In 1968, if race relations were a patient, it would have been on life support. This was the time after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Racial tensions were high across the country. It was in that environment that two educators decided to do something about it.
Dr. Sidney Boose of Norfolk State College and Harold Kenny of New Canaan, Connecticut hatched what would be known as the New Canaan Experiment. Norfolk State students would travel to New Canaan to do their practice teaching, live with host families, and hopefully help cross some cultural lines.
The program lasted nearly a decade and changed lives for the Norfolk State students and the New Canaan community.
Doug Sutton was one of the first Norfolk State students to make the journey to New Canaan. He was a mature Vietnam Veteran when he began his practice teaching in New Canaan. Sutton grew up in a small tin shack, but in New Canaan he lived with and embraced his differences with a white host family.
Sutton returned to Virginia after his practice teaching, but tired of discrimination in Virginia he returned to Connecticut, teaching in a mostly white classroom. He stayed their teaching science for decades, raising his children there, even serving his community on the Norwalk City Council for 10 years.
The host families were such an important part of the New Canaan Experiment. New friendships were born, and even decades after hosting his last teacher, Peter Hanson recalled it led to the New Canaan community building an ABC program, bringing from New York City to New Canaan, a program that still thrives today.
Speaking of thriving today, Tracey Barnes comes from the New Canaan class of 1975 and is still thriving as a teacher today. Her energy and smile is contagious. Tracey was the first African American to win the crown of Miss Chesapeake Beach. She fell in love with New Canaan, and she’s been teaching in that area ever since.
The New Canaan Experiment also gets credit for a love story. Vince and Mary Mitchell met in the program, eventually fell and love and they’ve now been married for decades. The Mitchell’s are still close to Vince’s host family, doctors Charlotte and David Brown. Mary Mitchell says for the most part she felt welcome in New Canaan, but most of the cooperating teachers could not afford to live in New Canaan and had some resentments over the treatment she and the Norfolk State students were given.
Over the years, the Mitchells have kept the New Canaan Experiment alive by staying in touch with the people in the original class and organizing reunions. They live in Florida now, so they were not with the group we met in New Canaan back in January.
Kathy Mitchell, a former New Canaan teacher, summed how the New Canaan Experiment should be remembered in a simple sentence. “I do think it helped everybody on both sides understand where everybody was coming from,” she said. Doug Sutton added, “I think it worked well and I’m sorry there was a need for it, but I think it met the need, the cultural aspects of it were resolved.”
In the podcast below you will hear one of many interviews in its entirety.