African American Connecticut Explored
Publication Year: 2014
Contributors include Billie M. Anthony, Christopher Baker, Whitney Bayers, Barbara Beeching, Andra Chantim, Stacey K. Close, Jessica Colebrook, Christopher Collier, Hildegard Cummings, Barbara Donahue, Mary M. Donohue, Nancy Finlay, Jessica A. Gresko, Katherine J. Harris, Charles (Ben) Hawley, Peter Hinks, Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Eileen Hurst, Dawn Byron Hutchins, Carolyn B. Ivanoff, Joan Jacobs, Mark H. Jones, Joel Lang, Melonae’ McLean, Wm. Frank Mitchell, Hilary Moss, Cora Murray, Elizabeth J. Normen, Elisabeth Petry, Cynthia Reik, Ann Y. Smith, John Wood Sweet, Charles A. Teale Sr., Barbara M. Tucker, Tamara Verrett, Liz Warner, David O. White, and Yohuru Williams.
Ebook Edition Note: One illustration has been redacted.
Published by: Wesleyan University Press
Series: Garnet Books
Title Page, Copyright
A book for a general audience that surveys the long arc of the African American experience in Connecticut is long overdue. Connecticut Explored and The Amistad Center for Art & Culture collaborated on development of this book; additional collaborators were the State Historic Preservation Office of the Department of Economic and Community Development and The Amistad Committee, Inc.,...
Where does this story begin? Start by imagining a person in his or her homeland somewhere on the continent of Africa, a person born free to a mother and a father in a community with a culture and history dating back thousands of years. Then step forward to the Connecticut colony in its earliest years. Dr. Harris writes that Africans...
Part I Settlement to 1789
1 Freedom and Slavery
Katherine J. Harris
The coexistence of freedom and slavery shaped the lives of people of African descent from their first arrival in the Connecticut colony. The seventeenth century is accepted as the period marking the entrance of the first Africans to the British colonies. For example, colonial Virginians date with reasonable certainty the time of Africans’ arrival ...
2 Venture Smith, from Slavery to Freedom
John Wood Sweet
Out of almost twelve million African captives who embarked on the Middle Passage to the Americas, only about a dozen left behind first-hand accounts of their experiences. One of these was Venture Smith, whose A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America. Related by Himself was published in New London,...
3 Caesar and Lois Peters
Caesar and Lois Peters were enslaved African Americans who lived in Hebron, Connecticut, in the late eighteenth century, and though they and their children became free, the story of how they gained their freedom reveals much about transformations in popular thinking about race, slavery, and liberty during the era of the American Revolution....
4 Fortune’s Story
Ann Y. Smith
Fortune was an African American enslaved in the household of Dr. Preserved Porter in Waterbury, Connecticut in the eighteenth century. He died in 1798, but his remains were not buried. Instead, his skeleton has been studied for two centuries, offering insights into medicine, science, and history. Currently in the custody of the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, the skeleton continues to provoke...
5 Revolutionary War Service, Path to Freedom
David O. White
The largest battle fought in Connecticut during the American Revolution, the Battle of Groton Heights, took place in 1781 at Fort Griswold in Groton, which overlooked the entrance to the Thames River. Seeking to free up this obstacle, on September 6 a contingent of British soldiers attacked the fort, which was defended by local militia. Many of the Connecticut men died during this battle,...
6 In Remembrance of Their Kings of Guinea: The Black Governors and the Negro Election, 1749 to 1780
Katherine J. Harris
As early as 1749, throughout Connecticut and other New England colonies, the African and African American community—including enslaved and free people alike—maintained a custom of electing its own leadership through an institution they established and called the “Black Governor.” (The terms “Black Governor” and “Black King” were both used, though the latter was more common in areas...
7 Ancient Burying Ground: Monument to Black Governors
Billie M. Anthony
From 1995 to 1997 students Andriena Baldwin, Christopher Hayes, and Monique Price from Hartford’s Fox Middle School led research and fund-raising efforts to honor the 300 or more African Americans interred in unmarked graves in Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground. They discovered that five of Hartford’s Black Governors were likely buried there. The students used primary sources—census,...
