but the type of irrelevant schooling the Hartford school system is providing them, also hinting that this is due to the agency and independence Hartford students have developed in response to single parent households and the challenges that came with it. However, it was not just the students with “a little ego problem” causing the lack of faith, but also the lack of faith teachers have in their own students’ ability to learn: “Neither one of the pair have faith in the other”. Finally, Bair shares the the final key problem and solution to the Hartford school system, providing what occurred at the Barbour school as an example. All members of this school, parents, teachers, and students alike, were disinterested in the school, making it “kind of a dead school”. What turned the situation around was that the Barbour school “became heavily involved with community people and the community moved into the school so that in essence they became one.” When the Barbour school began to engage in the affairs and issues of the community, and vice versa, a lackluster school evolved into the golden standard of schools Hartford needed.

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Isabel Blake, Resident of Hartford (Source)

Bair explained that the families who cared about changing schools all moved to suburbia, leaving behind the people who did not care, let alone fight, for the education of Hartford students. Isabel Blake, a Hartford-born black parent parent of ten, stood as a counter-example to what Bair believed. She was raised by her mother, who Mrs. Blake says “never learned to read or write, but the things that she knew, she knew them well”. As her mother had been taught, a deep appreciation for obtaining an education was ingrained into Mrs. Blake—”There was no other way to live in our house”. Mrs. Blake also mentions that, during her days in public school, she had a teacher that taught all her students the same thing, that “respect gets respect”, echoing one of Bair’s observation  to the problems Hartford schools have. Mrs. Blake, again, serves as a counter-example to Bair’s observations, raising her children with the same lesson of respect she was raised taught as a child. Continuing on from reminiscing about her childhood, she expresses her concerns on the racial inequalities that surface within the Hartford school system, though first taking the chance to say that though she hates white people and does not care whether white teachers hate her or her children, “All I want from teachers is education.  When they can’t do that, they’re no good.” She recognizes the failure of the Hartford school system, one that needs as many effective teachers as possible. If white teachers needed to be tolerated because they are the ones actually teaching the children, then in Mrs. Blake’s mind, sacrifices needed to be made for the betterment of oneself. Noting that racial inequalities are not restricted to the black/white dichotomy, she expresses her concern for Puerto Rican children as well as black children needing to get represented in schools in the form of language and ethnic accommodations. Basically, she would like to have more attention given to the underrepresented minorities that make up the city of Hartford, again beginning to echo Bair’s opinions. Though it should be noted that the difference between Bair’s and Mrs. Blake’s opinion on minority student representation is that while Bair simply acknowledges that these students, especially the Puerto Rican children, will face hardships during their students careers, Mrs. Blake advocates for the language accommodation of Puerto Rican students. Therefore, while Mrs. Blake’s opinion of the white population is negative, she is willing to make changes to the school system in the form of integration and representation if it means Hartford students, including her own children, are provided with a rich, thorough, engaging, and sustainable schooling.

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John Barnes, Principal of Vine Street school (Source)

