City Treasure

L ike many parks, Scantlebury Park is active or restful depending on the need. Just off the Farmington Canal bike path on Ashmun Street, the park serves the Dixwell neighborhood with a playground, a splash pad, a basketball court, picnic tables and a green expanse. It’s been in the news lately as the proposed site of a new skate park.

But who exactly was its namesake, Ella B. Scantlebury?

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Born in England at the turn of the 20th century to a black Episcopalian father and a white Irish Catholic mother, Ella Brown Scantlebury recalled “hard feelings” on her mother’s side of the family about her parents’ marriage. “It was kind of different, but we survived,” she told interviewer Lynelle Abel in a 1988 conversation.

Scantlebury arrived in New Haven in 1922 with her British husband, Lawrence “Burt” Scantlebury. He took a job as the chef and steward for Yale’s Chi Psi fraternity, and she became a homemaker. Her mother was unhappy when she left England for America and gave her a piece of advice that stayed with her, Scantlebury recounted: “Ella, don’t go over there and have a lot of babies because I won’t be able to take care of you.”

She heeded her mother’s advice and had just two children: a daughter, Barbara Stanley (née Scantlebury), who died earlier this year, and a son, Lawrence, who was tragically killed by a truck on Dixwell Avenue at the age of seven when returning home from an errand to the local bakery. Her daughter was grown by the time a Democratic Party member knocked on her door on Admiral Street off Dixwell Avenue, asking her to serve as “chairlady” of the city’s 19th ward. She was happy to get out of her house and get to work, she told Abel.

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But there was an even bigger role ahead for Scantlebury. Upon the death of New Haven city treasurer Mary Grinold in 1961, mayor Richard C. Lee asked her to step in to finish the term. She went on to win five two-year terms of her own, making her the first black person elected to public office in New Haven and “one of the first black women office holders in the country,” as she put it to a New Haven Register reporter in 1972.

The role of city treasurer was “more of a prestige office,” Scantlebury told Abel. She recalled escorting another city employee to the bank to deposit cash, giving speeches citywide and supporting the Democratic Party. Eventually, she told the Register, she decided to retire “so a younger person could have the experience.”

A grand marshal of the Freddy Fixer Parade, an honorary degree recipient from Albertus Magnus College, a mayor-appointed member of the Girls’ Recreation Guild and a member of the St. Raphael’s Hospital board, when asked by Abel what else she’d been involved in, Scantlebury demurred, “I did so much stuff, dear, I couldn’t tell you.” She also worked as manager of Yale’s secret society Scroll and Key. “I’m very happy there,” she told the Register, though she declined to share any of their secrets. “I’ve met some of the finest men in life there and I’m devoted to all the boys who come in.”

The 1988 interview with Abel, preserved on a cassette tape at New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library, is punctuated with the clinking of what sounds like tea cups as Scantlebury talks fondly of earlier days in New Haven, when Yale students dressed formally, Chapel Street stores flourished and people were friendly enough to invite her inside on her canvassing trips through the neighborhoods. The hint of a British accent can still be discerned here and there.

Scantlebury’s great-grandson, Lawrence Gorham, recalls spending much of his childhood living in the house on Admiral Street and says he still misses her cooking. She was known in the Dixwell neighborhood for sitting on her front porch, socializing with passersby and keeping an eye on things. Gorham recalls meeting many local politicians there, including mayor Biagio DiLieto and governor Ella T. Grasso.

A 1991 Register article dubbed Scantlebury “one of New Haven’s longest-term porch-sitters” at the age of 92, “among a shrinking pool of older inner-city dwellers who have resisted the urge to retreat inside in recent years, as shootings and drug-related crimes escalated.” Although Mayor Lee today is largely blamed for the failed urban renewal push that hobbled the neighborhood, Scantlebury expressed only affection for him. The feeling was mutual. When she died in 1996 at the age of 97, her obituary in the Register included the former mayor’s response to the loss: “‘I loved her,’ said Lee, his voice breaking. ‘I’ve lost a great friend.’”

Scantlebury Park isn’t the only local monument to the former city treasurer; ground was broken for the Ella B. Scantlebury Senior Residence on Dixwell Avenue in September of 1992, when its namesake was 94 years old.

Despite painful personal losses and changes to her beloved neighborhood, Scantlebury comes across in every interview as forthright and positive. At the end of her conversation with Abel, she insisted, “I have no regrets, darling. I’m a very, very happy person.”

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.Photo provided courtesy of Lawrence Gorham.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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