William Washington: A Belief In The Power Of Redemption
By ANNE M. HAMILTON
May 22, 2013
Behind William Washington's quiet demeanor was a philosophy that there is good in everyone. He worked in Connecticut prisons for 30 years teaching inmates how to make clothing, but his real message was that no one was beyond redemption. He also was enjoyed Hartford's rich jazz culture and helped run programs of the Hartford Jazz Society.
Washington, who was 81 and lived in Bloomfield, died April 24.
He was born on April 23, 1926, in Warfield, Va., to Joseph and Mattie Washington, who were from Louisiana. After high school he learned tailoring at Virginia State College, the first fully state supported four-year college for black students, now known as Virginia State University.
He was drafted into the Army in 1944 and served in Germany and Okinawa.
After he was discharged in 1946, Washington headed for Baltimore where there was a substantial textile industry — and a thriving jazz culture. Through his interest in music, he met his first wife, who was one of the first black female disc jockeys in Baltimore, broadcasting on a CBS station.
In the early 1950s, Washington moved to Connecticut and worked for Pratt & Whitney as a machinist, but in 1956, he began working for the state Department of Correction. He rose from a teaching position to be clothing shop foreman, and became active in his union. There weren't many trades taught in the Correction Department at the time, but Washington thought the inmates could learn a trade — by learning to sew bedding and prison uniforms for the prisons — that could help them find employment once they were released.
"He was very optimistic" about the tailoring program, said his son, Paul, and he viewed his students with the same optimism and trust. "It was part of his philosophy — even though they had made a mistake — to treat everyone with the same respect and dignity."
He listened to the prisoners, and asked them about their past. "How can you be a different person?" he would ask. "You can always change … no matter where you are in life."
"Years later, [inmates] would come up to him in the supermarket and say, 'You are one of the few people who treated me decently,'" said Paul.
Washington's beliefs also were informed by his faith; he attended St. Monica's Episcopal Church in Hartford, where he was an usher. "We're not here to judge them; we're here to offer a helping hand," he would say, according to Paul. "If they take it, great. If not, that's OK, too."
He was active in Bloomfield Democratic politics, served as a part-time Bloomfield police officer for years and also was a volunteer with Foodshare.
In addition to amassing a huge collection of jazz music at his home, he was a member of the board of the Hartford Jazz Society. The society, founded in 1960, provided venues where blacks and whites mixed easily.
"There really wasn't any other place in Hartford back in the early 60s where whites and blacks were not just integrated but also socialized," Art Fine, one of the founders of the society, was quoted as saying in a Courant article in 1985. "It was the music that brought everybody together. That was the real catalyst."
Washington helped out with many of the society's activities, but was in charge of the annual Jazz Cruise on the Connecticut River, the group's principal fundraising activity. This year, the cruise, to be held in September, will be dedicated to Washington.
"He was the person who pulled everything together," said Bill Sullivan, a member of the society. "He was very conscientious … and would do anything for you."
Washington's musical tastes ran to traditional jazz — music by Gerry Mulligan, Sunny Rawlins, Dave Brubeck, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis: "Nothing too experimental or far out," Sullivan said.
Washington's tastes were sometimes more traditional than those of other board members, but if there were any disagreements about programs or performers.
"He'd never get into it," said Dan Feingold, a past president of the group. "He didn't participate in fights. He respected other people and other people respected him. ... Whichever way the vote came, he was with it."
Washington, who died of cancer, is survived by Paul and Kenneth, sons from his marriage to Lillian Mills, which ended in divorce. His second wife, Janet Thomas, died in 1983, and his third wife, Marguerite Willis Jones, died in 2009.
In his family, Washington was known as "the voice of reason," said Adrienne Crawford, a niece. "He was mom's sounding board," Crawford said.
Thoughtful and unemotional, he counseled and consoled many family members on matters ranging from finance to real estate to personal problems.
"He was very, very laid back," Crawford said. "He would sit down and calmly talk to you: 'What are the pros and cons? What do you think?' He made sure there was peace in the family."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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