While Bair incorrectly assumed parents that stayed in Hartford had no interest in their children’s education and schooling, his observation of the success of the Barbour school began to touch upon what the two high schools girls and Mrs. Blake were advocating for: a school system in which the community and school are not separate entities that reside in two differing spaces, but bodies of influence that need to work hand-in-hand in order to provide Hartford a relevant, effective education. John Barnes, a principal in a Hartford school, immediately recognized this separation issue. Reflecting the sentiments of the high school girls, Greg, one of the students attending Barnes’ school, felt school simply “place to come to during the school year. And despite all our efforts, and I guess I have to admit our efforts were to make him conform, he’s resisted and has been successful in resisting.” It is not just the older students that recognize the school system’s declining efficacy and relevance, but also the younger students such as Greg. Barnes openingly admits he feels there must be something that could be done in order to compensate for the Greg’s troubled home and create a suitable environment in which he “could function . . . reasonably well.” Barnes, having come from a suburban white school, recognizes that there are certain “traditions” schools follow, traditions that monitor the the way the students go to the bathroom to how the teachers teach their students. It is the latter which Barnes sees as critically troubling: “it’s woven into a very very complex pattern I’ve found, that attitudes of teachers, some of which are not overt, they’re not necessarily, you know, racist or whatever else.  They’re just people who have been trained to teach in a particular way, and may or may not have seen that this particular way is not terribly effective with this particular child or the children in this school.” Yet again, fault is placed to another portion of the school system, though in this case the fault is placed on the intricately woven structures of tradition within the school system, the ones contributing to the resistance to drastic change. Included in these traditions are the separation of school and community, keeping both bodies distinct and with incompatible purposes and goals. Thus, in order to improve Hartford schools, as the high school students, Bair, Mrs. Blake, and Barnes have elaborated on, again, is the integration of school and community into connected bodies. Nevertheless, Barnes, like the principal of Barbour school, turns theory into practice by using what Bair referred to as “pressure”. With the help of Horace Bushnell Church, Barnes put pressure on the Board of Education, eventually convincing the Board to provide positions for seven classroom aides. Additionally, the Clay Hill Mothers, a group described as “militant”, also decided to take it upon themselves to the provide cookies and crackers to the students of Vine Street schools as snack in order to supplement the school’s budget, which could only provide the students with milk. Barnes explains that the reason behind this group’s willingness to donate to the school is due to the school finally acquiring aides, a demand they had been discussing with the school previously. The acquisition of aides symbolized the school’s effort to begin changing and unweaving the traditions holding it back from changing, a message that the community had been heard and so the community will hear back. Barnes knew that, though these were just the beginning of transformation for the school, he had set in motion the chance to push the school to even greater educational limits.


1966: The Women Behind Project Concern

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Project Concern, a city-to-suburb voluntary integration program, attempted to challenge the traditional rule that your address determines your education. In 1966, hundreds of Hartford minority students signed up to ride busses to predominantly white suburban school districts that agreed to participate. On the front lines of this integration program were two women- Marjorie Little, an African American paraprofessional and Mary Kennedy, a white suburban school teacher.

Towns surrounding Hartford that participated in Project concern, 1966.

Towns surrounding Hartford that participated in Project concern, 1966.

In the 1960s, school desegregation was a major issue within the Connecticut Public Schools specifically within Hartford, CT. School desegregation was an attempt in ending the practice of separating children of different races from each other and into distinct public schools. The historical nation wide case, Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) sparked a step in the direction towards desegregation within public schools. Numerous Supreme Court decisions since this case have pushed our constitutional rights pertaining to the desegregation put forth in Brown vs. Board of Education. Within the year of 1966, a program was created known as a Project Concern consisting of a two-year experimental plan. This plan stood for a guide to desegregate schools and eliminate any racial imbalance within Hartford, Connecticut. Today this program is known as Open Choice.

Marjorie Little first heard of Project Concern in 1966. Little and her husband lived in Stowe Village, where they attended “workshops”, discussing topics like education with tenants. Little felt that Hartford could educate her children and that it would be unnecessary for them to travel out of the city to receive a solid education- until she witnessed the failed education of her first child, Joseph. Little was raised in Hartford and attended Hartford schools until grade four. Her family then moved to South Windsor and she attended schools there until grade seven. Little went back to Hartford for seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. And then back to South Windsor for the rest of high school, finishing school in 1951. Little believed that she received the same caliber education at both her urban and suburban schools so she felt that her children would have the same experience in their schooling. She later found that to be untrue. Little had already been working for Project Concern when she learned that her son, in 9th grade, was reading the same book as the 5th graders at the school she aided in South Windsor. Little was active in PTA at the school Joseph was attending and thought that the school was doing a fine job. It was then, though, that her opinion of Project Concern completely shifted. She became a full supporter explaining, “The parents who wanted a different type of education for their child should have the opportunity.” Little sent her middle three children to private schools and her last child, Philip, went through Project Concern from grade one to twelve.

