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Tue, Apr 12


Free Virtual Event

Education, Housing, and the Role of Sheff vs. O’Neill

Our esteemed panel will discuss housing, education, and the landmark desegregation case, Sheff vs. O'Neill. Panelists will review and explore the case's impact on education in Connecticut today and in the future. If you missed it, you can watch it here:

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Education, Housing, and the Role of Sheff vs. O’Neill
Education, Housing, and the Role of Sheff vs. O’Neill

Time & Location

Apr 12, 2022, 6:00 PM

Free Virtual Event


About the Event

Join us for a conversation about housing, the landmark desegregation case, Sheff vs. O’Neill, and its impact on education in Connecticut. Joined by lead plaintiff, Elizabeth Horton Sheff and John Brittain, one of the original attorneys in Sheff v. O’Neill, our panel will review the historical circumstances that led to filing the case and look at its impact on education today and into the future. Our current exhibition, Changing Lanes: Mobility in Connecticut, explores the case, neighborhood redlining, segregation, and other themes related to historical roadblocks that limited upward mobility of African Americans.

The exhibit, inspired by Gretchen Sullivan Sorin's Book, Driving While Black, explores the successes, struggles, and ongoing efforts of activists fighting for racial equity in Connecticut. But the question remains: What barriers still exist today, and how can we eliminate them?

Conversation Moderated By:

Fiona Vernal, PhD | Director of Engaged, Public, Oral and Community Histories (EPOCH) and Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies, University of Connecticut


  • John Brittain, JD | Olie W. Rauh Professor of Law | University of the District of Columbia
  • Jack Dougherty, PhD | Professor of Educational Studies at Trinity College | Trinity College
  • Elizabeth Horton Sheff | Sheff Plaintiff | Co-Chair Sheff Movement Coalition
  • Jacqueline Rabe Thomas | Investigative Reporter, Accountability Project | Connecticut Public


Fiona Vernal, PhD | Director of Engaged, Public, Oral and Community Histories (EPOCH) and Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies, University of Connecticut

Fiona Vernal's research straddles African, Caribbean, and African Diaspora history. Her current book and digital humanities project, Hartford Bound: Mobility, Race, and Identity in Post-World War II Hartford examines the convergence of three great migrations of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and West Indians in the Greater Hartford region as housing policies chiseled residential segregation into the city’s landscape. Hartford Bound integrates oral history, archival research, and GIS methodologies to reframe the history of how Hartford became an African American and a Caribbean city. She was recently awarded the University of Connecticut's Provost Award for Excellence in Community Engaged Scholarship.

Dr. Vernal is a native of Trelawny, Jamaica and grew up in Trenton, New Jersey. She earned her BA in history with a certificate in African American Studies from Princeton University in 1995 and her MA and PhD from Yale. After completing her doctoral work in December 2003, she served as director of African Studies at Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo, Michigan. Since 2005 she has taught at the University of Connecticut’s Department of History where her courses focus on precolonial, and colonial Africa, the history of South Africa, slavery, and the African diaspora. Since 2015, her teaching pedagogy has shifted to incorporate inquiry-based learning and human rights practice, yielding the exhibits: “Children of the Soil: Generations of South Africans under Apartheid” (April 2016) and the upcoming “Child Labor and Human Rights in Africa” in 2018.

Her book, The Farmerfield Mission (Oxford, 2012) explores the relationship between African Christian converts, European missionaries, and the politics of land access, land alienation and the “civilizing” mission of African social and economic improvement in nineteenth century South Africa.

Dr. Vernal consults with the Connecticut Historical Society on oral history projects including an exhibit documenting and recording the impact of 9/11 on Connecticut victims, families, and first responders: September 11, Connecticut Responds and Reflects. A second exhibit documented the history of West Indian migrants to the greater Hartford’s area: Finding a Place, Maintaining Ties: Greater Hartford’s West Indians, with a successor exhibit premiering at the West Indian Social Club of Hartford on June 10, 2017 entitled “A Home away From Home.” She is currently engaged in a preservation and photo documentation project on Caribbean migration to greater Hartford.

