After 89 Years, Coast Guard Academy Using Racist Episode to Teach a Better Future

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January 17, 2023
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When Rear Admiral William G. Kelly learned of a dark episode from his cherished institution’s past, the superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy was deeply astonished and profoundly bothered.

That it happened in 1934 didn’t dissuade Kelly from seeing if some healing could be done, and a positive result could finally be culled from such a miserable moment. But he wasn’t sure the family of the man who’d been wronged would be so amenable.

“I didn’t know about the 1934 episode until we saw a story on Feb. 14, 2021 in the Hartford Courant,” said Kelly. It motivated him to reach out to Harrison “Brooks” Fitch Jr., an 80-year-old lifelong Springfield resident and the son of Harrison “Honey” Fitch, a victim of racial prejudice during the college basketball season nine decades ago.

When decent people with the best of intentions communicate, though, good things can happen — even from the ashes of bad memories. For Kelly, Fitch and the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, that is what is happening now.

Immediately after the newspaper story came out, Kelly wrote a letter to the editor, apologizing for the incident. In January 2022, the academy learned that the elder Fitch was being inducted into the Huskies Hall of Honor, the hall of fame for the University of Connecticut, where Fitch had been a star athlete in the 1930s.

In February, Kelly sent a letter of congratulations to Fitch, Jr., who likes to go by the first name of “Brooks.” The admiral wanted an opportunity to do more, but he wasn’t sure how the Springfield man would react.

“When I reached out, (Fitch) didn’t call back immediately. He saw us, watched us, and did research on us to see if the academy’s actions matched its words.

“He did his homework. When he did accept our outreach, I was thrilled,” Kelly said.

In 1934, the elder Fitch was a star guard on the basketball team at Connecticut State College, as UConn was then known, and also an extremely popular student on campus. His comportment, decency and friendship did as much to deliver the often unspoken message of racial harmony as was his basketball skill, according to his son.

But when Connecticut State College went to play at Coast Guard, the team was informed Fitch would not be allowed to play.

In another incident that night, an African-American boxer from the University of New Hampshire boxer had not been allowed to compete.

“That was not a great night for the Coast Guard, or for the nation,” Kelly said.

“For me, that was a low point for an institution I love,” said Kelly, who played Coast Guard sports before his own graduation in 1987 and considers athletics a critical co-curricular element of the academy. “What happened in 1934 was not an indication of what I experienced in the 1980s, or what the institution is today. Reaching out to his son was just the right thing to do.”

The son wasn’t convinced. At least at first.

“I was very skeptical,” said Fitch Jr. “People can be nice in a letter for (public relations) or a photo opportunity. You can pose and shake hands. I didn’t want that.”

Neither did Kelly. Still, Fitch needed proof that the academy was practicing what Kelly was preaching.

“He studied our retention and graduation rates, and specifically if African-Americans were having success at the academy,” Kelly said.

“We know the timing is really right. This is an opportunity for us to do more.”

That’s what Fitch wants, too. On Oct. 19, eight months after Kelly had contacted him, Fitch visited the Coast Guard campus.

“I wanted a face-to-face interaction. I’ve development a bit of discernment (ability) face-to-face,” Fitch said.

“I spent time with the cadets, had a chance to share questions, and I got an idea of (Kelly’s) philosophy. The letter to me had been sincere.

He added, “I’d refuse to do a public relations moment, but this is a chance to do something positive. The lessons of the past can help us deal with the reality of the future if we deal with it together.”

That the incident occurred in 1934 is coincidental to another seminal moment in Western Massachusetts sports and race relations. That was the year members of an American Legion baseball team from Springfield refused to compete at a tournament in Gastonia, North Carolina, because their Black teammate, Ernest “Bunny” Taliaferro, would not have been allowed to play.

It wasn’t until the 21st century that those two communities found healing and friendship in the early 2000s with a series of friendship baseball games. Until Fitch and Kelly met, the Coast Guard story had not enjoyed such a positive epilogue.

The 1934 game at the Coast Guard Academy was delayed as coaches and officials debated whether Fitch, whose graceful playing style had earned him the nickname “Honey” could play. The basketball game then went on.

According to accounts of the day, it was a rough affair with high emotions that Connecticut State won. Even Coast Guard’s northern location did not protect the player from mistreatment, perhaps in part because a high percentage of the academy’s students were from the South, which serves as a point of context but not an excuse.

The elder Fitch, who lived in Springfield. finished his education at American International College and worked at Monsanto Corp. before his death at age 72 in 1984, carried his scars internally for the most part, according to his son.

“My father didn’t talk much about it. He was very humble, and in addition, African-American parents didn’t want to traumatize or darken the hopes and vision of their children,” Fitch said. “You can’t let people destroy your dreams. I’m trying to carry on what he believed.”

Fitch said he’s working with Kelly and the academy to plan activities for the spring to address diversity and inclusion. “We’re looking at an academy-wide discussion,” he said.

It will include how the lessons of 1934 can be used to address society in 2023. There will also be activities with the basketball programs, which Kelly says are the most diversified units on campus.

Abused by the Coast Guard Academy of 1934, Honey Fitch has not been forgotten at UConn. A basketball, baseball and football star at the college, his inclusion into the Huskies of Honor prompted Kelly to contact his son with a letter of congratulations, an apology for the 1934 incident and an invitation him to visit the academy to hopefully “move forward together.”

Some things have already changed. The gymnasium named after Johnny Merriman, the Coast Guard basketball coach from 1930 to 1945 and its leader at the time of the incident, is now called Alumni Gymnasium, Kelly said.

The academy and Fitch are looking at possible high school curriculum programs and an ongoing relationship with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Fitch wants the impact to spread beyond the New London campus.

“I’m a Springfield person and I’ve been here since I was 2,” he said. Relations with the Springfield Public Schools and local colleges are on the table.

Fitch’s son, who is also an alumni of UConn, has started the Harrison Fitch Leadership Fund. It focuses on leadership and creates opportunities for underrepresented students to better pave their future.

The Coast Guard Academy partnership with the fund will connect with the institution’s Loy Institute for Leadership, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity and athletics program.

Kelly supports these initiatives, even though — or perhaps especially because — they speak to a dismal past.

“It has been the honor of my time as superintendent to meet Mr. and Mrs. Fitch. The Fitch family didn’t owe us anything, yet they had the fortitude to provide us an opportunity to demonstrate our growth as an institution and a service,” Kelly said. “We’ve evolved as nation (since 1934), but we are struggling with how to deal with our past. But working with Mr. Fitch was an easy decision, I’m grateful for his strength of character and his part of our efforts every day to make things right.”

Fitch is convinced progress cannot be made without an understanding of even an unpleasant past. A student of history, he believes telling the story of what went wrong is essential to creating a better society and a better day.

“When I looked at my position, as disappointed as I’d been about what had happened, I wanted to make something positive for future generations to come,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing now.”

___

(c)2023 The Republican, Springfield, Mass.

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