Part II 1789 to Civil War
8 The Rise of Communities and the Continued Quest for Freedom for All
Katherine J. Harris
The early nineteenth century saw the rise of distinct African American communities as the number of freemen in Connecticut increased and the number of those enslaved decreased. Fleeing slavery or simply searching for economic opportunity, African Americans migrated and established unique African American communities....
9 Colonization and Abolition in Connecticut
Katherine J. Harris
The words freedom, emancipation, abolition, manumission, emigration, and colonization were sometimes used interchangeably in the long debate over solutions to the slavery crisis. In the chambers of the national government and the state of Connecticut this debate consumed much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.1...
10 Black Governors, 1780 to 1856
Katherine J. Harris
For African Americans, the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought renewed battles for the abolition of slavery and the rights of citizenship. The struggle for these twin goals coincided with the continuation of the Black Governor elections. These became the staging ground for African American assertiveness and a symbol of political leadership. An earlier essay in this volume on the...
11 James Mars
Wm. Frank Mitchell
James Mars (1790–1880), a religious leader, activist, farmer, and writer who was born into slavery, analyzed the social and political challenges facing nineteenth-century Connecticut through the dramatic story of his family’s escape from slavery and his years of public service. His observations were documented in the...
12 Black Abolitionists Speak
Cora Murray and Whitney Bayers
As previous essays have noted, blacks had resisted slavery and fought for its abolition even before the formation of the Union in 1776. In 1779, 1780, and 1788 blacks petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly for “the abolition of Slavery in Connecticut.” Here we feature the words of some of Connecticut’s leading black abolitionists, spoken and written as they strove to be front and center in all aspects of the struggle for their human rights....
13 From Talcott to Main Street: Hartford’s First African American Church
In 1819, a group of African Americans in Hartford grew weary of being assigned seats in the galleries and in the rear of churches and decided to begin worshipping on their own in the conference room of the First Church of Christ, now Center Church, in Hartford. This would become the first black Congregational Church in Connecticut,...
14 Fortresses of Faith, Agents of Change: AME and AME Zion Churches in Connecticut
Mary M. Donohue and Whitney Bayers
Black churches have long been at the forefront in the battle for social progress and equality. Since the end of the eighteenth century, African Americans worked to organize Christian congregations that would afford them full membership, often splitting away from white congregations. In addition to serving the spiritual needs of their members, African-American churches served as social and...
15 William Lanson: Businessman, Contractor, and Activist
Katherine J. Harris
For multitudes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African Americans such as William Lanson, documenting vital years of their lives is not a simple process.1 It is difficult to piece together, for instance, Lanson’s date or place of birth and other details of his early life, because the births and deaths of African Americans, particularly those...
16 The Ruggles, Norwich, and Abolitionism
Graham Russell Gao Hodges
David Ruggles (1810–1849), a native of Norwich, Connecticut, came from humble stock but rose to become one of the nation’s foremost warriors against slavery and racism during the antebellum period. Ruggles coined the phrase “practical abolitionism” for the common-sense argument that self-emancipated enslaved people had the right to resist unto death. Ruggles was the first black bookseller...
17 A Family of Reformers: The Middletown Bemans
More than a century before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the Bemans of Middletown, Connecticut were activists devoted to the struggle for equal opportunities for African Americans in the job market, schools, and the voting booth. Jehiel Beman, his second wife Nancy, his sons Amos and Leverett, and his daughter-in- law ...
18 Rev. James W. C. Pennington: A National and Local Voice for Freedom
In 1827 James Pembroke, an enslaved man of African descent who would eventually take the name James William Charles (W. C.) Pennington, managed to escape to freedom in the North. According to his narrative, he experienced an early childhood of parental separation. His father, Brazil Pembroke—whose last name was that...
19 Coming to the Aid of the Amistad Africans
Jessica A. Gresko
On the morning of August 26, 1839, a mysterious ship drifted in the waters off Long Island. The long, black schooner rode low in the water, its sails in tatters. A U.S. Navy ship patrolling the waters moved in to investigate. What the sailors found was a story that would intrigue the nation for the next two...
