Friday, April 06, 2007

Tuskegee Airman gets his due after 60 years

SARATOGA SPRINGS - The trolley cars rattled by Clarence Dart's childhood, carrying the residents of the 1920s through Elmira.
The young boy busied himself with his own dreams however, building model airplanes and a yearning to fly.
During the wartime of the 1940s, Dart realized his dream.
He volunteered for the Air Force and was accepted into flight training at the Tuskegee Army air field in Alabama. He piloted a P-40 fighter plane and flew 95 missions overseas during WW II, surviving two incidents when the enemy shot him down.

When Dart returned to a victorious America however, there was no parade that awaited, no heroic cheers welcoming him back. After fighting the enemy in the skies abroad, Dart came home to a different kind of battle raging in the streets.

"Back then, everything was judged by color," said the 86-year-old Tuskegee Airman, who has made his home in Saratoga Springs for more than half a century. "While we were there, a lot of us thought that when we'd come home, we would get jobs as pilots flying commercial planes, but, no, that didn't happen. You were denied certain privileges just because of the color of your skin."

That denial had been a fact of life for African-Americans long before the World War II fighter pilot's 14 months of service with the 99th Fighter Squadron began in 1943.

George Washington initially prohibited the recruitment of black troops when he led the Continental Army in the earliest days of the battle for America's
independence, even though history tells of blacks fighting young America's battles at Lexington, Concord and in Fort Ticonderoga in 1775.

By World War I, New York's first black National Guard organized at an armory above a cigar shop on 131st street in Harlem. The 369th Infantry Regiment came to be known as the Harlem Hellfighters. As the first all-black U.S. combat unit to be shipped overseas during World War I, they were transported to France in 1917 where they served with the French Army. Among them was Henry Johnson, an Albany native, who was posthumously decorated after fighting off a German patrol of two dozen men during a battle in 1918.

Despite black soldiers' efforts, the U.S. Army prohibited them from participating in the Bastille Day victory parade held in Paris in 1919.

More than 350,000 black soldiers served in WW I, although most were designated to non-combative units. It wasn't until the early 1940s, shortly after the U.S. Army Air Corps began training African-American pilots in Tuskegee, Ala., that the Navy began accepting black inductees from the Selective Service Board and the Marine Corps admitted African-American recruits for the first time.

"General Eisenhower lost so many men at the Battle of the Bulge, he called for volunteers from the black troops," recalled Oscar Osborne, who delivered supplies to front-line troops.

"There were 4,562 black soldiers that volunteered to go. I was one of them," said Osborne, who carried his M-1 with him across the Rhine Valley and into the Hurtgen Forest where he was wounded in battle. After wartime, he returned to the states where he worked as a clerk for the post office.

"We didn't stay in the same quarters as the white troops, but we were in the same unit," said Osborne, whose remembrances are part of the growing collection of oral history at the state Military Museum and Veterans Research Center on Lake Avenue.
Wayne Clarke and Michael Russert have interviewed 1,380 veterans to date, whose service dates back to World War I.

William E. Goldsborough, Sr.'s recollections are from the World War II.
Born in June, 1926 and drafted into the Army in July 1944, Goldsborough's great-grandfather, Noah, was a freed slave.
With a command of language and easy conversation, Goldsborough was selected by his company commander to deliver a weekly orientation to new troops Saturday mornings.
"You are fighting for the four freedoms," he remembered telling them, citing Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech to the US Congress on January 1941 - freedom of speech and religion, for economic well being and|freedom from fear.
"I was obliged to teach the four freedoms, but the irony of the situation was that I and my fellow (black) troops, didn't feel we were equal and free," he said.

E.G. McConnell entered service in May 1942 at age 16 after lying about his age.
He was a Boy Scout in an all-white Jamaica, Queens, troop where learned things like Morse code. He recalled the outset of war and how the buildings on exhibit at The World Fair in Queens were cloaked in black as a sign of mourning.
"I remember a newspaperman saying, 'Extree, extree, read all about it: Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.' There was so much fear, I'll never forget it," McConnell said.
"I was only 16, but I was so concerned, I had to do something. So, I went to the induction center to get an application and lied about my age. I took my (older) sister's birthday, so I wouldn't have any problem remembering the date," said McConnell, who also borrowed her eyebrow pencil to paint "a little fuzz" across his upper lip to simulate a moustache. He hadn't felt the color barrier growing up in the racial diversity of New York City. Going into military service was an eye-opening experience.

"We got to training in Kentucky and the blacks rode in the two forward cars. The whites were in the rest of the train and on the way to Kentucky the orders came to pull the shades down in the black cars. I was curious and wanted to know why," he said. "I asked the conductor and he grabbed a porter, a black man, who told me we had to pull the shades down for our own safety because some of the hillbillies down there fired their guns into the black cars. Can you imagine?"
After training, McConnell became part of the all black, 761st Battalion, which he refers to as the Black Panther Tank Battalion. They were the first African-American armored unit to enter combat during an assault on the French towns.

