To get to know this woman, first take a drive on Interstate 84 through Connecticut, and you’ll find West Hartford nestled halfway between Boston and The Bronx. The New York Times recently described this picturesque New England town as “a bustling suburb abutting Connecticut’s capital city,” and in the words of one home shopper, “a liberal enclave.”
The statistics tell one part of this story: Of its 63,000 residents, 73% are white, fewer than 8% identify their ethnicity as Asian or Hispanic, almost 6% are Black or African-American, and the median income is just under $100K. More than 70 languages are spoken in West Hartford’s schools, attended by 9,200 children. About 57% of students are white, 18.5% are Hispanic, 11% are Asian and 9% are Black. In 2020, an overwhelming 76% of West Hartford’s registered voters chose Joe Biden for president, and a far smaller but not insignificant number of voters, 24%, cast their ballots to re-elect Donald Trump.
According to movato.com’s guide to the best Connecticut communities for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and families with transgender individuals, 4.6% of West Hartford, Hartford and East Hartford identify as LGBTQ, a smidgen smaller than the general U.S. population.
Those are the numbers. But what West Hartford is really counting on this weekend is one Black lesbian who has made an indelible mark on her adopted hometown.
Adrienne Billings-Smith stood in the center of town on a bright, sunny morning in June 2020, as local leaders and neighbors held their very first LGBTQ Pride flag raising at Goodman Green. The flag was unfortunately puny in comparison to the proudly waving Stars and Stripes, but the significance of the moment was not diminished. Yet as the rainbow flag went up, Billings-Smith’s jaw dropped, as she listened to Mayor Shari Cantor speak.
“She was like, ‘Look at us, celebrating such progress on this land that was owned by a slave owner!’” Billings-Smith recalled.
“Not for long”
She admits to being stunned at the revelation that the Timothy Goodman whose name graces the triangle-shaped parcel of land in the center of town where they stood was in fact a white slaveholder, buried just a few blocks away.
“I was like, ‘Oh no, no, no. Not for long.’ That was a week and a half before Juneteenth. So that night is when I went home and I wrote the letter for Juneteenth, for Goodman Green, and for the civilian review board.”
With persistence, perseverance and persuasiveness, Billings-Smith has accomplished all three of the goals she laid-out in her letter: Just one week after the Pride event, West Hartford marked Juneteenth for the first time.
“As I sit here on this land donated by a slave owner, I stand here proudly recognizing the lives of our ancestors,” Billings-Smith said on June 19, 2020, as reported by WeHa.com. “As a Black queer woman, standing on the very land that was touched by the blood, sweat, and tears of my ancestors, this moment is not lost on me.”
A huge Juneteenth celebration set to take place today outside Town Hall won the blessing of town councilors last November, when they voted unanimously to run with her idea and make Juneteenth an annual event. West Hartford Community Interactive will stream the event live on YouTube for those who can’t make it in person.
She hit her second goal that same month: Members of First Church of Christ, Congregational of West Hartford, which owns Goodman Green and leases it to the town, voted to change its name to Unity Green in Nov. 2020. This was at the urging of Billings-Smith, through a group she co-founded, Concerned Parents of Color of West Hartford. The dedication ceremony will take place Sunday, with a far larger, more inclusive Pride flag flying overhead.
“Adrienne has been the spark and energy behind the celebration of this Juneteenth weekend,” Mayor Cantor told me. “Adrienne is collaborative and passionate and she has inspired so many to make this a very special weekend for all.”
Last month, Billings-Smith went 3-for-3: she is one of 10 residents named to the town’s first-ever Civilian Police Review Board, a local effort at police accountability in the wake of countless incidents of racial injustice nationwide.
But these milestones are really just the first quarter for this former college basketball star.
Billings-Smith, known to friends as “Ace,” is a transplant from Titusville, Fla., a four-year letterwinner for the University of Central Florida who helped the Golden Knights to consecutive Atlantic Sun titles in 2003 and 2004. The 6’1” forward translated her success on the court to coaching women’s hoops, even winning a state championship.
