Butch Lewis and Bill Breetz: Hartford Bridge Builders
“We had, you might say, a natural inclination to like each other,” says attorney Bill Breetz of his friendship with the late activist Butch Lewis. The affinity these Hartford mainstays shared is an example of the deep and broad connections each man forged on the streets of Hartford. Their ability to build bridges across difference, and their knowledge of how race and economics shape the lives of people in Hartford continues to inspire the Hartford Community Loan Fund in its efforts to align capital with justice.
Though Breetz and Lewis grew up in different environments, both had experiences of racial discrimination which set the course for their future work. Breetz, who has used his legal expertise to aid countless community development efforts in Hartford, grew up in Connecticut and was educated in what he described as “a white, privileged atmosphere.” But his experience as a law student working on a school desegregation case in Georgia in 1966 raised his awareness of race-related issues.
“The head of our team was a black guy,” Breetz said. “We went to Mrs. Smith’s Fine Foods, a diner in Atlanta, and four of us sat down for lunch. The entire restaurant went quiet. One by one, each of the diners left and stood outside. We’d waited 20 minutes for a menu, so finally I got up and went to one of the waitresses to ask for one. She threw a glass of iced tea on me. She said, ‘You white n-----! You’re worse than that [Black man] over there!’ I was stunned. Discrimination wasn’t real to me until it happened to me.”
Butch Lewis was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where racial discrimination was overt and omnipresent. “My hometown still has the original slave block that my great-great grandparents were sold off. At the theater, black people sat in the balcony, called the ‘crow’s nest,’ and you couldn’t go to the front door with the polished gold handles, you could only go in the side door. You always knew you were considered a second class citizen.”
Both men came to Hartford in the 1960s and continued to experience racial disparities. “After that summer in Atlanta, I joined a legal services program in Hartford,” Breetz shared. “The population I worked with was almost entirely people of color. So I got involved in issues that flow through legal services programs, like housing issues. I got to see how race affects people’s lives.” In his north end Albany Avenue office, Breetz met Lewis, who at the time had recently founded the Hartford chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Breetz remembers the Panthers “doing great work in Hartford because they were addressing the real needs of the community.” The legal services office and the Panthers, said Breetz, “took a shine to one another” and aided each other’s work. Breetz was an ally for Lewis after police tried to make him a scapegoat for inciting the 1968 riots in Hartford; meanwhile, Lewis supported Breetz’s work by making connections between the legal services office and members of the community who were experiencing discrimination.
Reacting against discrimination in the real estate market, both Lewis and Breetz decided on principal to settle in Hartford. Lewis said, “I could live in Wethersfield. I could buy a house in Bloomfield. But I chose to live here, to fight for my neighborhood. I feel that every child should be able to run from one corner to another as fast and free as they want, dodging no bullets.” Lewis organized a block watch group and helped lead efforts to shut down drug traffic near his home in an effort to keep his community safe. All the neighborhood kids called him “Uncle Butch,” and he made it a point to know everyone who walked by his Vine Street porch.
Breetz and his wife are similarly committed to the city. “Society can’t succeed if there isn’t a fair amount of interchange among people of different races and classes, and if there isn’t some form of economic justice.” Breetz added, “I don’t think we can legislate outcomes, but we can legislate opportunity. Much of the injustice that’s happened is a denial of opportunity.”
It was partly in response to this “denial of opportunity” that Breetz helped start the Connecticut Urban Law Initiative (CULI) at the UConn Law School in 1997. He served as director for 17 years, and cultivated a dual mission to provide a service learning opportunity for law students and to offer legal services to organizations in the community who couldn’t afford them otherwise. As Barbara McGrath, Bill’s colleague and current director of CULI stated, “Bill has always been a person to whom people could come when no one else was willing to address their situation because either it was too messy, too complex, or too political.”
In 2013, Lewis, who at the time had lived in his house for 40 years and already paid off his mortgage, was served foreclosure papers. Unbeknownst to him, the city of Hartford had sold property tax liens on his Vine Street home to a third party investor. Such investors earn interest of 18 percent on the back taxes, and can foreclose if they don't get paid. Lewis had no knowledge that a tax lien on his property even existed. He contacted Hartford Community Loan Fund for financial counsel and Breetz for legal assistance. Lewis then spoke out to City Council members against the practice. The incident led to the Council’s creation of a Tax Lien Task Force, to which Breetz and HCLF’s executive director Rex Fowler were appointed. Soon HCLF created a tax lien foreclosure prevention program to help homeowners like Lewis from losing their properties. As a result, Lewis was able to stay in his home with Virginia, his wife of 41 years, until he passed away in the fall of 2015.
It was on the porch of his Vine Street home a few months before his death that Lewis and Breetz got to reminisce about their friendship and their shared experiences through some tumultuous times in Hartford’s history. As they traded stories about friends and places they shared in common, it was clear that each had benefitted from the unique resources offered by the other, and that those resources had in turn moved beyond them into the city they have loved.
By Kate Foran