Marjaorie Little, Trinity College Video Interview, Vimeo

Marjorie Little acted as a teacher’s aid, meaning she would ride the bus with children traveling from Hartford to South Windsor and worked closely with the students at school. Parents felt they could trust her and the rest of the aids. Hartford parents who were apprehensive could contact Little or any of the other aids with questions and concerns. Many parents were nervous about the safety of their children, but the aids were there to reassure them that everything would be okay. Some South Windsor teachers were against the bussing, but Little did not feel that South Windsor was an area greatly opposed to Project Concern. Little, though, explained that the greatest obstacle for Project Concern were Hartford Board members. Every year advocates had to fight to keep Project Concern a part of the education system. Board members felt that kids traveling to suburban schools were draining Hartford of money. Little and others worked tirelessly so that their children would not have to leave the suburban schools that were providing a better education than the Hartford schools were capable of.
Around the same time that Little was beginning her work with Project Concern, Mary Kennedy was a fourth grade teacher at Eli Terry School in South Windsor. New to the area, Kennedy was determined to uncover as much about the town and its education system as she possibly could. South Windsor became one of the first communities to utilize Project Concern and adopt the bussing program. Kennedy recalled one of her first experiences with Project Concern. She attended a public hearing which “wasn’t pretty”. She recalled, “One parent stood and she said ‘I’m Trude Johnson, I’m from Tower Avenue in Hartford’ and she said ‘Please, give our children this chance.” and it was beautiful.” Kennedy described this encounter as one of the strongest examples of how important this program was to Hartford residents. Kennedy became most in favor of the program when she first taught students from the program. She still keeps in touch with them today.

Mary Carroll Kennedy, Trinity College Video Interview, Vimeo
Mary Carroll Kennedy, Trinity College Video Interview, Vimeo

Kennedy, for the most part, had a white, suburban perspective on Project Concern as it was where she was living and the connections she developed there. She wouldn’t be sending a child through the program and she wasn’t a minority living in Hartford. It wasn’t until Kennedy met Marjorie Little, a paraprofessional with Project Concern assigned to South Windsor, that she began to see Project Concern from the perspective of Hartford residents who truly needed the program. Little brought Kennedy to areas of Hartford she had never traveled to. Little taught Kennedy more than just how the education system worked, but also about the people and culture of the area. Little and Kennedy became more than just coworkers, but also friends. Little encouraged Kennedy to apply for the job of Research Teacher with the Project Concern Program and when the position opened, Kennedy filled it. After a year, though, Kennedy resigned from this position and became an employee of the Hartford Board of Education assigned to Project Concern, specifically for the town of South Windsor. Kennedy attributes Little partly for her ability to work closely with families and students. Kennedy sat in on Hartford Board meetings and listened to the teachers union’s dislike for the program. They argued that the best students were being taken out of Hartford, even though both Kennedy and Little explain that children were selected to participate at random, or at least based on demographics not test scores. The board also feared that the children leaving Hartford schools would take their heavily invested parents with them. Kennedy described the attitude towards Project Concern as, “If anything was wrong with the school system in Hartford it was because of Project Concern.” Even through the negativity Kennedy explained “Our kids became successful; they became successful because things were put in place to make them successful we had that supportive team.”
In 1982, Kennedy became director of Project Concern, around the same time that the Hartford Board of Education was most heavily pushing to end the program. The Board declared that the program could no longer be used in parochial schools. A year later they were voting to end the entire program, blaming the budget. However, the program continued. “All of the districts waived the tuition fee that had been paid to them at the time so that the, our budget was reduced that way. We did lose some staffing but we were able to keep some of the supportive staff and the transportation.” Hartford could no longer declare Project Concern a budget issue. Project Concern did end though in 1998. When Project Concern ended, CREC (Capital Region Education Council) asked Kennedy to join their program, Project Choice which has now become the Open Choice Program. From 1998 to 1999 Kennedy worked at CREC as a Hartford administrator and in 1999 she retired from the Hartford Board of Education and worked for CREC fully. Kennedy left CREC full time in July of 2001 but continued working part time until 2002.
Open Choice Program within the Hartford region gives opportunities to students to attend the non-magnet district schools within suburban towns, and also allows the students in the suburban communities the opportunity to attend non-magnet district schools within the city of Hartford at no attentional cost to the family. If a family wishes to enroll their child in the Open Choice Program they do this voluntarily. To apply their children to the program they must fill out and submit a RSCO lottery application. After the application is sent the child is either placed in a school or on a waiting list. This process is all through the RSCO lottery. Students who are eligible for placement and currently have a sibling within the program are allowed a preference within the lottery, but only for the town where their sibling attends. This rule also applies to families that choose “Open Choice on the RSCO lottery application”. Transportation is also provided at no fee for Hartford families and even for suburban students who attend Hartford schools.
Students enrolled in the Open Choice program have a much higher chance in receiving a post-secondary education, and the majority attend four – year college institutions. Open Choice allows any public school student of any “talent, english language learners, and students receiving special education services” It pushes to be equal and open to students from “diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds”
Mary Carroll Kennedy and Marjorie Little were backbones for the Project Concern Program. Kennedy, a white, suburban teacher, and Little, a black, urban parent, symbolize the urban, suburban partnership driving equal education. Both women, passionate about Project concern, and deriving from very different backgrounds, agree that the success of Project Concern can be heavily attributed to the paraprofessionals that are missing from the Choice Program today. Kennedy states that the paraprofessionals, like Little, “were that bridge between the Hartford parents and the suburban communities.” The paraprofessionals were there to support the students attending suburban schools. Kennedy, addressing current legislators, says:
“Go back to the original design of Project Concern and look at it, read it, become familiar with it and put that in place. Otherwise stop calling the Capitol Region Choice program a continuation of Project Concern because it isn’t. The support services for these children are vital.You are taking a student from the city of Hartford that has a struggling education program and you are placing them in highly academic suburban communities and without any support and that isn’t right. I’m sorry but it is the education of these children that they should be looking at, not the numbers that they need to make the Sheff lawsuit. And that’s what they’re doing now. It’s a numbers game between the Sheff people and the state and these children are suffering because of it.”