20 In Search of an Education, Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries
Public schooling in the United States throughout the nineteenth century was by modern standards appallingly inadequate.1 In Connecticut, by the 1830s, schoolhouses typically were dilapidated, the methods and materials of teaching primitive, and teachers more often than not untalented and untrained. Most boys and girls by the ...
21 “Cast Down on Every Side”: The Ill-Fated Campaign to Found an “African College” in New Haven
In 1831, a group of black and white abolitionists from across the eastern seaboard launched a campaign to build the nation’s first black college. With Simeon Jocelyn, a young white minister from New Haven, and Peter Williams, the head of New York’s St. Phillip’s African Episcopal Church, at the helm, the group sought to expand black men’s access to higher education. As few white...
22 Sarah Harris and the Prudence Crandall School
Barbara M. Tucker
In the 1830s anti-black sentiment intensified throughout Connecticut. Residents in Hartford, New Haven, Meriden, Torrington, and Danbury demonstrated against abolitionist speakers, attacked black residents, and raided black people’s neighborhoods. Much of this anger was directed at those abolitionists and outsiders who wanted to establish schools for the education and training of black people....
23 “No Taxation without Representation”
Katherine J. Harris
The right to vote is an expression of political participation, human dignity, and control of one’s destiny. For the majority of people of African descent in Connecticut in the 1700s, emancipation from slavery, the rights of citizenship, and voting rights were linked. Connecticut legislators passed a Gradual Emancipation Act in 1784 that eliminated hereditary enslavement, and finally abolished slavery...
24 A Walk Along the Underground Railroad
Dozens of Connecticut towns played some part in the mid-nineteenthcentury drama of the Underground Railroad, but Farmington claims a starring role, with a wealth of authenticated “Railroad” sites and stories. A walk from south to north on Farmington’s Main Street leads you past several of these, evoking the spirits of brave fugitives and the friends who helped them in their flight. Except for the First...
25 Augustus Washington: “Portrait of a Young Man”
Charles Edwin Bulkeley, a good-looking young man fashionably dressed in mid-nineteenth-century clothes, stares straight at the viewer. He is seated stiffly and a little awkwardly, his right hand resting on the arm of his chair. The brass mat surrounding his portrait is stamped to indicate that it is the work of “A. Washington, 136 Main St. Hartford, Ct.”...
26 The Twenty-ninth Regiment Colored Volunteers
Charles (Ben) Hawley
For the first two bloody years of the American Civil War the subject of allowing blacks to enlist was heavily debated. Opponents argued that blacks would not make good fighting men and that they lacked the military skills and fortitude to effectively participate in the war. The argument ignored the fact that blacks had fought in and made important contributions to every previous American war, most notably...
27 Fighting for Freedom: Joseph O. Cross
Elizabeth J. Normen
Joseph O. Cross of Griswold served in the Twenty-ninth (Colored) Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry during 1864 and 1865. Recruiting began for the Twenty-ninth in the fall of 1863. Recruits came from throughout the state and from as far away as Hawaii, France, and Spain, according to Diana Ross McCain, writing in...
Part III Post Civil War to World War I
28 Connecticut and the Aftermath of the Civil War
When the Union finally decided to organize African American regiments to serve in the Civil War, men from throughout Connecticut answered the call. In 1863 African Americans in Hartford, as in other communities in the state, sent volunteers for service in the Connecticut Twenty-ninth Regiment Colored Volunteers. By January 1864 the Twenty-ninth infantry had a full complement of troops,...
29 Rebecca Primus and Addie Brown
Barbara J. Beeching
Two voices, two lives. Two African American women, writing in the 1860s, offer unique insights into the world they lived in as they revealed their different but connected lives. Rebecca Primus wrote weekly letters to her family in Hartford, Connecticut, from Royal Oak, Maryland, where she had opened a school for newly freed African Americans in 1865. Addie Brown, a young working-class woman...
30 The Fisk Jubilee Singers Tour the North
Wm. Frank Mitchell
On October 6, 1871—six years after the Civil War’s end—a small group of African-American youth, some recently freed and others born into freedom, began a musical journey from Nashville. The Fisk Jubilee Singers went on tour to raise funds to help settle the school’s debts. Fisk University’s Jubilee Hall is evidence of the...