But to truly recognize this woman’s talents, college yearbooks aren’t enough. In addition to being an activist, a lifelong athlete and coach, Billings-Smith is an attorney, a flight attendant, the granddaughter of a U.S. Air Force veteran, a daughter, a wife and a mom. Up until last month, she also served as co-chair of the town’s Human Rights Commission, in addition to her work leading the Concerned Parents of Color of West Hartford. She not only organized the Juneteenth celebration and the Unity Green rededication but also has a hand in this weekend’s unveiling of a huge mural that celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights pioneers, a towering tribute that shows Black Lives Matter. In basketball terms, she is making it rain all over town.
In fact, she could put on a clinic if she had the time, because she’s just getting warmed-up for her next quarter. Billings-Smith announced Thursday night she’s going into politics, running as a Democrat for a seat on the town council.
“Pick up a rock”
“I want to continue to serve our community in whatever capacity that is,” Billings-Smith told me as we sat for lunch at the Parkville Market in Hartford on a recent afternoon. “That’s that’s where I want to be in the next part of my journey.”
“I encouraged Adrienne to run,” longtime Democratic town councilor and former deputy mayor Beth Kerrigan told me. “She brings so many perspectives and skillset to the table.” Kerrigan and her wife, Jody Mock, were the lead plaintiffs in the 2008 court case that ended with the state legalizing same-sex marriage. Kerrigan is also in the running, as is the council’s new minority leader, gay Republican Mary Fay. Should Kerrigan, Fay and Billings-Smith all win seats, West Hartford would be the first town in Connecticut, perhaps the nation, with three out lesbians serving in municipal government.
In her appeal to town Democrats seeking their endorsement, Billings-Smith explained why she wants to run and what her goals will be if elected, with a strong emphasis on teamwork and making sure that all residents have access to necessary resources.
Her go-to message, she told me between bites of seafood, is “pick up a rock.”
“You don’t have to move mountains. I’m not asking you to move mountains. All I’m asking you to do is pick up your rock, because at the end of the day, I can’t move the mountain alone. You can’t move the mountain alone. But if all of us in this collective can pick up our rocks, we start to move that mountain together.
“And once we realize what we’re capable of picking up, whether it be a boulder or a pebble, you’re making movement and progress towards what’s right. So that’s my point of it all,” said Billings-Smith. “Find your lane. Find what you can do. If that’s money, if that’s writing letters and anything down the line, find what you can do to help support these communities. Putting that yard sign out there only starts the conversation. So, what are you doing and what do you mean by ‘Black Lives Matter?’ Because at the end of the day, Black Lives Matter if they’re trans lives, food security, reparations, education, health care, mental health. That’s what it means.”
“Racism has no boundaries”
Billings-Smith has carried a lot of rocks in her 39 years.
“I was born in Minot, North Dakota,” she told me as we wrapped-up the leftovers from our lunches. “I am an Air Force brat. My grandfather and my mom raised me, so I was at the end of his retirement, so it worked out perfect. Then I ended up in Florida and was raised in Florida. So I went from the bitter cold to brutal heat.”
At age 8, the same age as her son is now, Billings-Smith learned how different she was from other children. Her best friend, a white girl, had a brother who became a skinhead. Despite his constant use of the N-word, the brother told little Adrienne he would protect her from other people like him.
“So I knew I was different then. And there’s different instances of the normal story of the different hair and going swimming, that black people don’t tan; that’s huge in Florida. So, I got all of those things, but that was like that first political, pivotal moment where I was like, ‘I’m in a whole different world.’ But because I was his little sister’s best friend, he said he would protect me.”
Billings-Smith’s biography at Concerned Parents of Color of West Hartford says “she has navigated racism and discrimination her entire life. She chose to leave Florida in hopes that New England would afford her family a better life culturally, financially, and politically. Unfortunately, she recognized that racism has no boundaries and realized she needed to speak up for her family and community.”
Billings-Smith said she is agnostic after being raised Baptist, but wears a cross around her neck to honor her past family, as well as a Chai pendant, the Hebrew letter symbolizing life, which she said was a gift from her chosen family, “straight from Jerusalem.”
