A personal story about Emmett Till inspires a deacon to change a Hartford neighborhood

HARTFORD – The north end of Hartford is no stranger to rough times.

Deacon Art Miler of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Simsbury is making it his mission to change the narrative.

“We have to heal this village,” says Miller.

Miller believes Hartford can change because he’s seen America change before his eyes.

In 1957, his family moved to Chatham, Illinois just outside of Chicago. He was the new face in town.

“My dad looks like he’s Italian,” says Miller. “So when they decide to buy the house in this community my father went alone to buy the house. And they were somewhat of a surprise when we all showed up.”

Miller is part Italian. At first glance however, he looks just as black as everyone else in his neighborhood.

When he started school he met Victoria Hawkins—a girl that would change his life.

Hawkins liked Miller and would send him notes asking is he liked her back.

“She insisted on writing the notes continuously and I insisted on throwing them away,” says Miller.

This went on for years and Hawkins was bullied for it. Miller never stood up for her and vowed to make a change in his life.

He got that chance just a little while later too. He met another friend in school who would not only change his life, but also America as he knew it.

“Emmett, we called him Bo, was 14 in 1955,” says Miller.

Emmett Till would play with Miller’s family growing up. They went through all the ups and downs.

“Bo had polio when he was young. And he was out of school for a year. He had a speech impediment and he would whistle when he’d tried to talk,” says Miller.

One Summer, Till travelled to Money, Mississippi to spend time with family between school years. On August 24th, 1955 initial reports claimed Till flirted with a white cashier. Four days later, two white men tortured and murdered Till all because he allegedly whistled at a white woman. Miller says Till’s death is completely unjustified.

“It puts the onus of being killed on Emmett. That’s not where it belongs,” says Miller. “Emmett Till was murdered because that community was filled with hatred. Its very social fabric was founded on hatred.”

Miller says Till wasn’t the only victim either.

“We don’t know what Bo could have done,” says Miller. “All of this hatred all over the years. The people who were killed, what was killed? Intellect, music, miracles all of these things were killed because of hatred.”

This realization refocused his life.

“You know the old African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child? It’s true. The unfortunate reality is right now our village is sick.”

Emmett Till’s death sparked The Civil Rights movement. It was an effort that gave Miller his second home. It was his chance to heal the American village.

He was thrown in jail for his activism but would go onto live a life of social change—keeping his promise he made to himself years prior.

“People identify with Victoria Hawkins. And the need to protect her through their own actions,” says Miller.

Miller made his way to Connecticut where he now runs a program that takes in ex-convicts in order to change their lives.

“It’s up to me then to let people go. For them to then do their work in the community,” says Miller.

It’s an effort that seems to be working.

"I sold drugs. I sold to people's mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles,” says Warren Hardy, an ex-convict who grew up in the North End of Hartford.

Miller found Hardy inside a jail cell.

“We began to talk and I began to mentor him about the things he felt he needed to do. And then my office paid for him to go through a program,” says Miller.

That program led to a college degree and a new life.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter where you live at. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin. It doesn’t matter the car you drive that we all need to come together and make a difference in every community you know what I’m saying, that exists,” says Hardy.

Hardy says Miler saved his life. All Miller wants to do is make sure the village that killed Emmett Till can save the next one.

“Maybe one day if I’m lucky enough to get to heaven God will say, You know come on home deacon I want you to see the miracles that happened because you stood up.”