31 Ebenezer Bassett’s Historic Journey
Carolyn B. Ivanoff, with Mary J. Mycek, and Marian K. O’Keefe
On June 5, 1869, on a hot day in New York City, thirty-six-year-old Connecticut native Ebenezer D. Bassett (1833–1908) and his family boarded the steamship The City of Port-au-Prince. Bassett was surrounded by a crowd of dignitaries and on-lookers who wished him well as he embarked on a historic journey to the world’s only independent...
32 Charles Ethan Porter
In October 1869, Charles Ethan Porter, a young man from Rockville, Connecticut, enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York City, where aspiring artists longed to study and where many of the leading American artists had done so. Admission to this art school represented a major achievement for anyone and an extraordinary one for an African American so soon after the Civil...
Part IV Photo Essay
33 A Veil Lifted
Wm. Frank Mitchell
The Sweet Flypaper of Life, Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes’s 1955 photo album and essay, captivated young Deborah Willis when her father brought it home. Willis grew up to become a photographer and won a MacArthur fellowship in 2000. She treasured the photographs her father, police officer Thomas Willis, took of friends...
Part V Between the Wars
34 Black Southern Migration and the Transformation of Connecticut, 1917–1941
Although when people think of the beginning of the “Great Migration” during the period of World I, Chicago often comes to mind, Emmett Scott, Booker T. Washington’s former secretary, thought that the “New England Migration” served as the first instance of the “Great Migration.”1 This movement of thousands of African Americans, beginning around the time of World War I, transformed...
35 Anna Louise James
Down Old Saybrook’s main street, just past the bustling section of shops and restaurants, as the street begins to return to a quieter residential neighborhood, stands the James Gallery & Soda Fountain. Once the location of the James Pharmacy, owned by Anna Louise James, the first African American female pharmacist in the state of Connecticut, the site has been listed on the National Register of...
36 World War I Homefront: A Short Photo Essay
Mark H. Jones
During World War I, African Americans and whites were segregated in their activities both at war and on the home front. The first photograph, which was published in the Hartford Courant, shows African American draftees leaving for Maryland’s Camp Meade. African American soldiers traveled to boot camps in “colored only” trains, and while some saw combat, most worked behind the lines and at...
37 Mary Townsend Seymour
Mark H. Jones
In early twentieth-century Hartford, Mary Townsend Seymour fought battles and formed daring alliances to promote the cause of local African Americans. She was a charter member of the Hartford chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and, during World War I, served in various war relief groups. Her public life extended into the arenas of union...
38 Laboring in the Shade
Dawn Byron Hutchins
At the height of shade tobacco’s popularity in the first half of the twentieth century, more than sixteen thousand acres of this premium cigar wrapper tobacco were under cultivation in Connecticut. The introduction of such a labor-intensive crop to Connecticut’s economy drew black migrant labor from the South and the Caribbean....
Part VI World War II to Civil Rights
39 World War II and the Civil Rights Years
On December 7, 1941, Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor led the United States government to declare war to protect American people and allies from being overrun by the brutal regimes in Japan, Germany, and Italy. While the New Deal programs of Franklin Roosevelt provided some minor opportunities for African Americans in Connecticut,...
40 “I Wanted to Fly”: Connie Nappier, Jr.
Connie Nappier vividly recalls the moment around 1927 when, as a small boy walking with his father on Wooster Street in Hartford, Connecticut, he saw his first airplane. He decided “right then I wanted to fly. Little did I know that a war would come along that would give me the opportunity to...
41 Susan Elizabeth Freeman, World War II Officer and Nurse
As a young child, Susan Elizabeth Freeman often provided medical care and aid for family members, the family dog, and dolls. Freeman’s mother referred to her daughter as her “little nurse.” When the former “little nurse” became a teenager, she dealt with tragedy in November 1918: Early on a Tuesday morning, she joined her father...
42 Ellis Ruley
Ellis Ruley (1882–1959) lived all his life in Norwich, Connecticut. His day job for decades was that of common laborer, but his primary occupation was with the paintings that long after his death would bring him national recognition as an African American folk artist. Nearly all of his paintings were done with cheap house oils on ...
