PORTLAND — When Brookelyn Grant was in third grade, her teacher gave her an assignment: Write about your ancestors and your family history. So she went to talk to her Aunt Gracie, the oldest living relative she knew.
“I never hung out with my grandparents as much as I wanted when I was little, and so I really wanted to get to know how they came up and how they were all connected, stuff like that,” Brookelyn, who is now in eighth grade at Beman Middle School, told CT Examiner during a recent event in Portland. “Because whenever we used to have holiday parties and stuff, it was so fun to connect with them.”
The story she discovered was not only that of her family, but of a small, vibrant community in the heart of downtown that managed to keep its ties even when uprooted and displaced by a local redevelopment project.
The Portland Historical Society presented Brookelyn’s work, as well as a history of the Brownstone Redevelopment Project, on Sunday at the Waverly Senior Center. Susan Branfield, the town’s former first selectman and second vice president of the society, presented the project.
“This is new information about older times, which is sort of an interesting way of looking at information that’s been there for a long time. But we’ve, in Portland, not talked about it, at least not in my circles,” Branfield said. “If we don’t learn and talk about our history, we don’t know why we’re here today and where we’re going toward our future.”
A family’s history, a town’s history
Brookelyn’s family has a long history in the town. Her great-Aunt Gracie’s father, Lenard Smith, migrated from Georgia to Portland, Connecticut, as a teenager, where he found work at a brickyard in Middletown and at the Strong and Hale Lumber Company. He and his wife, Ola Mae, also did domestic work for a white family in town, the Barrys.
Grace Smith Larry, or Aunt Gracie as Brookelyn calls her, was born in October 1927, one of five siblings. While growing up, she was one of 15 Black families in Portland who lived in a community under the Arrigoni Bridge.
Lenard and Ola Mae opened Smith’s Luncheonette, a restaurant and store at the corner of Main and Lower Main Street, in 1946. Brookelyn recounted during her presentation that Aunt Gracie would help stock shelves in the store as a child, and assisted her mother with the cooking as an adult. They cooked soul food, hamburgers and hot dogs for the lumberyard workers who would come to the restaurant for lunch.
Brookelyn also mentioned the 1959 fire at the Phillip Brothers Fuel Company Chemical Plant, causing residents to flee their homes in the middle of the night as acid was flung from the plant. Barbara Shaw, a former resident of Portland, said one of the reasons people survived was that the security guard, Charles Mifflin, went from door to door warning people about the fire.
In the mid-1960s, Portland asked the federal government to provide a grant for redevelopment along land below the Arrigoni Bridge — an area that was home to many Black families. The federal government approved the request and, in 1972, Portland residents voted to go forward with the project.
In a brochure from the period, the area was described as the location of “blighted, obsolete housing” that provided little to the town’s tax rolls. Yet the brochure also described its “enormous potential” for development, since the area was zoned for industry and had “readily available water, sewage and railroad lines.”
The town estimated that the redevelopment would increase the tax yield fivefold.
After the 1972 vote, the government seized the properties — the majority of which were residential — through eminent domain. Homeowners were given what the town determined to be the value of their properties, and Portland built housing for the displaced families — a provision required by law. Renters were also given a small sum to help relocate.
Aunt Gracie’s home and Smith’s Luncheonette fell within the redevelopment zone. And so did True Vine Holiness Church, the house of worship that served the families in the area.
Brookelyn’s grandmother, Earlene Grant, told CT Examiner that after the eminent domain seizures, Aunt Gracie relocated to a house on Tuccitto Road, where she still lives. On Oct. 14, she turned 96 years old.
Earlene said she was extremely proud of her granddaughter’s interest in her history.
“It makes me feel very proud that she’s so interested in her ancestry and that she did such a good job,” she said.
Brookelyn’s father, Eric Grant, told CT Examiner he was “blown away” by his daughter’s work.
He grew up in Chester, but said he loved visiting Portland as a child to see his relatives. The family eventually moved to Portland when he was a teenager.
Eric became the first full-time Black policeman in Portland, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Sonny Smith, the town’s first Black constable. He described his decision to become a police officer as a “calling.”
“There really is a discretion and an awesome power that police officers have as they take people’s money and sometimes their livelihoods from them, and sometimes their lives. And seeing how, when under the same circumstances, things are handled different ways — depending on the economics, depending on the race and the culture — I kind of felt that it was my calling to make it even across the plane and point out when these things would happen,” he said.
Earlene’s immediate family was also affected by the eminent domain seizures. Although Earlene was already married at the time, her younger sister, Kathryn Smith, recalled returning home from college and discovering that her family’s house was no longer theirs.
“I couldn’t move in with my parents,” she said. “I could have been homeless then because I technically didn’t have my own place to live.”
Her parents, she said, tried to find a house but couldn’t, so they moved to Chatham Court, a housing project run by the Portland Housing Authority. Smith said she remembers her younger sisters, Rosalyn and Laura, being extremely upset.
“They hated it. They cried. We were used to living in our own house, our own space,” Kathryn said.
Eventually, Kathryn said, the family moved into a house on Tuccitto Road.
A split community
Patricia Hall Jemison, whose family also lived in the community under the bridge, said she was in junior high when the redevelopment happened.
“I thought redevelopment tricked the elderly, older uneducated people. It sounded pretty when it wasn’t,” Jemison told CT Examiner.
She said her family’s home was also bought during the redevelopment, and that they relocated to Chatham Court.
“When I came back from college, I was able to tell my parents that that wasn’t a fair trade,” she said. “They put us in a community in the projects. … They made it sound like it was going to be luxury housing. …. It was a project.”
But, she said, her family and the other families who had been displaced turned the housing development into a home.
“It was never filthy. It was never littered. We never fought. There was no hostility. There was nothing but playful times. The same people that lived under the bridge were able to have the same community. We made Chatham Court a great community,” Jemison said.
Resident Barbara Shaw also remembered the Chatham Court housing complex as a place where families created a community. Her mother was the first director of the Portland Housing Authority, and she lived in Chatham Court.
“People, families knew each other, cared about each other. My mother ran a tight ship, so there was no riffraff,” she said. “Everything was kept up. Lawns, everything. It was not an eyesore.”
Shaw said the town’s plan to make more money by redeveloping the area was ultimately a failure.
“To me it was a disaster. You broke up a community. People need to know that this is what it was,” she said.
Shaw said the town should apologize to the people who were displaced, and that living family members should receive some compensation.
“The only people that got money were homeowners. The majority of the people, they were renters, so they got nothing,” she said.
Brookelyn said she and her family try to stay connected as much as possible, and that she likes looking back at the depth of her family’s history.
“I think it’s just really cool to have these roots and to be able to look back on this and see how far it went back, and how connected the community was and how connected my family was to the community,” she said.