The Late Imam Abdul Shahid Muhammad Ansari

Imam Abdul Shahid Muhammad Ansari (birth name L.C. Watts) was a local Black leader and champion of civil rights issues in CT. Muhammad Ansari was born in Leslie, Georgia on September 26, 1937 to Julia Mae Abrom and Luther Watts. He came to Hartford in 1944 where he was raised and spent the greater part of his life. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1954 and was stationed in South Carolina and later deployed to Korea. He joined the Nation of Islam in 1960 and was one of the early members of a Main Street mosque established by Muslim minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X. In 1975 he joined the following of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad, proponent of Orthodox Islam. At that time, he changed his name to Abdul-Shahid Ansari.

Muhammad Ansari held several positions in the community including Imam (minister) of the New Africa Learning Center in Hartford and assistant Imam of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford. He also immersed himself in Hartford’s Black civic circles, both as President and Treasurer of the Greater Hartford African American Alliance, member of the Hartford Democratic Town Committee and a five-term President of the Greater Hartford NAACP. Over the course of his life he also served as a prison chaplain, supervised a methadone clinic and worked as the Executive Director of the Open Hearth Association.

In 2010 Muhammad Ansari retired as director of the Open Hearth, but his presence is still felt by many at the shelter where he helped countless men work through homelessness and addiction. Muhammad Ansari understood the hold that drugs had on many of the men who came through the Charter Oak Avenue shelter, having relapsed himself in the early 1990s and landed in prison in South Carolina, observing Islam’s five daily prayer times from inside a cell. It’s what made him an example, that he overcame substance abuse to give back to the city’s neediest residents and become a force in Hartford’s Black and Muslim communities. At the shelter, he transformed his life and then modeled that hope for others.

In June 2017, Muhmammad Ansari was interviewed by the Northend Agents. During the interview he shared his views on the similarities between the African American Muslim and the NAACP. Muhammad Ansari felt both organizations were built on addressing the civil rights of people of color. He felt in Islam all people are equal and should be treated as such and that we are all the children of Adam, from a single soul. We’re taught there’s no superiority of one race over another. He felt that is also what the NAACP advocates. He also discussed during the interview discrimination in the media, especially among African American Muslims not being able to address their opinions. It bothered him because more truth is found in “our” stories. He felt the media tends to want to solicit the input from the foreign Muslims. He noted some immigrants who come to America from other countries have their feelings about this country that are not the same as Muslims who have been living here their whole life or of African Americans. He stated some foreign Muslims align first with their country before ours and if the media picks a person to interview from the country that was just devastated, their story is going to be very different from mine. You will therefore get a picture of Islam with sentimental attachments. The representation of Islam is short-sided when the African American side is left out. It does a dis-service to everyone.

On December 3, 2020, the Hartford Courant reported a new street sign will bear the name of the former Hartford Shelter Director. City Council voted unanimously to superimpose “Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari Way” to Charter Oak Avenue, where Muhammad Ansari used to run the Open Hearth homeless shelter. This honor was given to Muhammad Ansari for his generosity and devotion to his community. In a public hearing, Muhammad Ansari’s daughter Khadija Ansari-Wright told council “those men he worked with at the Open Hearth, that was literally his heart because he went through that, he’s been there where those men are today and he helped them get out of that position.” The sign, she said, “It’s just something to show people in Hartford what is possible, what people can do, how even if you hit rock bottom you can always change your life and turn it around.” In the same hearing, Pastor A.J. Johnson, of Urban Hope Refuge Church, told council he kept addressing his elder and mentor as “President Ansari.” “He had a passion for uplifting young people, he wasn’t a tall man but his presence was tall in a lot of different ways.” Rafia Ansari stated “I want my father, and the dedication he had for this city, to never be forgotten.”

Muhammad Ansari died on May 3, 2020 and is survived by his wife and eight children. At the time of his death he was serving as chairman of the Civilian Police Review Board, the independent panel that reviews and investigates potential misconduct by Hartford police. His death came in the middle of Ramadan and COVID-19 which prevented the family from holding a celebration of life. They said the street sign on Charter Oak Avenue will bring them comfort and bring Ansari the recognition he earned. In the Council’s Resolution it was written “Muhammad Ansari established himself as a citizen of great value, exemplifying a life devoted to the absolute service of others, paying it forward with honor, dignity and goodwill.