It was the end of January, or maybe it was the beginning of February. It was 1952, or it could have been 1953. Aside from the dates, I remember it clearly. It was definitely the short break between winter semesters at UCONN.
There were six of us, all part of Beta Sigma Gamma, the first intercultural fraternity in New England. Finals were over and we were looking for a way to celebrate. After some discussion, someone suggested, “How about going to Washington, D.C. to see our nation’s capitol”?
Considering the racial makeup of our group, it turned out to be a bit naïve. There were four whites—Donny Conn, Freddie Cohen, Buzzy Bazarian and me; and two African Americans—Johnny Merchant and [we’ll call him] Frank (cause memory only goes so far).
Having made a decision, we enthusiastically sandwiched into Freddie’s two-door Chevy. Remember when three people could sit on the front seat of a car?
It was a Friday and we were off, headed south from Storrs, Connecticut (25 miles east of Hartford). It proved to be an eventful trip, with many lasting affects for all concerned.
Somewhere on the Jersey Turnpike, we stopped to get lunch. It became our first encounter with racial discrimination and the stark reality of segregation.
When we entered the roadside stop, the manager ran over and said, “I’m sorry, the white guys can come in, but we can’t serve the blacks.” Wow, we sure didn’t expect that. We were in New Jersey for God’s sake, not down south.
So we got lunch and brought it out to the car so we could all eat together. Some of the taste was gone. Then it was on to D.C., arriving early evening to start looking for a place to stay. I don’t remember where we started first, but I clearly recall the surprise and shock when nobody was willing to accommodate our mixed group. We tried three or four places, including the YMCA and the YMHA. Nobody wanted to give us rooms.
It’s one thing to hear and read about racial discrimination, but it really comes home with a thud when you encounter it firsthand.
In somewhat desperate straits, we arrived at the Black YMCA around 9pm. They didn’t want to admit us either but after a lot of negotiating, we got them to agree to farm the white guys out to private homes if we agreed to stay only one night. The black guys were allowed to stay at the Y.
Even they were concerned about the appearance and ramifications of having a mixed racial group in house.
The next morning we all got together and headed out to see some of the Capitol’s sites, only to find they weren’t open on Saturday or were just closing. This wasn’t working out too well.
Donny Conn’s brother, Elmer, was at Howard University so we decided to go out there to visit him. We saw a bit of Howard, and John was really impressed with the predominantly black culture at the school.
We pleaded and got the okay to stay one more night at the Black YMCA. The next morning, we got together for a big pow-wow. We agreed DC wasn’t what we expected.
So what to do? Freddie suggested we head to Florida. He was sure his cousin, Phyllis, would take care of us at the University of Miami. John and Frank weren’t sure they wanted to go any further south. They decided they would rather stay out at Howard. The rest of us agreed to head south. So, we dropped off the two at Howard and off we went.
When we got to UM, Phyllis was surprised—no shocked—to see us and didn’t have the foggiest notion of what to do with us. One of her friends suggested we go over to the UM Presidio, a temporary housing unit for visiting students. In actuality, it was a slightly remodeled, old Spanish prison. Since they weren’t full, they let us stay for one night.
The next day, Donny remembered he and his Playmates Trio had played a club in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and the last night there he met the owner’s two sons who were at UM. Donny called and invited us over to their house in Coral Gables.
When we arrived, Donny took over. He told the guys we would cook for them and directed where each of us could sleep. They were so astounded at his brazen takeover, they went along. Turned out they were great guys.
For the next couple of days, we went to the beach with borrowed blankets. It was cool and windy, so we had to use a blanket to lie on and another one on top.
We cooked and cleaned up as promised, and hit a few of Miami Beach’s hotspots, and that was another story by itself.
Since we had only planned a long weekend in DC, staying away for a week had tapped us out. Being out of money, we knew it was time to head back to UCONN.
We ate mustard on white bread sandwiches for the next two days to get back to Connecticut.
What a trip…what an experience.
Donny Conn, a founder of BSG, finished at UCONN and took his Playmates trio on the road. He had several million dollar pop and comedy records and went on to be a standup comedian and professional convention speaker.
John Merchant transferred to Virginia Union and went on to be the first black graduate of the University of Virginia Law School. He was a prominent attorney in Stanford, Connecticut, and a very proficient golfer.
Myron “Buzzy” Bazarian, a talented string instrument player, became a high school music teacher and played in symphony orchestras.
Freddie Cohen and his cheery personality stayed the course at UCONN and took over the family movie theater business in and around Hyde Park, New York. Without his Gulf credit card, we never would have made it on the trip.
Me, you know all about!