May 19, 2022

Op-Ed: Systemic Racism and Old Lyme — Past, Present and Future

COMENTS ARE NOW CLOSED ON THIS ARTICLE, BUT THE 20+ SUBMITTED CAN STILL BE READ.

This op-ed was written by the ministers of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme:- Rev. Steven R. Jungkeit, Ph.D. (Senior Minister), Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager (Senior Associate Minister), and Rev. Carleen Gerber (Associate Minister.)

As the death of George Floyd, and now Daunte Wright, once again dominates the news cycle, so too local communities throughout the United States are called to continue the work of addressing the inequities and injustices caused by systemic racism.  Thankfully, in many places, that work didn’t begin with the death of Mr. Floyd – it has been happening all along.  Still, the horrific footage of that event, together with the killing of Daunte Wright, underscore both the urgency of the work, and the sheer scale of it.  The roots of systemic racism run deep, and they are pervasive.  Those roots run deep throughout the entire country, but they are especially pervasive in local communities.  Old Lyme, Connecticut, is not an exception.

To say that a community (or a country) is afflicted with systemic racism is not the same as attributing racist behaviors to individuals.  While it might be true that some individuals do exhibit racist behaviors, and while it is also true that most people possess unconscious biases in need of examination, systemic racism is far more subtle.  It has to do with who benefits most from our economic system, our educational institutions, and our business practices.  It has to do with the availability of health care, and the location and availability of housing.  It has to do with transportation and environmental resources.  Countering systemic racism involves discovering where blockages toward racial justice exist, and then doing the hard work of reshaping and reforming those structures in order to create communities that are inviting, fully responsive to the diverse needs of those who live there.

Old Lyme, along with the entirety of the Connecticut Shoreline, has a long history of systemic racism that has gone largely unnoticed and unaddressed.  Historical research discloses that the wealth of the town was built through trade with the West Indies, islands where slaves were worked to death on sugar plantations.  Barrel staves were made in Old Lyme, which were then shipped to Barbados from the Lieutenant River and the Connecticut River.  Molasses, converted from the cane sugar harvested by enslaved Africans, came back in those barrels, which was then converted into rum.  Communities all over Connecticut supplied the West Indies with agricultural products, which were then converted into molasses, and then rum, and then the purchase of human beings.  Old Lyme, together with other Connecticut towns like Old Saybrook, Wethersfield, New London, and many others, played its part in that global relay system.

But Old Lyme didn’t simply profit from a slave society that was far away.  It was a slave society.  We can document as many as 160 enslaved people – and likely more – that lived in this town alone.  Many, if not most, of the towns along the Connecticut Shoreline have similar numbers.  The first minister of the Congregational Church in Old Lyme owned at least one enslaved person, named Arabella.  A prominent member of the town in the early 18th century sold a three year old child, named Jane, away from her mother, writing in the deed of sale that she was sold in order to have and to hold, to be possessed and enjoyed.  The largest slave holding family in New England, the DeWolfs, built an integrated empire of slaving in Bristol, Rhode Island in the 18th century, but they got their start in Old Lyme – one of the early family patriarchs is buried in the Duck River Cemetery.  At least three enslaved people lived on the site where the Congregational Church now stands.  At least five enslaved people lived in the house that now serves as the parsonage.  Several more lived on the site of the town library.  More still lived at the site of what is now the Florence Griswold Museum.  That’s merely a handful of the human beings who were enslaved in Old Lyme.

But it’s not only enslavement that occurred in Old Lyme.  Redlining did too.  Property records exist from the mid-20th century that prohibit the sale of houses or land in Old Lyme to people of color.  Such records raise questions about precisely what is meant when contemporary residents deploy language about “preserving the town’s historic character.”  What does “character” mean, precisely?  Can that “character” be separated out from the history of systemic racism that took place in Old Lyme?  Given the evidence of systemic racism in Old Lyme, are there not aspects of the town’s “historic character” that we might wish to address, change, and overcome?

The Resolution on Racism as a Public Health Crisis currently before the town’s Board of Selectmen is a way of publicly acknowledging the ways structural racism adversely affects the bodily, emotional, and spiritual well-being of people of color, an acknowledgment that should not be controversial.  Passing it would acknowledge that structural racism exists throughout our country, including in places like Old Lyme.  It would send a clear message to the people of color and minorities who do live in the town that local leaders actually care about their well-being.  It would do the same for the people of color who work in town, but live elsewhere.  But more than that, passing the resolution would send a signal to those living in other communities that Old Lyme understands the conditions that far too many people face in Connecticut and in the wider United States.  Finally, it would help to acknowledge this town’s complicity in the very formation of structural racism, a complicity in which it is not alone.  Sadly, failing to affirm that Resolution declares the opposite: the desire to retain the town’s “historic character,” together with all that phrase implies.