After the war, seven African Americans were belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor and numerous other awards. McConnell went back to civilian life where he worked a variety of jobs, from a a bus driver and a court officer to the lead mechanic of an auto repair business.

More than 30 years after their service, President Jimmy Carter cited McConnell's battalion for "extraordinary heroism in action" for their combat operations in the European Theater during the 1940s.

"Certain kinds of people tried to keep us buried, so to speak," said Dart of his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman. "They thought before we went over there that we didn't have the brains to fly a plane."
After his service, Dart worked for General Electric in Schenectady until his retirement in 1987. He moved to Saratoga Springs in 1948, where he and wife Mildred have lived for more than 50 years. It was in 1948 that President Truman officially desegregated the U.S. military, although segregation in places like restaurants, restrooms and hotels would continue for many years, particularly in the south.

"A lot of black people still don't get the jobs they deserve. If you're in the music or the movies you do alright, but the ordinary jobs, sometimes it doesn't work out that way," said Dart, relating the arrest a few weeks ago of a 71-year-old reputed Ku Klux Klansman from Jackson, Miss., who was charged in the death of two black teenaged hitchhikers in 1964.

"You look at something like that, like those two kids that were killed all those years ago, and it's still going on," he said. "It's still going on."

(On March 29,2007, a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony was held in Washington, D.C. honoring the Clarence Dart and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen).

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, 2007.

Regarding that NY Post story on taking a bath...

SARATOGA SPRINGS - The Spa City woke up Monday morning to find itself on the front cover of The New York Post in a Fred Dicker-penned article, "Hot Water."

After a recent visit to the Roosevelt Baths in the Saratoga Spa State Park, Dicker discovered the baths he thought to contain pure mineral water were being mixed with Saratoga tap water.

"I am deeply disturbed by the report in today's New York Post that ordinary tap water is being secretly used at the famous mineral baths in the Saratoga Spa State Park," said Sen. Bruno in a statement issued Monday.
"The report that ordinary tap water has been secretly used at the baths could damage Saratoga's reputation and be harmful to business and tourism," said Bruno, calling the practice: "a serious fraud."

"My thought on that is if you have some negative news, I don't know how you could say it's a good thing," said Greg Dixon, Vice President of Tourism at the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. "The story I read in The Post painted it as an integrity issue and whether you're involved in tourism or in running a grocery store, you have a responsibility to let people know what's going on," he said.

The story of Saratoga's mineral waters date back to before the formation of the city itself. By the early 19th century, spas had become a fashionable thing for the wealthy to indulge in, with Saratoga at the forefront.

Franklin D. Roosevelt became familiar with Saratoga during his time as governor in the 20th century. As he entered the White House in the early 1930s, a number of buildings would be erected at what today is Saratoga Spa State Park. The first two bathhouses were the Washington - today's National Museum of Dance - and the Lincoln, a building that currently houses the State Park Police. The bath houses in Roosevelt's namesake served as a hospital, a health club complete with mineral baths as well as the setting for a scene in the 1990s film, "The Horse Whisperer."

The mineral water used to be heated and sent to the tubs inside the Roosevelt Bath House. Approximately 20 years ago, the equipment heating the water was removed leaving only cold mineral water running into the tubs. The practice of heating tap water was instituted to mix with the mineral water, keeping the bathing liquid warm.

Dicker estimated he had taken hundreds of baths when he lived in the area, but hadn't immersed himself in them for more than a decade before Saturday afternoon two and a half weeks ago.

"I always loved the baths as a way of relaxing," said Dicker
when reached by telephone Monday night. "I signed up and went in and was surprised to find that the bath was already drawn. Then I got into the tub and it wasn't like the baths of old," he said, realizing they weren't as buoyant as he remembered them as well as noticing the absence of the smell of minerals.

"Those two things together led me to believe there was something very wrong," he said. After investigating, he said he was disappointed to learn that something so fundamental to Saratoga Springs was being altered.

"This is the first complaint that I've heard in 19-1/2 years," said Shawn Goodway, general manager of the Gideon Putnam Resort and Spa, which is operated by Xanterra Parks and Resorts.
The Roosevelt Baths and Spa were recently renovated and opened in the summer of 2004. A 20-minute bath costs $20 and Goodway said as far as he knew, the current company continued the practice of heating the tap water that had existed before he got there. There are 42 tubs at the Roosevelt Spa, each having two spigots. One releases the cold mineral water into the tub, the other, tap water which is heated by a pair of units in the basement at 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We knew about the water at the Roosevelt," said Louise Goldstein, co-founder of the Save the Victoria Pool Society.
"We've been trying to bring it to the park's attention for years, but they just said, 'Oh, it's fine,' and act like we were crazy," she said. "It is among the greatest architecture in the country, but all they do is cut back on staff so there are less resources in a park that was already being neglected. It's like your car or your body. You have to maintain the infrastructure," she said.

