By: Casey Donahue

January 20, 2015

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – The Watermark at 3030 Park in Bridgeport celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a discussion on civil rights among the senior community’s residents, high school students and Geraldine Johnson.

Johnson was born in Bridgeport in 1919 and became the city’s first African-American and female superintendent of schools in 1976. Now a resident of the Watermark senior living community, she discussed growing up during the time of segregation during the Monday afternoon talk. The talk was joined by Bridgeport high school students who volunteer with the charity BuildOn.

“There were many things that were discriminatory in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I could not go downtown in Bridgeport and have a meal because we were not allowed to eat in the restaurant. I could not go to the theater and sit with the other people because we had to sit in the balcony,” Johnson said.

But she said it was important to her and her six siblings that they get an education and fight to work in the areas that interested them.

When a search committee decided that she would be a good fit as the city’s superintendent, the Board of Education denied her, Johnson said. The committee went back and again came up with her name as its preferred candidate, and was again denied, she said.

“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “There was so much prejudice shown at that time, the city of Bridgeport couldn’t think about having a black superintendent.”

City Council President Thomas McCarthy said the Geraldine Johnson School is the only school in the city named after a living person because of the impact she had on Bridgeport.

“There are change agents in the world,” McCarthy said. “Martin Luther King Jr. was one of those change agents. He was a change agent for the United States of America, but also for the entire world. But he couldn’t have accomplished what he accomplished without having local change agents, and you’re looking at someone who is a legend in the city of Bridgeport because she made a difference in the city of Bridgeport. She changed the city of Bridgeport.”

Johnson said it is important that children learn about King’s legacy, and believes that they should spend the day in school, doing activities that honor his dream. She also read part of his “I Have a Dream” speech, praising his skills as an orator and as a preacher.

Her talk opened up a lively discussion about the civil rights movement and its legacy.

Gail Rutkin, a resident of Watermark, talked about how she fought for civil rights while she was in her 20s in the 1960s, and later adopted two African-American children who faced many challenges in the Fairfield school district. Barbara Buxton worked in Bridgeport schools under Johnson, and praised her work as a superintendent.

BuildOn volunteer Amamihechukwu Nnodum spoke about how local racism has decreased and how young people don’t see each other simply by the color of their skin.

“When we talk to each other we don’t always think about your color or your race, it’s not a conscious thing in our mind all the time. So I think that’s a beautiful thing,” Nnodum said. “Here in Bridgeport, I think everybody, especially the young people, they see each other more as fellow humans, like neighbors.”

The event ended with Johnson encouraging the students to continue their education, and then leading the group in a singing of “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement.