Once, during what now seems like another lifetime, Gertrude Johnson Mero caught a small glimpse of the epic moment that arrives today.
Fifty years ago, Mero's husband, Wilfred Xavier Johnson, became the first black man elected to the General Assembly in Connecticut.
A woman born in the segregated South, who went to colored-only schools in New Jersey, who came to Hartford in 1948 and worked at Pratt & Whitney, who raised five children, saw a black man go where none had gone before.
It was, according to Courant political writer Jack Zaiman, "A Great Negro Event."
Five decades later, we sit in her Tower Avenue home, sipping tea and talking about this Great American Event bearing down upon us.
This 81-year-old, tough-as-nails matriarch of Hartford politics views me warily across the kitchen table.
If you know Hartford politics — from city hall to Congress and from the legislature to Project Concern — you know Trude Mero. I came to hear what today means from a woman who has been through it all. There are other things to cover first.
Do I know what it is like to be an American and not even have a birth certificate, to be born in 1927 in segregated South Carolina and not even have proof of who you are?
I'm ready to talk about a President Obama and she tells me about her husband, Wilfred "Spike" Johnson, and the long ago wheeling-and-dealing politics of Irish, Italian and African Americans. We talk about legends — Ribicoff, Bailey, Kelly — and then the great African American women of Hartford: Ella Cromwell and Mary Parkman Johnson.
"We had no one in the system," she explains.
There was 1960, when JFK spent the two days before the election barnstorming through the state, including a stop at Main and Pavilion streets, before heading to the Hartford Times portico.
The crowds, a Courant reporter wrote, were "uncountable. They were large; they were enthusiastic; they were everywhere."
A Catholic senator from Massachusetts asked everyone to reject those who "sit still and look towards the past" and instead "look towards the future."
Mero understood then and still does now.
"You were aware that knocking down barriers benefits us all," she said.
Years later she was in Wethersfield on a March night in 1968, attending a packed hearing discussing whether Project Concern should come to town. Mero was one of the original organizers of Project Concern, the nation's first voluntary desegregation program.
"Look beyond the blackness of my skin," she told a room of 400 a month before Martin Luther King was assassinated, "and you will find that I am a mother of five who likes to dream the dream of tomorrow."
In West Hartford that same year, she had a similar message for a town that was questioning whether Project Concern children could keep up in a suburban school.
"It is not right for a child not to be able to dream — to dream of an education, which brings a job and a home and a lot of other things most people take for granted."
Finally, we get to her visit to Denver this summer, not as a Democratic delegate but because of a gift from her children, "to see history" being made. We sit in silence for a minute or so.
"I see that I am dreaming again." Tears run down her cheeks.
"I have lived to see personified through Obama, where the majority in the country are now looking at the content of character … in the United States of America. Wow. Isn't it something?"
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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