State parks spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee confirmed the method for heating the mineral baths at the park was changed about 20 years ago when the heating system was removed.
"This matter has only recently come to the attention of the new Parks Administration and as of today, we have instructed the concession contractor to ensure that patrons are being notified that the baths are a mix of mineral and tap water," she said. "The public has a right to know the content of the baths and State Parks will be conducting a full review."

"I hope something positive comes out of it," said Public Works Commissioner Thomas McTygue. "It was the Pataki administration that allowed a lot of our state facilities to deteriorate and there has been very little investment in our facilities throughout the entire park," he said.
"With this coming to light, I hope they do an evaluation of the entire state park and create a master plan to start seeing some kind of improvements," he said.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published by The Saratogian, 2007.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The night Broadway burned down

SARATOGA SPRINGS -It was 5 o'clock on a chilly Sunday morning and Sgt.
John Cummings was patrolling Broadway during the second half of his
overnight shift.

All was quiet along the city's main business district that January day
in 1957 when Sgt. Cummings was suddenly alerted by the smell of smoke
coming from the stretch of architecture that runs across the east side
of the avenue. He called for the fire department then went banging on
apartment doors on the upper floors of the Broadway buildings to alert

By the time the dawn broke over the city skyline a short while later,
the heart of the business district was engulfed in a blaze that
destroyed seven buildings, left 25 people homeless and resulted in six
firemen being injured and a police officer dead.

"That fire of '57 consumed a huge part of Broadway" recalled Saratoga
Springs City Historian Mary Anne Fitzgerald, who was in her early teens
at the time.

"That was one of the worst ones. Broadway was burning and there were so
many flames you couldn't even tell where the fire began," she remembered
of the Jan. 27 fire, a half-century ago. Fitzgerald, like many city
residents, congregated across the street that Sunday to watch the
inferno. "Those buildings were several stories high. When they came down
it was a very scary situation."

The property damage was estimated at $2 million, the worst in the city
at the time. It crippled businesses and affected many employed in the
area destroyed by fire, which stretched for nearly 100 yards along the
east side of Broadway, opposite Division Street.

The fire broke out at the Palace Recreation building, which stood at 398
Broadway and housed a bowling alley on the main floor. Several law
offices occupied the second and third stories.

As the wind picked up that morning, the flames were blown north up
Broadway, smashing store windows, blistering paint and taking out a
series of buildings that shared common walls.

The architectural casualties included the Saratoga Men's Shop, the
Endicott-Johnson shoe store and the Liggett Drug Co.

The fire then jumped across Gardiner Lane and ignited E.D. Starbucks &
Co. department store, F.W. Woolworth Co. and the Saratoga Appliance
store. The only thing that remains of the north-sweeping destruction
today is the narrow passage of Gardiner Lane, next to Lillian's
Restaurant. It was the in the area south of the fire's origin however,
where the human toll was heaviest.

The MacFinn Drug Co. sat on the ground floor of 396 Broadway, with a
beauty salon and residential apartments upstairs.

When the fire department responded to the initial call, they began
laying lines of hose across Broadway while Chief Robert Carroll,
assistant chief Edward Hodges and patrolman Frederick Pettit stood in
front of the MacFinn Drug store. Without warning, an explosion sent a
shower of bricks down upon the men. Carroll and Hodges were injured.
Pettit, a 14-year veteran of the Saratoga Springs Police Department, was

More than a dozen fire companies responded to the call. They came from
as far as Schenectady, from Corinth and Schuylerville, from Scotia and
Glens Falls. They saved the buildings on the Broadway corner bordering
Caroline Street. A firewall at J.J. Newberry - a wall that today lines
the left side of the Circus Cafe - prevented the inferno from raging
further south.

In the days that followed, onlookers congregated to watch the
demolition, shuffling along ashes that covered every foot of Broadway up
to City Hall.

"It was a very popular part of Broadway," Fitzgerald said. "The fire
took out Starbucks, which was where everyone went to shop. I remember
one of the last things I bought there was a dress for a school dance.
This was in those days before charge cards where you could go after
school, pick out a dress and put it on your parent's account,"
Fitzgerald said.

"The fire of '57 also took out Woolworth's, the drug store, the bowling
alley. The trucks were there for several days after the initial fire and
it smoldered for most of the week," she said. Both Starbucks and
Woolworth's department stores occupied their respective sites for more
than 50 years. Other structures leveled dated back to the 1860s.

"People would go down morning, noon and night," Fitzgerald recalled. "It
became part of your regular day to go down, visit the sight and see how
it was coming along."

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, 2007.