Hartford’s first black mayor looks back on life’s accomplishments while enjoying retirement

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HARTFORD--When you think of retirement, more than likely pictures of being dressed in a suit and heading off to class don’t come to mind.

However, that’s what retirement looks like for 82-year-old Thirman Milner. Milner is a familiar face and name in the halls of the school that bears his name, an honor for the man who served as Hartford’s first black elected mayor in 1981. He was also the first black mayor in all of New England.

Now, he’s hoping to inspire young minds.

“Most of these kids come from single parent heads of household. About 80 percent are female heads of household in a very depressed area below the poverty level,” said Milner.

Milner can relate; He grew up not too far away from the school, raised only by his mother on welfare.

However, that didn’t stop Milner. He headed to New York University to study pharmacy. Shortly after his arrival, he heard Dr. Martin Luther King speak in New York City and that changed the direction of his life.

“He told us, 'I’m not just here raising funds. I’m here recruiting people to get involved in the movement. I need some people to actually get involved.' Something clicked in me. I thought about it. Two weeks later, I’m packing my bags,” said Milner.

He packed his bags to protest segregation in the South. That went on for months until Milner realized his home, Hartford, was much worse. Milner began picketing outside of Connecticut businesses.

“Here, we couldn't even get a job above elevator operator,” said Milner.

Many people took notice and urged Milner to run for state office. He ran, reluctantly, but lost by three votes. "I said 'I'm through with politics. I am done. No more,'" said Milner.

However, years later, Milner ran for state representative again and won. Then, those same friends urged him to run for mayor of Hartford, but this time, many people were telling him no, he couldn't win, including the NAACP.

“As a black, you just can't do it in New England. You have to stay in your place more or less,” said Milner.

Milner didn't stay in his place and went on to win after a bitter campaign.

“I’m looking across the river at Hartford and I look and I said, what did I do? I said here I am, the city of Hartford. The Democratic Party was not supporting me. I had no support at all and I am mayor,” said Milner.

Milner continued in politics, taking pride in bringing jobs and job training programs to Hartford.

However, after years in public office, Milner decided to step down because he had prostate cancer and doctors gave him three months to live. So, Milner took time to start planning his own funeral.

"It was shattering. I sold everything. I gave everything away to my family. I told them to come in the house, take anything you want. I was ready to go,” said Milner.

That was more than 25-years ago and since then, Milner recalls his one regret when he was close to death: wishing he had done more to help underprivileged children in Hartford. That's why now, his retirement looks different than most.