“I’m married to a white woman,” she said of Susie Billings-Smith. “She’ll tell you that she’s a Midwestern girl, straight from Michigan, Traverse City. She’s 12 and a half years older than I am. We’ve just come to learn each other and that’s why I love her so much, because she wants to grow. She looks at our son every day and knows that it’s bigger than her and her whiteness. He’s biracial. And I have to remind him that he’s both Black and white. But at the end of the day, everyone’s going to see him as a Black person in this country. And my niece is Black. So I have these conversations with them, especially in school, because I have those, you know, trigger moments from my childhood of growing up in predominantly white areas, that there’s going to be things said to them or done, or they may be treated differently and they don’t know why. You try to protect them to a certain extent based on their age. I think they need to know why, because at some point they have to be able to advocate for themselves.”
I asked her why she wore a T-shirt that says, “Trans Lives Matter.”
“Because they matter to me. On a very personal note, my niece is trans,” Billings-Smith revealed. “I have my son, I have my wife, but if anyone were to ever go after her, you have to deal with the wrath of me. And that’s how it will always be. That’s not that my beliefs weren’t that before her coming out at such a young age. It just reinforced that I believe the LGBTQIA+ community to be my family, so I’m going to protect every single letter of that acronym, every single letter, to ensure that we are all in this together and we are all fighting this oppressive system.”
“To be a Black queer woman is to literally live a tortured life. Moments of wanting to take your life. Moments of seeing your life flash before your eyes. Moments of literal torture,” Billings-Smith said in a moving online lecture at the University of Hartford in March for Women’s History Month, titled The Whiteness of Human Rights: Queer Women of Color and the Horizon of Humanity. “If I wanted to ignore my traumas I could. I could bury them and never look back. But my traumas are who I am. They are the reason I strive for equity, equality and acknowledgement of progress toward a better world for all of us.”
I asked Billings-Smith how she deals with her trauma.
“I raise my son in a way to not project my trauma onto him, so that he can take it forward. My trauma is already with me, and I have to process it in whatever way is healthy,” she said, noting that she researched this topic for a paper when she was studying for her law degree at the University of Connecticut. “It manifests itself in our in our children, our communities, and it continues the cycle of poverty, health disparities, mental health disparities. And we don’t really talk about it. We don’t talk about the fact that slavery being passed down into different forms to today is the root cause of why we have all these disparities. I deal with my trauma by trying to figure it out so it’s better for the next generation.”
Although the federal government marked Juneteenth for the first time on Friday, West Hartford’s celebration lasts throughout the weekend, said the mayor.
“This weekend has been built on the work of the Witness Stone Project,” explained Cantor. “We learned from their research that the First Church green was named after a prominent slave owner. This knowledge led Adrienne to bring decision makers together to rename this space and have our first Juneteenth commemoration last year, albeit with masks and socially distanced. This year we had the opportunity to partner with Sustainable CT and RiseUp CT to install this MLK39 mural representing racial equity and it became Adrienne’s mission to really celebrate Juneteenth with food, music, programming and fun and incorporate the unveiling of this mural by renowned muralist Corey Pane—and a graduate of our own Conard High School.”
The Blue Back Square mural by Pane features a quotation of Vice President Kamala Harris as well as images of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Gertrude Blanks as well as pioneering local banking executive Judy Casperson and Conn. State Rep. Tammy Exum. It is one of 39 going up in communities across Connecticut, one for each year of Dr. King’s life.
Billings-Smith sees the project as part of a long overdue acknowledgment of the hidden history of this “liberal enclave” she now calls home.
“Nobody wants to acknowledge it,” she said. “They want to say, ‘Well, that family owner didn’t own slaves necessarily.’ Were they raised by them? Did they help sell them? Did they beat them at some point, even though they might not have owned them? Did they benefit from their family’s financial gain of having free labor? These are the things we talk about when you look around town and see it. These things have to change. That’s why it was so important for the MLK mural to be put up at our big Juneteenth event, so people can start seeing other people of color and particularly Black folks in the successful positions, but also recognize the entire journey Black folks have had to endure, to get to today, and still feel less than.”