Roger Paine '68 B.D. recalls night of harmony on Quad on eve of 1967 racial strife
By Roger Paine '68 B.D.
This month is the 40th anniversary of an event on the YDS Quadrangle worth remembering. On what I believe was the last Saturday night in May, 1967, close to 2,000 New Haven teenagers gathered on the Quad for a party with two live rock-and-roll bands. The crowd was about half black and half white. The bandstand was set up right below the Marquand Chapel steps. The cover charge to get in was $3. It was a beautiful May evening under clear skies, and although New Haven police cars lined Prospect Street, expecting trouble, there was none -- none at all -- either on the Quad or on the way to or from.
It was probably one of the last weeks in 1967 when that could have been possible. All hell broke loose in 80 cities around the country that summer. There were riots involving white and black folks in all those cities, there were tanks on the streets of Detroit, and New Haven was not immune. But there was this one glorious night at YDS on the Quad.
It happened because, as a student there, I was doing my field ed working with black teenagers at St. Paul's Episcopal Church down on Chapel & Olive Streets. I inherited a core group of almost 40 high school kids, all black, from each of the three primary black neighborhoods in New Haven. They were a very cool group of kids. And they wanted a Sunday-evening open house at the church that would include everything from dancing to recorded soul music to improvisational theater. So that's what we did -- and within a month, we had 400 black kids showing up every Sunday evening at St. Paul's. The music and dancing was the central draw, but lots of kids took part in the improv -- which was led by an undergraduate freshman named Perry King, who went on to be a Hollywood actor.
Sometime during the winter of 1966-67, the kids told me that what they wished for more than anything else was to have a big dance party "with the white kids in town." The only place big enough I could think of was the gym at a Catholic parish down on Hillhouse -- but they wanted no part of it.
So I asked the YDS dean at the time, Bob Johnson, if we could use the Quad. (He was my honors thesis advisor.) He said "yes" without a moment's hesitation. I thought it was a "go" until we got word that the New Haven police had nixed the idea. At that point I asked my preaching professor, Bill Muehl, who was also an alderman, to intervene -- which he did. The word came down that the New Haven police had no jurisdiction where Yale property was involved -- so they couldn't stop the event. We were back on.
I hired two of the best rock-and-roll bands in Connecticut, one of them all black, the other all white. My kids at St. Paul's papered all the schools with brightly colored posters advertising the event. The "staffing" was all of the volunteers I had working with me at St. Paul's -- Perry King from the college, his girl friend and future wife, Karen Hryharrow, who was a senior at Albertus Magnus, and a Vista volunteer named Leo, plus a few of my classmates.
The scene on the Quad that night looked like this: high school kids, black and white, everywhere, some of them dancing up near the bandstand, many of them spread out all up and down the Quad talking as couples, in small groups, enjoying the music and the balmy evening air. It was just what my kids had hoped for.
I still think of it as a moment in time that showed us -- and proved to us -- what we could be at our best.
I was supposed to graduate that June of '67 but had to wait a year because the run-up to all of this had put me too far behind on my honors thesis; I went on to the church that had called me and finished it up, graduating from afar in June of '68. I'm now senior minister of The First Parish in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a hybrid church that is the union of the original Congregational and Unitarian churches in the town of Lincoln.