Passing a resolution is a largely symbolic activity.  Still, we believe such passage would be a substantive step toward lasting change.  But clearly more work is needed if we are truly to address the inequities that have existed in Connecticut, and in Old Lyme.  That work would include a public education program to learn the history of enslavement in Old Lyme.  It would include building a curriculum that would teach that history to our children.  It would include an active campaign to invite people of color to live in our community, and to take part in our educational system.  And it would include a commitment to building affordable housing, which, it should be noted, would also benefit many within this community who already face precarious housing.

We believe it is time for Old Lyme to lead on issues surrounding structural racism.  The murder of George Floyd and the murder of Daunte Wright, together with the public reckoning that such violence has unleashed, has created an opening toward greater honesty, empathy, compassion, and justice.  Mr. Floyd’s death, and Mr. Wright’s, is nothing short of a tragedy.  Indeed, it is more than that – it is a national emergency.  With that tragedy and with that emergency, we have an opportunity to work toward a greater and more inclusive public good, one in which towns like Old Lyme become the hospitable and welcoming communities that we most deeply wish to be.

Editor’s Notes: We welcome comments on any article published on LymeLine.com but we would like to remind readers that our policy on comments states that you must provide your first and last name, and an email address that we can verify. Comments will not be published under a pseudonym. Personal attacks on anyone or any group or organization, especially on other commenters, are not permitted. Also, we will not publish comments that are abusive, defamatory, indecent, libelous, obscene, off-topic, pornographic, profane, threatening, unlawful, vulgar, or otherwise objectionable.

Letter to the Editor: First Congregational Church Leaders Denounce ‘Unholy Alliance of Religion, White Supremacy, and Far Right’

To the Editor:

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, (the wise ones) left for their own country by another road. — Matthew 2:12

It was for many of us a sleepless night.  Though the President and his supporters have been broadcasting their intentions for weeks now (years actually), the events on Capitol Hill and the Washington Mall on Wednesday were incredibly disturbing.  The violence, the lies, the ignorance, the gullibility, and the cynicism were staggering to behold, filling many of us with dread about the future of our country.

Not the least of the disturbing images to emerge from Wednesday’s events was the Confederate flag unfurled within the Capitol Building.  So too, the implements and symbols of Christianity were widely apparent among the insurrectionists – a sign reading “Jesus Saves,” crosses, and other such unholy displays of religious fervor were readily displayed.  Let there be no mistake: this was a white supremacist attack on democracy, one that appropriated and distorted the symbols of Christian faith as a means to achieve its twisted ends.

We at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme stand firm against this unholy alliance of religion, white supremacy, and far right political values.  We call on our neighbors and friends to join us in renouncing such distortions of faith, in the name of an embracing love that refuses to accede to the darkest illusions of human life.  We acknowledge the long history that has misconstrued religious faith as a means to express hatred, intolerance, racism, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny.  Together, we seek another road.

It cannot be overlooked that Wednesday, January 6th was the Day of Epiphany, when Christians commemorate the journey of the Wise Men toward Jesus.  It also cannot be overlooked that in that story, Herod, another unstable political leader, unleashed violence in his own attempt to preserve what little power and authority he possessed.  But the Wise Men saw through Herod’s bluster and his ruses.  They refused Herod’s authority, and sought out the wisdom of the Prince of Peace.

We choose the way of the Wise.  That way is arduous.  It forces us to interrogate our deepest assumptions about religion, and about power.  It asks us to be resolute in renouncing the blandishments and deceptions unleashed by all the Herods of the world.  But it is also the way that leads toward truth, toward healing, toward wholeness, toward mercy, toward life.

It was for many of us a sleepless night.  Let it be our own invitation to take up the quest of the wise and to seek out another way.  Let it be an invitation to search for our own country by another road.

In the name of the Child born in Bethlehem …

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Steve Jungkeit, Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager and Rev. Carleen Gerber,
Old Lyme.

Editor’s Note: The signatories are all ministers at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme; Jungkeit is Senior Minister, Fitzpatrick-Nager is Senior Associate Minister and Gerber is Associate Minister.

Letter to the Editor: An Open Letter to the Old Lyme Community … with Two Challenges

Editor’s Note: We published this letter July 22. We have received comments almost daily related to it — the publication date shown reflects the date of the most recent comment. PLEASE NOTE THAT AS OF JULY 31, 2020 COMMENTS ON THIS ARTICLE ARE NOW CLOSED.

To the Editor:

An Open Letter to the Old Lyme Community 

Several weeks ago a group of two or three hundred residents of Old Lyme marched from Town Hall to the First Congregational Church. On that day, people of varying political perspectives and social backgrounds joined together to give voice to the pain, indignation, and yes, hope, that meaningful change could be enacted to address the systemic racism that continues to plague our country. It was a heartening moment, one that was reenacted a week later in Lyme, thanks to the leadership of several thoughtful and passionate students from the Lyme-Old Lyme High School. Both events were the occasion for our community to acknowledge its limitations, even while articulating our broad aspirations, that toward which we hope and strive. 

Foremost among our limitations is the scarcity of people of color in our two towns, a fact made overwhelmingly clear by the rallies themselves. The faces gathered on the church lawn and on the ball field in Lyme were predominantly white. Foremost among our aspirations is the will to address that painful evidence of de facto segregation, and to make our town more welcoming and open to people of all races and backgrounds. To do that, we’ll have to ask, and hopefully answer, difficult questions about what makes our schools, our houses of worship, our public spaces, our town boards and committees, and yes, our housing, so overwhelmingly homogenous, so overwhelmingly white. 

Two years ago Old Lyme went through a series of public hearings about an affordable housing project that would have been built under the direction of HOPE Partnership. During those hearings, many residents voiced a variety of concerns about the location of that project, while also saying that they were broadly supportive of affordable housing – just not there. 

Now is the time to reopen that discussion. Now is the time to trust that what was spoken during those hearings, a broad affirmation of the need for affordable housing in Old Lyme (and Lyme), was actually the case. Now is the time to trust that the pain, outrage, and hope that brought so many of us together last month might actually translate into a meaningful gesture to address the de facto segregation of so many of Connecticut’s towns, including our own. Now is the time to come together as a community, and to finally construct the affordable housing that we so desperately need if we are to be the welcoming and open community we wish to be. 

In a recent conversation with HOPE Partnership, they shared that the organization expended over $100,000 as a result of costs incurred in Old Lyme two years ago. This included land deposits, architects fees, engineering fees, and legal fees. That loss has severely impaired their ability to continue their mission of building affordable housing along the Connecticut Shoreline – though it’s surely worth noting that Madison has recently approved a HOPE project, with another currently underway in Essex. Still, among the consequences of the Old Lyme incident is that HOPE has not been able to hire a new executive director after their previous director left. HOPE Partnership is one of the foremost agencies working to address the systemic inequities of our region, inequities that have profound implications for the racial injustices that have weighed heavily on our hearts over the last months. 

And so here are two challenges. First, can we in Old Lyme come together to collectively raise the $100,000 it will take to replenish the losses HOPE experienced two years ago, helping to restore their capacity to pursue their mission? Through the generosity of two anonymous sources, the First Congregational Church is able to seed that effort with $25,000. That’s a start, but the gap remains. Might some of the other organizations in town be willing to contribute to that effort? Might individuals, with contributions both large and small, be willing to help meet that goal? It would go a long way toward binding the wounds that still exist from two years ago. And it would be a meaningful way to address the systemic injustices that our nation is finally confronting. 

If you’re willing, you can contribute to HOPE Partnership at: 

HOPE Partnership Inc. 90 Main Street, Suite 105B Centerbrook, CT 06409 

We also understand that not everyone is in a position to help financially during this time, particularly because of COVID-19 and its aftershocks. Moral support is also deeply appreciated. You can show that in the form of a letter or short note to HOPE, which would go a long way toward encouraging those who have volunteered their time and labor to construct affordable homes in our region. 

The second challenge is this: we need to find a site where affordable housing can be built, and we need to get out of the way and allow the project to move forward. We are encouraged that the recently formed Old Lyme Affordable Housing Committee is working to identify sites in town that might be suitable, and we support those efforts. 

It won’t single-handedly solve the inequities and injustices that plague our country and our region. But it will create an opening, one that suggests that we’re listening, that we’re responding, and that we care. 

In hope … 

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Steven R. Jungkeit, Old Lyme.
Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager, Old Lyme.
Rev. Carleen Gerber, Old Lyme.

Editor’s Note: All three authors are Ministers of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.

PLEASE NOTE THAT AS OF JULY 31, 2020 COMMENTS ON THIS ARTICLE ARE NOW CLOSED.