43 “Just Like Georgia Except for the Climate”: Black Life at Mid-Century in Ann Petry’s The Narrows
Award-winning writer Ann Petry explored many facets of the black experience in her fiction. Born in Saybrook (now Old Saybrook), Connecticut, just after the turn of the twentieth century, she brought to her work the sensibility of someone who grew up as part of a tiny minority and who saw the horrors of ghetto living during...
44 Marion Anderson’s Studio
Connecticut’s African-American Freedom Trail includes a stop at the Marian Anderson studio in Danbury. Marian Anderson was one of the most celebrated opera singers of the twentieth century and the first African American to perform in New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, in 1955. Anderson and her husband, architect Orpheus Fisher, established a home base in Danbury on Joe’s Hill Road in...
45 From Fields to Footlights: Gwen Reed
The start of Gwen Reed’s acting career is like something out of a Hollywood movie. Raised in Connecticut’s tobacco fields, she was working as a secretary with a small theater troupe when she stepped out from behind the scenes to take a bit part. Noticed by critics and audiences, she continued acting for more than three decades....
46 Baseball Legend Jack Robinson’s Sacrifices Off the Diamond
On April 11, 1947, the Hartford Courant announced in one of its sports stories that the Brooklyn Dodgers purchased the contract of Jack Roosevelt Robinson of the Montreal Royals.1 Few people in Connecticut could have ever imagined that within seven years of breaking the color line in the Major Leagues Jackie Robinson would...
47 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Connecticut, and Nonviolent Protest: A Transforming Alliance
As a teenager in 1944 Martin Luther King, Jr. became part of a long tradition of southern students venturing to Connecticut to spend the summer working in the state’s tobacco fields. The teenager joined a group of students from Atlanta, Georgia’s, Morehouse College at work on a Simsbury, Connecticut, farm. In...
48 Black Panthers: Interview with Butch Lewis
Interview conducted by Joan Jacobs
Butch Lewis co-founded the Hartford chapter of the Black Panther Party and was an activist in the late 1960s. He first came to Hartford from Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1956 at age twelve to live with his grandmother. Drafted into the army in January 1965, he served in Vietnam until December 1967. At the time of his release, he was...
49 “What Would Dr. King Want You to Do?”
On Thursday evening, April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In response, riots erupted in Hartford’s North End. People were angry about the lack of progress on King’s dream: integrated education, housing, a fair judicial system, and jobs. Republican Mayor Ann...
50 The New Haven Black Panther Trials
In the summer of 1970, the people of New Haven, Connecticut, braced for the start of what local journalists billed as the trial of the century, the legal proceedings against members of the New Haven chapter of the Black Panther Party for the murder of a twenty-fouryear- old New York Panther named Alex...
51 My Dad, Jackie McLean
“Jackie McLean in Connecticut” began in the 1960s. Little did we know at the time that “Jackie McLean in Connecticut” would give birth to two major institutions: The African American Music Department at the Hartt School, University of Hartford (renamed The Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz in 2000), and the Artists Collective, Inc. Both continue to exist today, almost four decades later....
52 My Summers at Camp Courant
Charles A. Teale, Sr.
When I was a child living in the housing complex known as Bellevue Square in the 1960s, I initially had a very good life. I had all of the resources necessary to be a very happy kid. Then at around the age of six things began to change drastically. My father became very ill and could no longer support our household. The most obvious evidence...
Part VII A Recipe for the Future
53 My Grandmother’s Squash Pie: A Regional Discussion of African American Foodways
Wm. Frank Mitchell
At any holiday meal in my home in Cleveland during the 1980s my Connecticut grandmother’s squash pie was the least welcome guest. More than any green vegetable, more than her famous stewed tomatoes, my cousins and I approached the butternut squash pie with resignation. Duty required eating a little, but it seemed a poor ending...
54 Conclusion: The Charge of Citizenship for African Americans
Wm. Frank Mitchell
Centuries separate Theodore Foster and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. though both recognized the communal responsibility that seemed to be a charge of citizenship for blacks in America.1 Foster and the men he represented wished enslaved blacks well in the years the abolitionists hoped would bring the end of slavery. These early abolitionists were at the beginning of a long fight for equality that...