1989: A Fearless Leader: The Story of Elizabeth Horton Sheff

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Elizabeth Horton Sheff and Milo Sheff, lead plaintiffs in the Sheff vs. O’Neill case, speak to reporters outside the Connecticut Superior Court. Source: CT Post

The landmark Connecticut Supreme Court case, Sheff v. O’Neill, filed in 1989 on behalf of children in the Hartford school district, was monumental in working towards erasing segregation in Hartford schools. This case was filed on the basis that Hartford children, who were overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, were receiving an unfair public education because of the racial and socioeconomic segregation that separates the city from the suburbs  1. The suit, filed by the parents of these children, looked to desegregate the Hartford public school system. At the time of filing, lead plaintiff, Milo Sheff, was a ten year old Black child living in Hartford with his mother, Elizabeth Horton Sheff, and attended fourth grade at the Annie Fisher School 2. Along with the parents of the eighteen other plaintiffs, Elizabeth Horton Sheff worked tirelessly to ensure that all children in Connecticut would have access to equal schooling. Although this historic Connecticut school integration case is named for her son, Elizabeth Horton Sheff originally became apart of the case by accident, yet over time grew to become its most vocal activist.

While some might call her an “accidental plaintiff” since she was not initially supposed to attend the community meeting discussing the racial isolation in Hartford schools, Elizabeth Horton Sheff’s work for Connecticut children is nothing short of remarkable. Even though she did not have a history of being involved in education inequality issues, she was a long time activist for “justice for people with HIV/AIDS, housing security, food security, and the anti-apartheid movement” and prior to her involvement in the case, had always been an extremely civic minded person 3Elizabeth Horton Sheff grew up in the former Charter Oak Housing Project, which she “lovingly refers to as the…Wal-Mart plaza on Flatbush Avenue,” a neighborhood that had “all different families, racial ethnic families, West Indian, Hispanic, Italian, Asian… [and] what made it so very special was that families knew families and took care of each other’s children 4.” While she might have grown up in a single parent household where her mother worked a lot of long hours, she notes that growing up in a community where people cared about each other led her to have a wonderful childhood. She describes her mother as a woman who “worked very hard to ensure that [they] didn’t understand how very poor [they] were and… that is the basis that led [them] all to be confident youth and person who have excelled in adulthood 5.” Elizabeth Horton Sheff’s prior training as an activist helped shape her involvement in the Sheff case. Much of her training comes from her work as the Vice President of the Westbrook Village Tenants’ Association, which is a public housing development that she raised her children in in the northwest corner of the city 6. When the president of the association was invited to discuss the growing racial isolation in the city schools by civil rights public interest attorneys and local attorney, John Brittain, she asked Elizabeth to attend instead due to fear of some political pushback since she had a child in the Project Choice program. Elizabeth agreed to go because of her interest in public education and take some notes for her friend and as she says fondly, “23 years later, I am still taking notes 7.”

