(Final segment in our series of articles about Muhammad Ali’s visits to Connecticut)
By Joel Alderman
It was closed to white people, but two recent high school graduates from New Haven were determined to break the color barrier and gain entrance into the old Dixwell Community House to see and hear the world famous Muhammad Ali, when he was still also referred to by some as Cassius Clay.
Mike Guarnieri lived on Sherman Avenue and Frank Jordan on Maple Street, and both attended Notre Dame High School in West Haven.
Guarnieri, who went on to graduate from Southern Connecticut State University, was to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and still is active in the profession, working out of his home office in North Haven.
Jordan, who lives in Marlborough, Conn., was an all-state swimmer at Notre Dame and later served in the Army infantry in Vietnam.
On Sept. 6, 1967, they were about to enter college, but before that they wanted to get close to the future boxing legend, Muhammad Ali.
So they made their way to the “Q” House, which at that time was at 98 Dixwell Avenue before it moved to 197 Dixwell. Both buildings are now long gone although a new one is slated to be completed next year. Mike and Frank were almost pushed through the entrance doors by the crowd of people eager to get in.
Walked their way in
According to Mike Guarnieri, a man approached them and asked, “You boys are Puerto Rican, aren’t you?”
Mike thought a second then admitted they were not. He said the person who confronted them appeared to be upset and aggressive.
Another person, whom Mike remembers as being well dressed and trying to help, stepped in between them and said, “They’re fight fans. They’re fight fans. They’re here to see Cassius Clay.”
Frank Jordan corrected him and said “his name is Muhammad Ali!”
Both seemed to be taken aback by Frank’s comment, Mike recalled. “The aggressive one then walked away. They were not questioned again, although “it did seem that some people were looking at us questioningly,” Mike said.
Frank Douglass Jr., a New Haven Alder, marched with Ali along Dixwell Avenue
A few hours earlier Muhammad Ali paraded through Dixwell Avenue with a group of community leaders and school children. One of the kids was Frank E. Douglass, Jr. Now, almost 50 years later, he is a New Haven Alder representing the city’s second ward, and vividly recalled the march in a conversation with me.
The experience of a lifetime
Back to the story of Mike Guarnieri and Frank Jordan who, once though the doors, found themselves in a hall with about 600 other people, They all had to stand as there were practically no seating facilities. “Frank confirmed that we were the only white people there,” said Mike.
A Muslim service began with a verse, probably from the Koran, and a prayer. In accordance with Muslim custom, the men were on one side of the room and women on the other.
They felt safe while hearing a blistering sermon
Abdul Karriem, the Minister of the local Mosque-40, then preached a sermon advocating that blacks can get along without the white people.
“The sermon was tough talk for tough times. We knew whose house we were in and we knew what the message would be,” Guarnieri told me. “It may seem strange, but we felt totally safe. The atmosphere was more religious than radical.”
Minister Karriem concluded by introducing “our brother, follower of (Elijah) Muhammad, the heavyweight champ of the world, who has over 100 fights and doesn’t have a scratch on him.”
It was a hot night and even hotter inside the Community House, which is reportedly going to rise again.
The first thing Ali said to the audience was “I’m sweating, and usually I don’t do this in my fights.”
In the New Haven Register the next day, Robert Jordan (no relation to the Frank Jordan in this article), wrote that Ali told the assemblage “we call ourselves Negroes. We are not Negroes. There is no country called Negro,” and pointed out that all other peoples are named for countries.
Ali asserted that the ancestral Arabic name for his race was stripped by the white man and talked about “brain washing” of the black people by whites. He criticized the concept that white is good and black in bad. He cited the white Santa Claus, Snow White, the Milky White Way, angel food cake (white) and its opposite devil cake (dark). “They got you hating yourself and don’t know it.”
He said that white America tells the Blacks to go fight your enemy in Vietnam, “when your enemy is right beside you in the foxhole.”
Ali ended his sermon by bestowing “my peace and blessing” upon those in attendance. Mike Guarnieri and Frank Jordan felt comfortable.
They got his autograph, at a cost
Then a good number of people got in line to get Ali’s autographs on a picture and copy of the Muslim newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, which together required a $10 contribution. Today that would equate to $71.30, based on the Consumer Price Index.
“It was a good investment,” said Guarnieri. “If I ever decide to sell, which I doubt I would, the autographs would now be worth a whole lot more.”
Fortunately, Ali used a blue writing pen, which shows the signatures were authentic and not reproductions, as was another signature that is part of the photo.
They were face-to face with Ali
“Ali was seated on the front edge of the stage, with his legs dangling off, when he was signing the autographs, so his head was only a foot or so above our eye level,” Guarnieri recalls. “I guess the cardboard folder the pictures came in was enough of a backing for him to sign his name.
“When we got to him, he looked up in surprise and stared at us for several moments. He then nodded and proceeded to sign a picture and a copy of Muhammad Speaks for each of us.”
As they left, Frank proudly commented to Mike, “We got the nod from Muhammad.”
Ali gave a repeat performance
When the meeting was over he started to leave the Dixwell Community House and saw another large crowd milling about, who had not been able to be accommodated inside. So he invited them in and delivered his second sermon of the night.
Timeline of Muhammad Ali’s Appearances in Connecticut, as described here and in our earlier articles in SportzEdge.com
Tues., Sept. 5, 1967
Arrives that evening in New Haven and stays overnight at the Park Plaza Hotel
Wed., Sept. 6, 1967
Driven to Bridgeport in the morning; interviewed on WNAB call-in radio program;
Returns to New Haven; tours the “Hill” district and spares with three youths;
Marches along Dixwell Avenue with school children and community leaders;
Delivers sermons at two Muslim services in the Dixwell Community House
Tues. March 5. 1968
Honorary guest at the Walters Memorial AME Zion Church in Bridgeport
Thurs. May 13. 1971
Speaks at Univ. of Bridgeport, six weeks before his conviction is overturned
Wed. Aug. 22, 1979
Appearance at the Veterans Home at Rocky Hill canceled when some veterans object;
Fri., Aug. 24, 1979
Enthusiastically welcomed by staff and patients at the Newington Children’s Hospital