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BLACK SANTA: BACK OF THE BUS

11:59 AM, Posted by Editorial Staff, No Comment

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION

By ANDY THIBAULT, Columnist

Law Tribune Newspapers
January 27, 2003

Black Santa: Back Of The Bus

Symbols are important. Santa Claus, statues of military heroes, Columbus -- they all say something about the values of our society.

The day Black Santa came to virtually all-white Litchfield, values and fears were played out in a most curious way. It all started when Paul Mordecai Rosenberg, a self-described Jewish atheist, brought a plastic, three-foot-high, black Santa Claus to town hall. Rosenberg said he was giving the town a chance to show it was not bigoted. Top officials had been under fire because they refused to allow a town meeting on a proposal that would honor the great abolitionist and best-selling author of the 19th century, Litchfield's own Harriet Beecher Stowe.

There seemed to be a methodical attempt in town to downplay Stowe. Stowe was rarely, if ever, honored by the local historical society or town officials. Some owners of the big mansions talked openly about the prospect of declining property values should the Stowe house be restored in a prime downtown location. Others whispered and trembled at the possibility that busloads of black kids would be coming to town to see the childhood home of the woman who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

For two days, Black Santa sat happily under a Christmas tree. Then he disappeared.

It seems a few people were quite upset. "Everyone knows Jesus was white," one town official was reported to have said.

Someone handed First Selectman Jerry Zinn a memo complaining that this Santa was, well, "inappropriate." No one ever explained how or why.

And so Black Santa stayed tucked away in the back of Jerry Zinn's office for Christmas. Connecticut's TV stations came to see. Even CNN ran a story. Zinn said he liked being on TV.

I asked Zinn for a copy of the memo. He told others he tore it up.

Because this memo -- from one town employee to another -- was a public record, I asked Zinn to produce it or reconstruct it in accordance with Connecticut's Freedom of Information law. The FOI Commission advised me that destruction of public records is a serious criminal offense, a Class A misdemeanor, Sec. 1-240, and that the State's Attorney should be informed. Penalties include fines of up to $1,000 and up to a year in jail. The State's Attorney's office advised me to report such an incident to the state police, and I did.

I also asked Town Assessor Harold Doucey if he had written the memo or if it came from his computer. Doucey responded, "I don't know the source of it. It could have been computer-generated. It didn't come from my computer." When Doucey was told by a citizen that Zinn had given him up to others as the author of the memo, Doucey stated, "I believe in putting everything in writing."

Tourism is the top priority in Litchfield's plan of development. Some communities would be proud to have the Stowe House. How can this Board of Selectmen turn their backs on a no-brainer?

"It would be nice," said Dorothea DiCecco, a University of Connecticut biology professor and a local proponent of the Beecher House, "to show the world that Litchfield is not racist, that Litchfield welcomes everyone."

DiCecco is right. It would be a shame to let Litchfield get away with this.

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