John C. Brittain | Olie W. Rauh Professor of Law | University of the District of Columbia

John C. Brittain joined the faculty of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, in 2009, as a tenured professor of law, and served as Acting Dean from 2018 to 2019. Prior to joining UDC Law, he served as Dean of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston, as a tenured law professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law for twenty-two years, and as Chief Counsel and Senior Deputy Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., a public interest law organization founded by President John F. Kennedy to enlist private lawyers in taking pro bono cases in civil rights.

Professor Brittain writes and litigates on issues in civil and human rights, especially in education law. In 2015, the Mississippi Center for Justice honored him as a "pioneering civil rights leader and esteemed law professor who has inspired a generation of young attorneys." In 2013, he was named to the Charles Hamilton Houston Chair at North Carolina Central University School of Law, established to bring prominent civil rights law professors and litigators to the law school to teach constitutional and civil rights law for a year. Professor Brittain was one of the original counsel team in Sheff v. O’Neill, the landmark school desegregation case decided by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1996, chronicled in Susan Eaton’s book, The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial, in which he is frequently mentioned. He is presently a part of a legal team representing private plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the State of Maryland for denying Maryland’s historically black institutions of higher learning – Morgan, Coppin, Bowie and Maryland Eastern Shore Universities – comparable and competitive opportunities with traditional white universities.

Professor Brittain has participated in filing nearly a dozen briefs in the United States Supreme Court, and he was a member of a legal team that filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the NAACP in the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (Louisville) school cases decided by the Supreme Court in 2007, concerning voluntary race-conscious student assignment plans. He filed a friend of the court brief in the Connecticut finance adequacy lawsuit, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell (2010), a landmark case that recognized the state constitution has a qualitative dimension guaranteeing all students an adequate education. Professor Brittain has an interest in a related area, the intersection between housing and school segregation, and the policies that contribute to structural poverty in low-income and neighborhoods of color.

He has been president of the National Lawyers’ Guild, a member of the Executive Committee and the Board of the ACLU, and legal counsel to the NAACP at the local level and national office of the General Counsel. In 1993, the NAACP awarded Professor Brittain the prestigious William Robert Ming Advocacy Award for legal service to the NAACP without a fee. The Ming award was named in honor of the African American law professor at the University of Chicago, and a brilliant civil rights lawyer who worked closely with Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Professor Brittain has traveled extensively on international human rights investigations in Africa, Central America, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.  Currently, he serves as Chairperson of the Norflet Fund Cy Pres, a charitable organization created by settlement in a lawsuit involving John Hancock Life Insurance Company for racial discrimination against African Americans in selling life insurance, that will distribute approximately $16 million in grants to benefit African Americans in education, health, and post-Katrina relief. He has also served on the board of directors of the Hartford Community Foundation and represented many individuals in pro bono cases.

He loves reading books and sailing, and recently retired as a nationally ranked masters runner to become an enthusiastic cyclist. Like the former comedian and activist Dick Gregory, Brittain is a vegetarian who eats no meats, fish or fowl.

Jack Dougherty, PhD | Professor of Educational Studies | Trinity College 

Jack Dougherty is Professor and Director of the Educational Studies Program at Trinity College. He and his students use tools from digital history, data visualization, and web writing to explore the relationship between cities, suburbs, and schools in metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut. Jack received his B.A. in philosophy from Swarthmore College, taught high school social studies in Newark, New Jersey, then earned his Ph.D. in educational policy studies, with a minor in U.S. history, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At Trinity, he co-created the Liberal Arts Action Lab while serving as its first Faculty Director (2017-2020), and also led the team that launched the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) while serving as its first Director (2018-2020).

His published books include More Than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee (University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Writing History in the Digital Age (co-edited with Kristen Nawrotzki, University of Michigan Press, 2013); Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning (co-edited with Tennyson O’Donnell, University of Michigan Press, 2015); and Hands-On Data Visualization: Interactive Storytelling from Spreadsheets to Code (co-authored with Ilya Ilyankou, O’Reilly Media, 2021).

