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The Ferguson

In June 2002, as I was driving around Stamford, Connecticut, lost trying to find the library in a city I barely recognized anymore, I had to roll down the window for air. I had imagined that my old boyfriend, Joe, was sitting next to me again, telling me what road to take, and I couldn’t breathe. We had lived together in Stamford back in the mid-70’s, and because he was black and I was white, I had internalized the lesson that just being seen in public with him could be a dangerous activity in itself. Driving, especially, put us at the mercy of the police. My eyes kept darting down the side streets, looking for patrol cars, waiting for the damning blue flash of light. I actually glanced at my inspection sticker on the windshield to make sure it was up to date. After a few wrong turns, I arrived at the Ferguson Library without having been stopped for some minor violation, real or imagined. But of course. I was a middle-aged white woman in a station wagon going to the library.

The Ferguson Library is located at the intersection of Broad and Summer, the crossroads of the old business district, and has the red brick walls, white fluted columns, and classic portico of 20th century American civic design. One wing of the old building is now a Starbucks, a seamless marriage of municipal and commercial forces. I don’t remember visiting the library or reading a single book the entire time I lived in Stamford, but I must have because I still have the library card. I found it in an envelope of photos soon after I started digging through my Connecticut years researching an old acquaintance, Margo Olson, who, in 1976, had been found in a shallow grave with an arrow through her heart. She was older than I was and just this side of freaky, so she was not someone I would have known if I had not been living with Joe, who was friends with her boyfriend, Howie. Howie and Margo were another mixed-race couple in town, like us. Howie was a suspect in Margo’s murder but was never charged. He did not leave town. He did not run. Six weeks later he was shot and killed by the police.

America’s Bicentennial was a time of renewed reverence for the past. In that spirit, Joe created our own history for 1976, but it’s proved to be an unconvincing narrative. The story that I bought from him was that the police did not have the evidence to charge Howie for Margo’s death so they killed him instead, and—like everything else in Joe’s black and white world—it was racially motivated. And who can say he was mistaken? Not me. Not by a long shot. But Joe never addressed the issue of who might have plunged the arrow in Margo’s heart, as if her death was a mere accessory to Howie’s wrongful one, and I never asked. Let me repeat that: I never asked. As with any traumatic event, her murder begged to be put outside the realm of daily consciousness and that is exactly what I did. I never gave it a thought until my own girls inched closer to the age I was at the time. Nineteen years old. And then I became obsessed.

In the end, I discovered that you had to already know the story to understand the story, but I knew nothing that first day at the library. I certainly did not know that it would take many visits over several months to finish the first leg of my research at the Ferguson, (note on kitchen counter: “Off to investigate a murder. Dinner in oven. Love, Mommy”), while three children and a husband back in Massachusetts were scratching their heads.

The microfilm machines and archives of the Stamford Advocate were in the library’s musty basement, so once I got settled there with my Starbuck’s coffee and notebook, the librarian asked, “Where do you want to start?” She had a drawer open with dozens of gray metal canisters lined up like ammunition.

I looked at her blankly. I hadn’t a clue what month Margo died. I couldn’t even remember what season her murder took place. How can that be when it happened around the Bicentennial? It should have been a bright memory marker, but it wasn’t. It was no big deal in the black community. Before Vernon Jordan went off to be Clinton’s soul mate, he was the executive director of the National Urban League, and in that capacity toured the country in the spring of 1976 to encourage the community to participate in the Bicentennial festivities. Jordan spoke in Stamford on June 17th to plead his case. He told the audience that blacks needed to be involved to remind the rest of the country that in 1776, only white Americans had been freed, blacks were still legal possessions.

He did not use the word slaves.

Vernon was the “white man’s tool” as Joe would say. Rather than go out on the streets to proselytize about the plight of enslaved blacks in 1776, we stayed home on the Fourth of July and watched an old movie on TV. A few years later, Vernon was shot in the back while climbing out of a white woman’s car.