Lead Plaintiff Elizabeth Horton Sheff describes her involvement in the Sheff vs. O’Neill (1989). Source: Trinity College Digital Repository

At the meeting, “the lawyers highlighted the growing racial and economic isolation and resulting disparities in educational outcomes faced by children in the Hartford public school system 8.” What Elizabeth Horton Sheff heard at the meeting changed her life and immediately she knew she wanted to be more than just a notetaker for a friend. That night she learned that 91% of Hartford’s students were members of minority groups compared to less than 4% in Avon, 3% in Canton, 4% in Suffield, 6% in Simsbury, and 5% in Glastonbury 9. While she knew that she lived in a segregated area, she did not realize it was this extreme. She did not realize that 48% of Hartford’s kids came from poor families, compared to the just 2% in West Hartford and 1.5% in Glastonbury 10. When the lawyers discussed the scores of the Connecticut Mastery test to give proof of these disparities one fact “still burns in [Elizabeth Horton Sheff’s] mind: in 1989, 74% of students in the eighth grade in Hartford public schools needed remedial reading services 11.” Time and again, as Elizabeth Horton Sheff tells her story with remarkable consistency, she says that to her this did not mean that 74% of students were failing, but rather that the system was failing 74% of our children 12. She notes that she loves to read and is a mother who always reads to her children, and she was “dumbstruck by the reality that these children could reach the eighth grade without being able to read 13.” After this meeting and hearing the alarming statistics, she knew she had to go home and talk to Milo about getting involved. After Milo attended the next meeting, he agreed to sign on to be considered as a plaintiff for the case, as did many other families. All the families were interviewed and the lawyers picked ten to join the case, including the Sheff family. After a second interview, Milo and Elizabeth were asked to be the named plaintiffs. For the lawyers this was an easy choice. Not only did they have Milo who was a “handsome kid, like a little angel,” but they also had his mother who they deemed “perfect” and someone who was so committed to fighting for justice that they felt “lucky” to have her as a part of their team 14.

Milo agreed to be a plaintiff in the Sheff case because of the inequities and isolation he was seeing in his own school and the city schools around him. Even though Milo had never had any terrible instances in his school that his mother could not handle, it was apparent to both Milo and Elizabeth Horton Sheff that there were children in the Hartford public schools who were not being given the best education possible.

Portrait of Milo Sheff and Elizabeth Horton Sheff-- lead plaintiffs in the Landmark Sheff vs. O’Neill case Photo by Michael McAndrews / Hartford Courant
Portrait of Milo Sheff and Elizabeth Horton Sheff– lead plaintiffs in the Landmark Sheff vs. O’Neill case Photo by Michael McAndrews / Hartford Courant

While  Milo and his mother were named the lead plaintiffs based on Elizabeth’s status as a single mother, person of color, and ability to be extremely articulate, they were not the only ones actively fighting for change 15.When the case was filed in 1989, there were nineteen children representing ten families. These families were African American, Hispanic, Jewish, and of European ancestry and their socioeconomic status ranged from just making ends meet to living quite comfortably 16.The families lived in different neighborhoods both inside and outside of the city. Even though each family was different, they all had some history of activism in their communities and deeply believed in fighting for “equal access for all children to high-quality, integrated public education 17.” These families “bonded from the beginning” and to this day remain committed to the Sheff movement 18.

The Sheff case was filed in April 1989. The basis for the case revolves around three provisions of the Connecticut State Constitution:

The Sheff vs. O’Neill Complaint filed in 1989 Source: Trinity College Digital Repository
The Sheff vs. O’Neill Complaint filed in 1989
Source: Trinity College Digital Repository

Article First, Section 1, which declares all people are equal; Article First, Section 20, which prohibits segregation and discrimination; and Article Eighth, section 1, which mandates “free public elementary and secondary schools” and names the Connecticut General Assembly responsible with ensuring this social benefit for all children 19.The case made three legal claims of inequality that proved that Hartford Schools were failing its students. These claims were:

  • The educational achievement of children in the Hartford school district is unequal to the nearby surrounding communities and “the State of Connecticut, by tolerating school districts sharply segregated along racial, ethnic, and economic lines, has deprived the plaintiffs and other Hartford children of their rights to an equal educational opportunity 20.”
  • The defendants “have long been aware of the educational necessity for racial, ethnic, and economic integration in public schools,” and have recognized the “lasting harm inflicted on poor and minority students by the maintenance of isolated urban school districts.” Yet despite their knowledge, they “have failed to act effectively to provide equal educational opportunity to the plaintiffs and other Hartford schoolchildren 21.”
  • “The Connecticut Constitution assures to every Connecticut child, in every city and town, an equal opportunity to education” and “this lawsuit is brought to secure this basic constitutional right for plaintiffs and all Connecticut schoolchildren 22.”

