City, CT leaders pay tribute to Charles Tisdale
BRIDGEPORT — Charles Berkley Tisdale fell short in historic runs for Congress and mayor, but his decades of work heading the city’s anti-poverty agency may have touched more people than if he had succeeded in the short-term realm of elected political office.
About 250 people gathered in the auditorium of an East Side school named after his late wife on Thursday and celebrated Tisdale as a community leader with a lasting legacy for tens of thousands over generations, and as an African American who, if he was a couple decades younger, could have been a U.S. senator or whatever else he wanted to be.
But being born in the Jim Crow South, in the depths of the Great Depression, made it much tougher for a smart young man and football star whose physical hunger later focused on social and economic justice.
Edolphus Towns, a former congressman from New York City who was Tisdale’s roommate at North Carolina A and T State University, credited Tisdale with creating the so-called training table for athletes. “How can I play football if I’m hungry,” Towns, himself a college basketball player, recalled Tisdale’s complaint to the football coach, who promptly ran with the idea.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Tisdale, who died Sunday at 86, brought a different kind of appetite into public life as the state’s first African American congressional candidate in 1976 and Bridgeport mayoral candidate in 1983.
“Charlie Tisdale may have been hungry in college, but he was hungry through his whole life,” Blumenthal said. “He was hungry for justice through his whole life. He was an advocate and a fighter. He was fearless and he was fierce. He was not just street smart and book smart. He was street wise and he saw ahead of his time, which is why he was so interested in young people, because he realized that education and teaching and words were legacies as well.”
New Haven Mayor Toni N. Harp, who was friends with Tisdale and his wife Jettie, a city educator for whom the Hollister Avenue school is named, stressed that he grew up in a segregated post-World War II era, but rose in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
“If I remember my history lessons, in those years the thrill of victory was quickly lost on African Americans who had as much a part of the war effort as anyone else, yet who were denied so many of the spoils,” Harp said. “I have to think that for Charlie, a thoughtful student and successful athlete, that any quality he saw as undeniably arbitrary inequality was intolerable. In that circumstance, a life of activism was born.”
She said he never lost his sense of purpose, whether he was working in the presidential administration of Jimmy Carter, the World Vision international aid organization, or Action for Community Development Inc. in Bridgeport, where he was director for most of his career, starting in the late-1960s.
“It will take a great deal of time and the collective strength of everyone in this room to absorb the full impact of a world without Charlie Tisdale,” Harp said. “People the world over should be as committed, effective and resolute as Charlie was in his effort to address social injustice, economic opportunity and equal-access issues in this country.”
Others who attended the service included Chris Shays, the former congressman; U.S. Rep. Jim Himes; Mayor Joe Ganim; former NBA star Charles Smith, and Acting School Superintendent Michael Testani, who recalled that as a young college graduate, Tisdale hired him for a summer job at ABCD and changed his life. Edwin Gomes, a former state senator, said that working for Tisdale in the 1983 mayoral race led to Tisdale asking Gomes, then a union representative for steelworkers, to run for the city council, thus sparking another political career.
The afternoon service in the school auditorium started as hundreds of children were still leaving the school into the afternoon sunlight at the end of their first day of classes.
Inside, the room was dominated by a continuous slide show of family photos, including Charles Tisdale in his number 12 quarterback uniform for Harding High School in the late 1940s and Tisdale and President Jimmy Carter, President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, Vice President Walter Mondale, presidential candidate Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, Vice President Al Gore and activist Jesse Jackson.
In a written remembrance, Aurelius Piper Jr., Chief Quiet Hawk of the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribal Nation, said Tisdale used his power quietly, often buying groceries or a delivery of fuel oil for needy families in inner-city Bridgeport.
“One can only wonder about the condition of the city, what it would be today, if Charlie had been elected mayor, or had been elected to represent Fairfield County in Congress,” Piper wrote.
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