Currently, Jack and student contributors are completing On The Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and its Suburbs (under contract with Amherst College Press), an open-access book that blends historical narrative with interactive maps and video interviews. His prior publications on this topic include Shopping for Schools: How Public Education and Private Housing Shaped Suburban Connecticut (Journal of Urban History, 2012), School Choice in Suburbia: Test Scores, Race, and Housing Markets (American Journal of Education, 2009), and School Information, Parental Decisions, and the Digital Divide (book chapter, 2013). The latter two publications were co-authored with Trinity economics professor Diane Zannoni and students. Jack’s work has been supported by National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship and a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation post-doctoral fellowship. See abstracts and links on his Scholarship page.

For more than two decades, Jack has taught and advised hundreds of undergraduate students at Trinity, one of the nation’s preeminent small liberal arts colleges located in a city. Over 25 undergraduates have co-authored publications or co-presented papers with him at national academic conferences such as the American Educational Research Association, the History of Education Society, the Oral History Association, and the National Council on Public History. 

Elizabeth Horton Sheff | Sheff Plaintiff | Co-Chair Sheff Movement Coalition

Elizabeth Horton Sheff is a justice seeker. Throughout her many years of community activism, she has advocated on many civil rights fronts, including championing the rights of persons who reside in public housing; those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS; families marginalized by economic challenges and grandparents raising grandchildren. Horton Sheff is also known for her role as the mother of named plaintiff in Sheff vs. O’Neill, the successful landmark civil rights lawsuit, with mandate to provide equal access to quality, integrated public education throughout the greater Hartford region.

Elizabeth Horton Sheff served on the City of Hartford, Court of Common Council from 1991-1995 and 1999-2001. During her tenure there, Ms. Horton Sheff initiated the “Campaign for Civic Pride,” which resulted in an increase in citizen access to and participation on city boards and commissions; promoted jobs and wealth building opportunities for Hartford residents and businesses in city assisted projects; created and lead the city-wide literary effort “Keep Them Reading” campaign; encouraged community policing through strengthening the city’s Civilian Police Review Board; initiated and completed the development of the Generations Campus – housing and case management support for grandparents raising grandchildren, and hosted “Community Council,” a monthly public access television show through which she kept Hartford residents informed of resources available and legislative action at Hartford city hall.

Ms. Horton Sheff, a former nurse and graduate of the Hartford Seminary Black Ministries Certificate Program, earned an Associate and a Bachelor’s degree from Charter Oak State College, and a Masters of Education from the University of Hartford. She is a graduate fellow of the Aspen Institute Hartford Workforce Leadership Academy, class of 2017 – 2018 and a co-chair of the Sheff Movement Coalition. She is a member of the newly constituted State of Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice Community Engagement Board.

Ms. Horton Sheff is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, including the Connecticut Conference United Church of Christ Living Waters Award; the Community Partner Award from the Capital Region Education Council; the 100 Women of Color Award from ELEVEN28 ENTERTAINMENT; the W.I.N. Award from the Greater Hartford Chapter, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an honorary doctorate bestowed by the University of Hartford, Hartford, CT

Ms. Horton Sheff is the director of Community Services for the Community Renewal Team (CRT), a non-profit community action program that works with persons off all ages to address life challenges. Ms. Horton Sheff created the CRT Financial Literacy Institute - a fourteen (14) week course dedicated to providing financial literacy instruction and resources to participants of various racial, ethnic, cultural, and economic statuses

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas | Investigative Reporter | Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas is an investigative reporter with Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project. During the nearly 12 years that she worked at The Connecticut Mirror, she uncovered a host of issues facing the state’s education, criminal justice, child welfare, and housing systems. She won an investigative reporting award from the Education Writers Association in 2020 for exposing the obstacles that prevent poor people from finding decent housing. Her ongoing coverage of housing inequality – co-published with ProPublica -- also won the investigative award from the New England Newspaper & Press Association in 2019 and 2020. In 2012, she was named the nation’s top education beat reporter and was the runner up for the national award for single topic news coverage for a series on school funding disparities in 2016. In 2018, she won the Theodore Driscoll Award for Investigative Reporting from the Connecticut Society for Professional Journalists for a deep dive into the substandard health care being provided to prisoners.

Jacqueline’s reporting has appeared in ProPublica, Mother Jones, Long Reads, and daily newspapers across Connecticut. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College. She has also taught at the University of Connecticut’s School of Business.

When she's not in the newsroom, Jacqueline enjoys traveling and biking. She and her husband, live in Hartford with their two children and two dogs.

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