Because this case involved advocating for Hartford children, the group worked with the lawyers to devise a legal strategy that would help the community. Together, as a coalition, they worked with the community to raise awareness and allow others to participate by lending their support. Elizabeth Horton Sheff is very adamant when she says that “[she] never did it for [her] child 23.” She goes on to describe how “Milo never went to a magnet school. He was out of school before we… really even got to that stage of now implementing a decision… but, I never did it for my child, I did it for our kids 24.” While many of the plaintiffs in the suit never saw much of the direct results of the rulings in the case in their schools, they maintained their commitment to the case in order to help all students, present and future, receive the best education they can, regardless of where they lived, their race, or their socioeconomic status.  

“I never did it for my child, I did it for our kids.”

Through the long journey and wait for a ruling, the group worked tirelessly to gain the support of the local community in the city, as well as the suburbs. Through numerous meetings at churches, community centers, schools, government agencies, and many more, these plaintiffs stood strong with the overall goal to improve the education for Connecticut’s children. Even though the case lost in the lower court, the group appealed the decision to the Connecticut Supreme Court. In July of 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in their favor on the basis of Count 2, upholding the claim that segregation based on race and ethnicity in Hartford schools was a violation of the Connecticut constitutional rights of Hartford schoolchildren 25. The opinion read, “the public elementary and high school students in Hartford suffer daily from the devastating effects that racial and ethnic isolation, as well as poverty, have had on their education… we hold today that the needy schoolchildren of Hartford have waited long enough 26.” Along with this ruling, the court ordered the executive branch of the Connecticut General Assembly to execute its findings. Yet, even though the plaintiffs had this landmark Supreme Court decision, their fight did not stop there and they turned back to the community to continue fighting for social change for their kids and for the community to participate in demanding this change from the state. Even with this ruling in hand, the road to desegregated schools is long and hard, as the Sheff plaintiffs have seen, and the fight continues, to this very day. Yet even so, Elizabeth Horton Sheff and many others trudge on in search for equal education for all children of Connecticut.



  1. Sheff v. O’Neill complaint (Connecticut Superior Court 1989). Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu)
  2. Ib.Id
  3. Sheff, Elizabeth Horton. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill (with video) by Candace Simpson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, July 28, 2011.Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
  4. Ib.Id
  5. Ib.Id.
  6. Ib.Id.
  7. Ib.Id.
  8. Sheff, Elizabeth Horton. “Sheff v. O’Neill: The Struggle Continues against School Segregation and Unequal Opportunity.” Voices in Urban Education, 2004, 16-21.
  9. Ib.Id.
  10. Ib.Id.
  11. Ib.Id
  12. Ib.Id
  13. Ib.Id
  14. Eaton, Susan. The children in room E4: American education on trial. Algonquin Books, 2009.
  15. Sheff, Elizabeth Horton. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill (with video) by Candace Simpson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, July 28, 2011.Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
  16. Sheff, Elizabeth Horton. “Sheff v. O’Neill: The Struggle Continues against School Segregation and Unequal Opportunity.” Voices in Urban Education, 2004, 16-21.
  17. Ib.Id.
  18. Ib.Id.
  19. Shelf, Elizabeth Horton. “Sheff v. O’Neill: The Struggle Continues against School Segregation and Unequal Opportunity.” Voices in Urban Education, 2004, 16-21.
  20. Sheff v. O’Neill complaint (Connecticut Superior Court 1989). Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu)
  21. Ib.Id.
  22. Ib.Id.
  23. Sheff, Elizabeth Horton. “Sheff v. O’Neill: The Struggle Continues against School Segregation and Unequal Opportunity.” Voices in Urban Education, 2004, 16-21.
  24. Ib.Id.
  25. Eaton, Susan. The children in room E4: American education on trial. Algonquin Books, 2009.
  26. Sheff, Elizabeth Horton. “Sheff v. O’Neill: The Struggle Continues against School Segregation and Unequal Opportunity.” Voices in Urban Education, 2004, 16-21.