So no, the Bicentennial rang no bells for me. I was fairly certain it was in 1976, but if I had to take a guess when the murder happened, I would have said the fall. Isn’t that when everything is dying anyway? When Joe told me about Margo’s murder, we were in the car, and I remembered that the pavement was wet, with dead leaves in the street and bunching up at the drains, but that must have been a result of a summer downpour, not autumn rain. Because if nothing else, I knew we were living on Crandall Street in Stamford when Margo was killed. We had no home in the fall of 1975 and we were already in Westport in the fall of 1976. My memory had placed Margo’s death in an impossible time. From the beginning, I was simultaneously searching for her and looking the other way. I tried to convince myself that we had nothing in common, that she was fundamentally an odd duck, the sort of spaced-out hippie chick who did not have the basic sense to run for her life.

It was a false shield that would take me a long time to lay down. The obvious similarity was that Margo and I were both white women living with black men, but that was not the danger, although the necessity of leaving my family for Joe forced me into poverty, which is in itself a serious threat for anyone. The danger was that when we snubbed societal restrictions and taboos in order to enter into those relationships, we had to discard all the rules. We were outside the gates in volatile times. There were no guidelines and precious few examples. All we had were a handful of other young interracial couples in Stamford to look to as an example in a world that had little use for us, black or white.

“I’ll start at the beginning of 1976, I guess,” I said, and the librarian handed me a canister. She taught me how to thread the stiff plastic tape through the reels of the machine and read the dark, imperfect photocopies of the city’s daily paper.

“These are the first few days of January,” she said. “Then work your way down these rows, in this order. 1976 continues to the next drawer.” She held her arms out towards the cabinet, looked at me and smiled. “I hope you’ve got plenty of time.”

I sat in front of that microfilm machine for many an hour and many a day, threading tape though cogs, each roll holding only a few days of the paper. I thought I’d be quickly scrolling through the articles until I found a bow and arrow murder, but that wasn’t the case. There was no way of finding Margo without sifting through the world around her. Around us. And it was one cold world. On the front page of the first January issue, there was a photograph of a thermometer, its temperature in the single digits. As humble as Crandall Street was, and it was very humble, Joe and I were lucky not to be in public housing. For weeks, the lead stories at the top half of the page were about bad weather, and under the fold were articles about public housing with no heat, burst water pipes, and a Housing Authority where no one picked up the phone. The Rev. Ralph Johnson, the minister of the predominantly black Baptist church, charged the Housing Authority director, Margot Wormser, with “neglect and insensitivity to the basic needs of the Southfield Village residents.”

Wormser told a reporter she never heard from any of the residents, which was exactly their point. The Authority hadn’t answered the calls about no heat, or the subsequent calls about no water when all the pipes burst. Housing Authority Chairman, Anthony Marrucco, said it was all “a lot of baloney” and that he hadn’t heard any complaints either. The Housing Authority was supposed to hold a meeting to discuss these accusations, but it was cancelled due to severe weather. In an article a day later, Wormser and Marrucco blamed all the problems on the telephone company. In response to this, the head of the Moderate Income Tenant’s Advisory Committee said Marrucco was “full of baloney.”

All this baloney, but not a single slice for student lunches. The school board celebrated the opening of the Bicentennial year by voting down the hot lunch program, often the only balanced meal poor children ever received (read: black children). Alone, this seemed to be an austerity measure taken in difficult times. But no. There was money for food in the budget, it was just not going to the kids. Later in January, the headline read “School officials dine out; public tab $2200.” The board was running a hot lunch program of their own. They took each other out to fashionable restaurants and charged it to the city. They flew off on $7500 convention junkets to Miami. They spent hundreds of dollars in flowers and jewelry that they gave to each another. They loved one another. They chewed the fat over a cup of java. One thousand dollars had been spent just to run the two coffee urns in the office of the school board’s community relations director. But there was not a crumb for children.

With no lunch program, the kids in the city start getting pretty cranky at the end of the day. In February, at Westhill High, students beat up their bus driver. It was raining and most of the school buses didn’t show up, so the kids packed the only one that did. When the white bus driver tried to regulate the numbers, about thirty of the “almost exclusively black” students yelled at her, making racial remarks, before attacking her physically. The Board of Education president, Ellen Camhi, told the reporter that the beating was because Westhill was “populated with rich whites and poor blacks. The white kids hate the blacks and the black kids hate the whites. It’s too bad. But the kids aren’t to blame completely either, because they get it from home.”

