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Notably Norwich: From civil rights to sports, it’s time to applaud outstanding citizens

As Black History Month draws to a close, I am reminded that my former hometown has been blessed with many, many prominent and accomplished Black citizens who have had such a positive impact on our lives in Norwich.

It is fair to say that members of Norwich’s Black population have made significant impacts locally, statewide and even nationally in various fields, ranging from education and social services to politics and and the arts, to social services and civil rights.

Some, like Virginia Christian, the first elected Black City Councilor in eastern Connecticut, made their marks more than a half-century ago and paved the way for the likes of Jacqueline Caron, who would serve multiple Council terms years later.

The impact of folk artist Ellis Ruley, whose gift wasn’t truly appreciated until after his suspicious death in 1959, dates back even further and will be felt for many more years to come as his stature continues to flourish.

Others like young Myles Bradley, a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Trust Fund Scholar, who excelled academically and in track, and was educated at Norwich Free Academy, Stanford University, and Yale School of Management, are rising corporate superstars. I was privileged to have Bradley as a colleague from 2009 to 2012, when we both worked at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

It was also a privilege to work with Norwich Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes, who served with me as a member of the Foundation Board at Three Rivers Community College. Gomes’ dedication, compassion and tireless work ethic have made life better for thousands of of people in the city’s ethnic melting pot.

I remember the thrills we got from watching the great Jim Euell win state track and cross country meets with seeming ease. He concluded his brilliant running career at NFA by finishing fourth in the country in the mile run with a time of 4:10.1.

As its longtime president, Dr. Grace Jones skillfully guided Three Rivers Community College through a period of substantial growth and transformation on a magnificent new campus on New London Turnpike.

Dan Jenkins, the first African-American lieutenant in the Norwich Police Department, was a cop’s cop, well known and respected throughout the community, and a wonderful role model for young people of all races.

My old friend, Luis “Lou” DePina, elevated Norwich’s quality of life immeasurably during his remarkable 25-year career as the city’s recreation director. Lew Randall and Don Scott were both good enough to play professional sports in the 1950s (baseball for Randall; football for Scott) after graduating from NFA, but both opted instead for long, distinguished careers in education administration.

Jacqueline Owens, lovingly known as “Mother Owens,” took the local branch of the NAACP to national prominence during her 30 years as its president.

And Army Sgt. Robert Louis Howard, another star athlete at NFA, died a hero in 1969 in the Vietnam War. Years later, his son, Robert, II, who was only 4 years old when his father died, would get closure from making his own trip to Vietnam.

There are many others who have had successful careers and given a great deal to their community. I had originally intended to recognize as many of them as I could remember, but there are so many, a single column wouldn’t do them justice.

So, I will focus on the individual who has served the community longest and best, with grace, humility, substance, and determination, not only within the Black community, but for all of Norwich: the woman everyone knows and loves, Lottie Scott.

She came to Norwich in 1957 from a farm in Longtown, S.C., where she was born and raised. She fled an unhappy marriage that year and settled with her son in what she would later call “the Promised Land.” Longtown’s loss was Norwich’s gain.

Scott quickly established herself as a respected social and civil rights advocate in and around her new hometown. She would later serve as president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and worked in a labor of love for 22 years with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. She was an unabashed, unapologetic and unrelenting force for civil rights, but her service was not one-dimensional.

Scott would later serve not only on the Board of Directors for the William W. Backus Hospital, but as its chairwoman. She is a life member of the Norwich Historical Society and serves on the Norwich Sachem Fund Committee. She has served for decades in the Norwich Rotary Club, earning the prestigious Paul Harris Fellowship Award for prolonged and distinguished service. It is Rotary’s highest honor.

She earned the W.E.B. Dubois Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut State Conference of NAACP branches.

In 1993, the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce named Scott Citizen of the Year. The award put her in the company of distinguished leaders from the fields of government, law, banking, business, education and religion, but if you talked to any of the other honorees, they’d tell you it was their privilege to be in her company.

In 2017, Scott received Liberty Bank’s Willard McRae Community Award.

“In choosing the recipient of the award, we look not just for people who have given their time in service to community organizations, but for those who have made it their mission to make opportunities available to all,” said Liberty Bank President Chandler Howard when he presented Scott with the award. The stated criteria for the award fit her to a tee.

The $5,000 award that comes with the honor was hers to designate. She directed the award to be divided between the Robertsine Duncan chapter of the NAACP, the Ellis Walter Ruley Committee, and the Norwich Arts Council. For her, it’s all about well-roundedness and diversity.

More recently, Scott wrote a book about her early life. Titled “Deep South — Deep North: A Family’s Journey,” it is a heart-wrenching yet inspiring story about growing up poor in the racially-charged south, where she did grueling farm work and endured domestic trauma before making the difficult decision to leave her southern hometown and begin a new life in Norwich.

We can lament the struggles of her early life, but celebrate that they were part of a bigger overall plan that helped her decide to re-locate to Norwich. So many individuals and the community as a whole have benefited from her wisdom, grace, and energy.

Thank you, Lottie!

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