Carrie Saxon Perry, Barrier-Breaking Mayor, Dies at 87

Carrie Saxon Perry, the first African-American woman to lead a major New England city as the mayor of Hartford and a civil rights advocate who had rubbed shoulders with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, has died at 87.

She died last Nov. 22, but news of her death emerged only last week, with a mention on Facebook. She had had a heart attack and renal and coronary artery disease, according to her death certificate. She died at Waterbury Hospital in Connecticut, the certificate said.

Ms. Perry had been a vital presence in Hartford’s civic life for decades, easily recognized by the trademark hats she wore, many of them broad-brimmed but some floppy or worn tight to her head.

She was a social worker and state representative before serving as mayor from 1987 to 1993.

In 1992 she helped maintain calm in Hartford as riots erupted elsewhere across the country after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a black motorist.

After she lost re-election in 1993, she became active in the Greater Hartford branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and served as its president from 2004 to 2008.

In recent years she had gone blind and cut back on her civic activities, gradually receding from public view. No announcement was made or obituary published after her death, and no funeral was held.

“I was totally stunned and shocked” on hearing the news, said Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. “I’ve never heard of anything like this, someone so high profile, one of the first powerful leaders of our community, to be dead for a year and not have a proper memorial.”

Thirman L. Milner, the first African-American to be elected mayor of Hartford, in 1981, and one of Ms. Perry’s closest friends since childhood, said a lawyer for Ms. Perry’s son, James M. Perry III, had recently called to tell him of her death. He said he had lost contact with Ms. Perry a few years ago, when she was moved to a convalescence home.

Attempts by The New York Times to reach Mr. Perry and other family members were not successful.

Mr. Milner said he was “upset and disappointed” that her friends had not had the chance to mourn her and honor her. “She belonged to the city of Hartford,” he said in a phone interview.

A spokesman for Mayor Luke Bronin said a memorial service for her would be held in January.

Carrie Saxon was born in Hartford on Aug. 30, 1931. Her father, David Saxon, left when Carrie was 6 months old, and she and her mother, Mabel Lee, moved in with extended family in a cold-water flat in the city’s North End.

Her mother did the ironing at a Chinese laundry, worked as a presser at the cleaners, and cleaned classrooms at a local school. Carrie was raised chiefly by her grandmother, Pearl Lee, whom she called Big Mama.

“Money was tight when I grew up, but I didn’t know I was poor until I read about it,” she told The Hartford Courant in 1988. “Because all the basics were in place, like loving and caring and discipline.”

She was an avid reader. And, uncharacteristically for a girl in her circumstances in that era, she grew up with the assumption that she would go to college.

After graduating from high school in 1949, she went to Howard University in Washington, where she received her bachelor’s degree in political science. She studied law at Howard Law School but left after two years, returning to Hartford in 1955 to marry James M. Perry Jr.

The marriage ended in divorce. In addition to their son, she is survived by four grandchildren.

Active in the civil rights movement, Ms. Perry met Dr. King during the Albany Movement in Albany, Ga., formed in 1961 to challenge segregation. She spoke often with Mr. Jackson, who called her “the hat lady.” She endorsed his bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 1988, and he endorsed her re-election for mayor in 1991.

While she was a social worker for the state, she helped run a home for troubled girls, organized tenants in housing cases and worked for antipoverty groups. She was so busy, she said at one point, that she didn’t have time to comb her hair, explaining why she wore hats every day.

Beginning in 1980, Ms. Perry served four terms in the Connecticut General Assembly before running for mayor in 1987. Hartford had a weak-mayor-strong-city-council form of government at the time, but she was not deterred.

“The office is a terrific forum for ideas,” she told Ebony magazine in 1988. “And I have the authority and the responsibility to be the major spokesperson for the city.”

Colleagues described her as outgoing, congenial and nonconfrontational.

Bridging the gulf between Hartford’s booming corporate downtown, home to many of the nation’s insurance companies, and its poor neighborhoods was one of her toughest challenges. While Connecticut had the nation’s highest per capita income at the time, nearly a quarter of Hartford’s residents lived below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest cities in the country.

“She was a fighter, she was a mouthpiece for the poor and an advocate for the downtrodden, and she wasn’t afraid of anyone,” Mr. Esdaile said. “She would speak truth to power.”

Ms. Perry spent much of her time in schools, encouraging students to get an education, and devoted herself to civil rights, equality and protecting social programs for the poor.

“Corporate and community together, the grass roots and the newcomers, the homeless and affluent,” she said when she was first sworn in as mayor.

“We are all irrevocably tied together,” she added. “Our destinies are intertwined. We survive together, or we perish together.”

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