When Rear Admiral William G. Kelly learned of a dark episode from his cherished institution’s past, the Superintendent of the US Coast Guard Academy was deeply amazed and deeply disturbed.
That it happened in 1934 didn’t stop Kelly from exploring whether a cure might be possible, and finally finding some positive outcome from such a miserable moment. But he wasn’t sure the family of the wronged man would be so lenient.
“I didn’t know about the 1934 episode until we saw a story in the Hartford Courant on February 14, 2021,” Kelly said. It motivated him to reach out to Harrison “Brooks” Fitch Jr., an 80-year-old lifelong resident of Springfield and son of Harrison “Honey” Fitch, who was the victim of racial prejudice during the college basketball season nine decades ago.
When decent people communicate with the best of intentions, however, 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 exactly what is happening now.
Immediately after the newspaper article appeared, Kelly wrote a letter to the editor apologizing for the incident. In January 2022, the academy learned that the elder Fitch had been inducted into the Huskies Hall of Honor, the hall of fame at the University of Connecticut, where Fitch had been a star athlete in the 1930s.
In February, Kelly sent a congratulatory letter to Fitch Jr., who likes to go by the first name “Brooks.” The admiral wanted a chance to do more, but he wasn’t sure how the Springfield man would react.
“When I answered, (Fitch) didn’t call back right away. He saw us, watched us, and researched us to see if the Academy’s actions matched their words.
“He did his homework. When he accepted our assignment, I was thrilled,” said Kelly.
In 1934, the elder Fitch was a star guard on the basketball team at Connecticut State College, as UConn was then known, and was also a hugely popular student on campus. His demeanor, decency, and friendship helped convey the often unspoken message of racial harmony, as did his basketball skills, according to his son.
But when Connecticut State College wanted to play for the Coast Guard, the team was told Fitch couldn’t play.
In another incident that night, an African-American boxer was banned from competing by the University of New Hampshire.
“It wasn’t a great night for the Coast Guard or for the nation,” Kelly said.
“For me, that was a low point for an institution that I love,” said Kelly, who played sports for the Coast Guard before graduating in 1987 and considers track and field to be an important co-curricular element of the academy. “What happened in 1934 was no indication of what I experienced in the 1980s or what the institution is today. Turning to his son was the right thing to do.”
The son wasn’t convinced. At least initially.
“I was very skeptical,” Fitch Jr. said. “People can be nice in a letter for (public relations) or a photo shoot. You can pose and shake hands. I did not want.”
Neither does Kelly. Even so, Fitch needed proof that the academy was practicing what Kelly preached.
“He looked at our retention and graduation rates, and specifically whether African Americans were successful at the academy,” Kelly said.
“We know the timing is really right. This is an opportunity for us to do more.”
Fitch wants that too. On October 19, eight months after Kelly contacted him, Fitch visited the Coast Guard campus.
“I wanted direct contact. I’ve developed a bit of face-to-face judgment (ability),” Fitch said.
“I spent time with the cadets, exchanged questions and got an idea of (Kelly’s) philosophy. The letter to me had been sincere.
He added: “I would refuse to do a PR 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 coincides with another seminal moment in sport and race relations in western Massachusetts. That year, members of a Springfield baseball team from the American Legion refused to play in a tournament in Gastonia, North Carolina, because their black teammate Ernest “Bunny” Taliaferro was not allowed to play.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that these two communities found healing and friendship with a series of friendly baseball games in the early 2000s. Until Fitch and Kelly met, the Coast Guard story hadn’t had such a positive epilogue.
The 1934 game at the Coast Guard Academy was postponed as coaches and officials debated whether Fitch, whose graceful playing style had earned him the nickname “Honey,” could play. Then the basketball game continued.
According to reports of the day, it was a tough affair with high emotions for Connecticut State to win. Even the Coast Guard’s northern location didn’t protect the player from abuse, perhaps in part because a high percentage of the Academy’s students were from the South, which serves as context but not an excuse.
The older Fitch who lived in Springfield. graduated from American International College and worked at Monsanto Corp. before his death at the age of 72 in 1984, his scars were mostly internal, according to his son.
“My father didn’t talk much about it. He was very humble, and besides, African American parents didn’t want to traumatize or darken their children’s hopes and visions,” Fitch said. “You can’t let people destroy your dreams. I’m trying to continue what he believed in.”
Fitch said he is working with Kelly and the Academy to plan spring activities 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 diverse units on campus.
Abused by the 1934 Coast Guard Academy, Honey Fitch was not forgotten at UConn. A basketball, baseball, and football star in college, his induction 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 to attend the academy, hopefully “moving forward together . “
Some things have already changed. The high school, which was named for Johnny Merriman, the Coast Guard basketball coach from 1930 to 1945 and its principal at the time of the incident, is now called the Alumni High School, Kelly said.
The Academy and Fitch are exploring potential high school curriculum 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 two years old,” he said. Relationships with Springfield Public Schools and local colleges are on the table.
Fitch’s son, also a UConn graduate, founded the Harrison Fitch Leadership Fund. It focuses on leadership and creates opportunities for underrepresented students to better pave their future.
The Coast Guard Academy’s partnership with the fund will be associated with the Loy Institute for Leadership, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity and the institution’s athletics program.
Kelly supports these initiatives even though – or perhaps because – they speak of a murky past.
“It has been an honor to meet Mr. and Mrs. Fitch during my tenure as Superintendent. The Fitch family didn’t owe us anything, but they had the bravery to give us the opportunity to demonstrate our growth as an institution and as a service,” said Kelly. “We have evolved as a nation (since 1934), but we struggle with how to deal with our past. But working with Mr Fitch was an easy decision, I am grateful for his strength of character and his part in our daily efforts to make things right.”
Fitch believes that progress cannot be made without even understanding an uncomfortable past. As a history student, he believes that telling the story of what went wrong is essential to creating a better society and a better day.
“As I looked at my position, disappointed as I was with what had happened, I wanted to make a difference for generations to come,” he said. “I’ll do that now.”