Let’s not mince words. Camhi must have thought better of this comment, or at least she did after someone lectured her on the newly-minted concept of political correctness, because a few days later the headline read: “Mrs. Camhi modifies ‘racism’ quote.” She then claimed that incidents at Westhill resulted from “a complex of problems which exist in society as a whole as well as the school, and that it would be incorrect to blame any trouble at the school on race prejudice alone.”

A week later, at a wrestling match at Westhill High, a fight broke out involving up to seventy-five wrestlers, parents, and spectators, ignited by racial slurs. The police had to be called in, and more than a few people were hospitalized. Events like this were becoming the norm, and city officials scrambled to say the violence had nothing to do with race.

As I continued to scroll though Stamford’s past, I found that Joe’s paranoia about the police was not just legitimate, but downplayed. Can it even be called paranoia if it is only the truth? In the February 1976 archives, I read that the new head of the vice squad was instructed to focus on narcotics and gambling on the police force. Instead, the squad was quickly dismantled “for lack of interest.” That same week, a woman was charged with killing her gambling boyfriend, a former policeman with a long rap sheet. In March, two officers faced criminal charges for alleged theft, and by the end of the month, Chief of Police Kinsela was asked to step down by community leaders on charges of bias and corruption. He declined the invitation.

That spring, week after week, police brutality accusations were voiced and department irregularities reported, including an article about a cop using crystal meth at work and being allowed to remain on duty. The same article mentioned, in passing, that the water cooler at the police station was found to be full of vodka, not water. Fueled on this refreshment, they had quick draw contests in their backyards, in densely populated neighborhoods. One of them shot himself and had to be hospitalized.

By the end of May, the department as a whole was charged with unreasonable force by community activists. Going into June, the headline read “Clergymen starting City watchdog group cite ‘hidden deals’ mob influence rumors.” Soon after, a cop was suspended for drug use, and this was not even the crystal meth cop from May. In late June, two cops were found guilty of larceny from the theft of vinyl siding in the fall.

Vinyl siding? Who steals vinyl siding? The Stamford police were walking off with everything that wasn’t tied down, with half-cocked pistols and drug-addled brains. Was I aware of all this? Only vaguely. Since I didn’t read the paper, I had to figure it out through fragments and accusations, but mostly, these incidents were not so much a topic for discussion as a presence in our lives. Someone might say, “Did you hear about …?” and would be cut off with a groan. Corruption, discrimination, violent racial flare-ups, what else was new? You didn’t need a newspaper to tell you why you couldn’t find a decent place to live, or why the police stopped you for the hell of it. It was not news, it was life.

Twenty-five years later, sitting in the safety of the library, I just shook my head. It was a shameful thing, but not what I was looking for. I was searching for Margo. But I was so taken by the events of 1976 in Stamford, that I stopped at the end of June and began to scroll through the1975 archives for a while, back to the month I moved to Stamford, in September. It was as if I knew exactly when Margo had been killed and started running the other way. But if the fall of 1975 archives were a subliminal distraction, they weren’t a pleasant one. Garbage was piling up all over the country because towns and cities couldn’t afford to have it picked up. Lack of money across the board, unemployment, gas lines, and wild inflation kept everyone feeling shaky. When I was growing up in the late 50’s and early 60’s, New York City was like the sun, supplying light, heat, and gravity to all the bodies in its orbit, but by the 70’s, this sun was eclipsed by blight and decay. White flight had taken so much of New York’s tax base, that in October of 1975, Mayor Abe Beame had to ask for a bail-out from President Ford.

Ford to City: Drop Dead.

Ford, who had just survived two assassination attempts—one woman hoping to gain the approval of mass murderer Charles Manson, the other woman just trying to effect change—would blame losing the general election to Carter in November 1976 because of that Daily News headline. Ford didn’t even say Drop Dead. He swears. Because in the end, Ford did bail out the city, but it was too little, too late. New York City corporations scattered like cockroaches. In the 60’s, when families like mine had left the city, we settled in quaint suburban villages, but corporations need somewhat more infrastructure than a septic tank and a municipal pool. Land for one—lots of it—not to mention transportation, schools, housing, and labor.

In the 1975 articles, Stamford was frantically waving its hand. The developers, realtors, and merchants lusted after those corporations. The City Council wanted those taxes. Everyone had some skin in the game. Please. We are the perfect city. We have already razed the unsightly downtown (read: black community) using HUD money. Gone! A white slate! Do us. Here is I-95 cutting through the mid-section. Close to New York, highly commutable from just about everywhere. A straight shot. The city also had the Merritt Parkway in North Stamford, a curvaceous road that touched thighs with Greenwich, ideal for the corporate executives already living there. If only I-95 had easy exits for the rest of the white-collar commuters to hop on and off. The city fathers wrung their hands.

There was endless back room wrestling. Negotiations with the powers that be in D.C. and Hartford, and the powers that lurked beneath the surface of respectability. Promises. Deals. More deals. Stamford got its fancy-pants exits. This improved transportation costs millions and millions.

Nice! Corporations started sniffing around and everyone was rubbing their hands together. There was that newly leveled downtown, ready for anything. F.D. Rich, the city-designated urban renewal developer, had done the leveling. The company was founded by grandpa Rich, an Italian immigrant who arrived in Stamford as a stonemason, who presumably shortened his name at the gate. In one generation, his company won the one hundred million dollar HUD contract. The American Dream. In North Stamford, where the land was not cluttered with unsightly human habitation, F.D. was playing around with the fresh concept of the corporate park up on High Ridge Road. In the pit of the recession, future prosperity was in the air.

For all this activity and promise, by the winter of 1975-76 Stamford was dead in the water. HUD was taking a breath while it examined its conscience, the result of a lawsuit in the early 70’s that stopped Stamford’s urban renewal program because it had destroyed nine hundred downtown housing units (read: black housing) without replacing a single one. During Stamford’s down time, when everyone was pretending to question the wisdom of clear-cutting poor neighborhoods, what was left of the city began to burn, one fire after another, all winter long. What the HUD financed bulldozers had been stopped from destroying, the fires took care of. Instead of zoning waivers, building permits, and all that silly red tape, the fastest path to a new Stamford was with a match. Downtown was scorched earth. The fire inspectors shrugged, then took each other out to lunch.

When I’d had just enough of 1975, I picked up where I left off in 1976, the first half of July. I fed the canister into the machine expecting to see more of the city’s moral and ethical collapse, when, like a shot across the screen, there was the headline: “Mystery shrouds finding of body.” A decayed female body had been found on Wednesday, July 14th, 1976, when a family, searching for pauper’s graves, smelled “something foul” in the air. It was the first mention of Margo, or more specifically, her body, since no one except her killer, or killers, knew it was her yet. Sitting alone in the basement of the Ferguson Library, I felt my skin flush, as if I never expected to find her, as if it had all been some crazy dream from long ago. I felt it so keenly seeing it in black and white on the screen because I had never allowed myself to feel it the first time.

I put aside all the dark drama of the city, and began to follow Margo. But years of searching only led me back to where I began, the pages of the Stamford Advocate. Corruption. Racism. Recession. Misogyny. The mob. Wanting to be an equal partner with Howie in dealing drugs, Margo came too near the city’s underbelly. She had to go. Then Howie had to go. Now they are history, coiled together forever in the canisters of microfilm in the Ferguson Library. Joe knew the truth all along. He didn’t lie to me, so much as dodge and omit. He thought I knew the world we lived in, that people killed the ones they loved, and that the black population was dispensable. He assumed I could fill in the blanks by just reading the paper.

  1. Chris Bischof on

    I remember Margo from high school. However, I cannot say I knew her. I can only say I passed her in the halls every day, possibly without saying more than 10 words to her during the three years we attended Darien High. I knew she’d been murdered. I remember the news coverage. Based on my view of her as a rather reserved, high school wallflower, her brutal demise seemed totally incongruous.

  2. Ruth Held on

    I don’t remember the murder, but do remember the fighting at Westhill. I was a Cos Cob girl who had a Stamford boyfriend with the coolest car in town. Very interesting read……but made me very sad. Thought about how horrible my bi-racial sister was treated growing up in white Greenwich. 😰

  3. Joe Bitetto on

    Great read, having lived in Stamford as a teenager in the 70’s. I can assure you that not all us white kids at Westhill were from affluent families.

  4. Jerry on

    Your most evocative trip down memory lane took me off on a side street of my own, bringing a minute or two of tears. That said, I wonder where this is going….and look forward to finding out.

  5. Dan Duffy on

    Wow! You’ve written a remarkable account of Stamford culture in the late 1970’s… I can’t wait to read your upcoming book.

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