New Haven — Henry Nathaniel moved west to Utah to attend a college in order to avoid “paper bag tests” of his skin color. Two generations later, his adopted daughter found herself the only black student in a Salt Lake City middle school — where she learned lessons she would one day bring with her to New Haven City Hall.
That adopted daughter was Toni Nathaniel Harp. Harp eventually moved east to attend graduate school at Yale. She settled in New Haven. On Wednesday she was sworn in as New Haven’s 50th mayor — the city’s first female mayor, and first African-American mayor.
Her upbringing in nearly monochromatic Utah helped shape her ideas about race and class, as well as about the role of grandparents raising grandchildren. Her story in part resembles the life trajectories of many people in the city she will now run, a city where racial divisions persist, a city where many grandparents have assumed responsibility for their children’s children.
In her previous 27 years in public life, as an alderwoman then a powerful state senator, Harp rarely if ever discussed her life story. That changed in this year’s mayoral campaign, when she discovered that voters demand to have a more intimate connection to their mayor than they do to other elected officials. She began at the July 23 Democratic nominating convention to lay out her life story, in stages.
The story begins in a basket. “This is,” as Harp put it, “all biblical.”
Harp, who is 66 years old, was born in California. Her birth mother Donnetta, was a teenager at the time. Donnetta had been living at home in Utah when she became pregnant. She was kicked out of the house, so she moved to live with an aunt in San Francisco.
“She sent letters back saying she didn’t really feel she could take care of me,” Harp said. So Donnetta’s mother, Ruby Nathaniel, put one of Donnetta’s sisters on a train to San Francisco to retrieve Toni. The sister “put me in a basket” and brought Toni to Salt Lake City.
Toni’s grandparents helped Toni survive polio, which she contracted at age 4. She spent a year breathing for hours at a time through an iron lung. Harp told that story in the third person at the July convention; it was the first time many of her longtime allies had heard it. “She wasn’t expected to live … and if she did, she wasn’t expected to ever walk again,” Harp recalled at the time.
“Thankfully, through the help of her doctors, the love of her parents, and her own resilience, she got better. And when she got out of that machine, she taught herself to walk again. This experience taught her not just how precious life is, but that, despite whatever challenges in life she might face, she would never allow anyone to define her by her circumstances and obstacles but by her ability to overcome them.”
When she was 5, her grandparents legally adopted her as a daughter. Three years later, Donnetta came back home to live. She didn’t take over the job of raising Toni.
“She became my oldest sister,” Harp said. “She actually deferred all of the authority to my mother, to her mother. It was always clear that she took the role of big sister. There was never a competition.”
Being adopted by her grandparents imbued her with a sense of mission, Harp said. “I always felt that I was special. I felt like I was chosen. They decided they were going to take me. They didn’t have to do that. … They always told me that I was capable. So I just felt that I was capable. That I should do.”
Harp said she “love[s] the fact” that so many New Haven grandparents have “stepped up to the plate” to raise grandchildren whose parents can’t do the job, “because I’ve had that.” She saw firsthand that it can work out.
In the land of the Mormons, “I grew up in the Baptist Church. In our community we had a strong sense of pride around our religion. And our religious tenets basically teach us that we are God’s children and we can do whatever it is we feel we can achieve. So I always believed that. So I just operated from that,” she recalled.
The Paper Bag Test
Harp’s adopted father Henry, who was born in 1905 and grew up in Louisiana, wanted to go to college to study to become an engineer. But he didn’t want to attend a historically black college, because of discrimination against darker-skinned African Americans like him. On black campuses, students would be asked to compare their skin to a paper bag, before admittance to, say, a party. Anyone with skin darker than the bag would not be allowed in.
White schools in the South and Midwest had quotas limiting the admission of blacks, Harp said. So Henry came to Utah instead to study. “He said to me, ‘I will never be more discriminated against than by my own people.’”
Henry began college, but starting a family interrupted his plans, and he left school to earn a living. “Because he got married, he had kids, he couldn’t fulfill that dream” of becoming an engineer, Harp said. He did get a good job, working for the Santa Fe Railroad. His wife Ruby worked for Greyhound Bus Lines.
“My parents had jobs. We were never on welfare. … Economically, I was in a better place than many of the students I went to school with.”
Harp attended Roosevelt Junior High School in Salt Lake City. She was the only black student there. In high school, she was one of about 30 African-Americans in a graduating class of 600.
“I actually saw mistreatment as an African-American child in Utah. But then I saw white people who were poor mistreated, too,” she said. “So that I recognized that people mistreat people. And you have to rise above it. … There were wonderful kids that I grew up with. And then there were some that were mean and nasty. They weren’t just mean and nasty to me. Because I was the only one that looked like me, I had to think of that in a different context. And I managed. I think I was better off for having had those struggles. …”
“I realized as a black person, yes, I have some things that I had to deal with in terms of the lack of openness in our society, in terms of discrimination. But I also saw poor white kids having to face it maybe to a greater extent than me.”
Harp’s adopted parents set the expectation the children would attend college. An aunt was the first African-American graduate of Utah State University; a sister was the second African American ever to graduate from the University of Utah.
“These were the women I wanted to emulate, that I was pushed to emulate,” Harp recalled. “I never had a decision about going to college. It was expected that I would.” Harp began college at University of Utah, then completed her undergraduate work at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. She got her master’s degree at Yale School of Architecture.
As New Haven’s new mayor, Harp said, she wants to deliver a message to grandparents and the grandchildren they’re raising: “Their grandchildren can become a state senator or a mayor. Your birth has nothing to do with what you accomplish.”