In its front page article three Sundays about the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, our local daily newspaper characterized the Thomas Parrish “filling station” as merely a “gathering spot when times were good.”
For over fifteen years “Tom’s Service Station,” or “The Corner” as it was also known, had provided services and goods to the “Arsenal” neighborhood and beyond. In addition to gas and auto services, Tom’s Service Station provided a variety of other things, such as information about job and business opportunities, referrals for jobs and housing and help for rent payments, some “bargain” goods, guidance and help with court and criminal justice matters, help with paying some transportation and school costs, along with opportunities to make some special “investments,” and helping newcomers find their way.
It was a place where many of Tom Parrish’s friends, customers and people from all walks of life, tended to congregate, in bad times as well as, what that paper’s article called, “good times.” People went to “Tom’s” for news, comradeship, support and guidance, and to discuss current events among themselves. For years, Tom’s Service Station had also served as a kind of unpaid community forum, credit union (where a good number of Tom’s loans were never repaid), and “resources and assistance” center. This was during the period when opportunities for Black Americans were still quite limited.
People came to “Tom’s” to learn, from informed sources, about how the things that were happening in our community and the world at large, along with civic and civil rights issues, could or would affect them. It was there that Tom Parrish raised money for a wide variety of causes, needs and organizations, including the Hartford Branch NAACP. This included the money and materials collected and delivered by a truck driven by Tom and some of his friends, to a community in Alabama during one of the many racial crises of the 1960’s.
“The Corner” was where my brother tried to use some of life’s harsh realities as a means to urge and motivate younger people to get an education and some job skills so that they could take care of themselves, their families and also help people in their community (i.e., “selfempowerment”).
Tom’s Service Station was also, among other things, a political center; a place where most people who were seeking election to local offices and a good number of those seeking state, and state-wide office, made it a point to visit and seek Tom’s support. “Tom’s Service Station” was significant enough that John F. Kennedy made a well publicized stop there during his 1960 presidential campaign as did Vice President Hubert Humphrey during his 1968 presidential campaign.
Given that people had already been meeting at Tom’s small, square, white-painted cinderblock service station for many years before, including during the 1967 disturbances, it was only natural that they would do so when they learned of the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Quite naturally there were tremendous outpourings of outrage and tremendous anger in Hartford, as well as across the nation, over Rev. King’s assassination.
There were also some very real concerns as to what attacks the individual Black American would be facing, now that a civil rights and peace advocate who had practiced nonviolence, and had won the Nobel Peace Prize, had been murdered. Violent turmoil had previously been raging through, or threatening, various communities across the United States before 1968, mostly in reaction to the on-going exclusionary discriminatory practices against Black Americans, the continued violent attacks upon Black leaders and spokespeople, and also against the Vietnam War. Obviously, the assassination of Dr. King exacerbated that rage. A number of Black veterans, especially some “Cold War” veterans and the growing number of veterans returning from the battlefields of Vietnam, were making it very clear that they were not going to put up with those anti-Black practices and laws anymore. Among the outspoken Korean War veterans was Wilbur Smith, a president of the Hartford Branch NAACP and who later became a state senator from Hartford. Other young Black people and some students had also expressed those same sentiments.
A year earlier, a person who would later become a major figure on the Hartford city council, had made a public statement about not letting Black people come down Franklin Avenue.
Also, around 1967 or 1968, some city officials spoke of “a need” to stop Black people from traveling down Main Street past the Barnard Brown School to downtown Hartford. There had also been published news reports of so-called “citizen militia” groups in Avon and some other towns whose goal was to protect those towns from Black folks.
Some Black Hartford citizens who had quickly recognized that anger might very well erupt after Dr. King’s assassination, issued private and public calls for “restraint.” Despite their calls, there were acts of disruption and destruction, and some fires were set – some of them, it seemed to a number of local Black people, set by some unknown out-of-town provocateurs.
These scenarios were part of the Black/white racial climate in Hartford in April 1968. In addition to Clarke King, who was named in that Sunday front page article and whom I know, respect and have high regards for, there are many others of us who were, and still are, in the area and who lived through and remember these and similar other events.
Among the aftermaths of the 1967 and 1968 disturbances, there was what appeared to some to be “institutional vengeance” in the form of the tearing down of buildings and the tearing up of streets in South Arsenal from the Firestone store at “The Tunnel” up Main Street to Tom’s Service Station at Main and Pavilion Streets. Entire neighborhoods disappeared – the people and businesses in them were evicted. Among the Black businesses on Main Street that were moved were the Ford & James Pharmacy, the old “Subway” hotel and restaurant and Tom’s Service Station. Buildings that were on Russell, Donald, Avon, Kennedy and Canton Streets, including the famed neighborhood institution Charter Oak Lodge #67 Elks Club, were simply demolished as part of this “urban renewal.” (Those razing actions were nearly akin to the Romans plowing Carthage into the ground after defeating it.) The city said it was going to replace them with a mixture of small businesses and residential units from “The Tunnel” up to Main and Pavilion.
These events took place during the period when, according to news reports, the “Bishops,” including the Chamber of Commerce, pretty much dictated what was going to happen in Hartford. Some people asked, and still ask: “Why did the city rush to destroy the buildings, eliminate the streets and move the people out?”
In the mid-1970’s, a “Chamber” creation called “The Greater Hartford Process” and its unit, DEVCO, spoke of developing housing and small businesses in the Arsenal area with some of them to be linked to new housing developments in Coventry. However, except for the construction of the initial SAND apartment buildings and (“Everywhere”) school, the area remained mostly empty for decades. By 2005, a building to house stores in the new stripmall shopping center was being built on the site where Tom’s Service Station once stood.
Since these events of 1967 and 1968, massive changes in local and world infrastructures and economies have taken place (the gallon of gas that Tom sold for 35 to 40 cents a gallon now costs $3.45 a gallon). The businesses and jobs in Hartford and the area have changed from a major manufacturing and insurance base to “retail sales,” much murkier “financial services,” and the less favorable “personal services” base.
The challenge is still with us, especially to Black Americans, to improve lives and conditions in this time in which economies are changing wildly, addictions to money, power and drugs are growing, violence is flaring, civility and politeness are being displaced by crudeness and rudeness, and amorality and immorality are trying to becoming the rule.
Reprinted with permission of the NorthEnd Agent's.
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