The newspaper ad offers “Ten Dollars Reward! Ran away from the Subscriber, on the night of the 15th instant, a Negro Boy, named Cesar, 18 years old, nearly 6 feet high, stout and well made, walks pretty erect, speaks fluently.”
The advertiser, Samuel M’Clellan, explains that Cesar had run away for fear of being punished for theft. “Whoever will return said Negro, or secure him so that his master may get him again, shall receive the above reward, and all reasonable charges — All persons are forbid harboring, trusting or employing said Negro, on penalty of the Law.”
A Southern state?
No. Woodstock, Connecticut, May 16, 1803.
It would be another 45 years before slavery would end in the Land of Steady Habits.
Far from being free of slavery, Connecticut’s history is bound up with the oppression of African Americans, as well as with their fight for freedom.
La Amistad landed in New Haven in 1839 when Africans being brought from Sierra Leone to Cuba to be sold rebelled against their captors. A statue in front of City Hall commemorates the incident and the Africans’ leader Joseph Cinque. The captives ultimately were freed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But in 1738, the Martha & Jane docked in Middletown with 126 enslaved Africans aboard, 23 having died during the voyage. A plaque on the city’s riverfront remembers those Africans and others brought up the Connecticut River to be sold.
John Brown, who led a failed slave rebellion in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in 1859 and was the first American hanged for treason, was born in Torrington in 1800. Harriet Beecher Stowe, another abolitionist, whose depiction of slavery in the South in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped bring on the Civil War, lived in Hartford.
Eli Whitney of New Haven, on the other hand, invented the cotton gin, which enabled the Southern plantation owners to switch from tobacco to more lucrative cotton, bringing with it a need for more free labor.
It would not be until June 19, 1865, 2½ years after president Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. —on the day now known as Juneteenth — that slavery would be fully abolished in this country. This year, Juneteenth will include marches and peaceful protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
“I think it’s always important, at least from my perspective, to remind people that the African-American experience is a part of the whole of American history,” and that talking about African-American history creates a “false dichotomy,” said the Rev. Frederick “Jerry” Streets, pastor of the Dixwell United Church of Christ, the first Congregational church founded by African Americans, many of whom were formerly enslaved. Its 200th anniversary this year had to be postponed because of COVID-19.
While there were few enslaved people left in Connecticut by 1848, there were 951 counted in the 1800 census, according to slavenorth.com. The gradual emancipation law passed in 1784 was a way “to strike a compromise between the aspiration to abolish slavery and the property rights of slaveholders,” said Edward Rugemer, a professor of history and African-American studies at Yale University.
No one was freed in 1784, but the children of enslaved women would become free at age 25 for men and 21 for women. “It’s often called freeing the womb,” Rugemer said. “I call it legislative compromise, but it was really tilted toward slaveholders.”
Slavery in New England had begun in the 17th century, when it was “codified in law gradually, colony by colony,” Rugemer said. At the start of the American Revolution, there were more than 6,400 enslaved people in Connecticut, the most of any New England state, according to slavenorth.com, a result of Connecticut having a more prosperous middle class than neighboring colonies.
New London had the largest number of enslaved people and the highest percentage of enslaved to free.
By independence in 1783, most of the founders’ fathers, as well as many of the founders themselves, had owned slaves, “so it was no small feat to overturn it,” he said. Massachusetts did so by a court ruling that slavery was incompatible with the state Constitution, Rugemer said.
At that point, New England shipping buttressed the slave trade both in the South and in the Caribbean, supplying food and supplies. “Middletown made its fortune on the West Indian sugar and slave trades,” said Deborah Shapiro, municipal historian for Middletown and former director of the Middlesex County Historical Society.
Food, rope, made in Middletown from hemp, and even horses were shipped to the islands, and “they would return with sugar, rum and enslaved people,” Shapiro said.
A marker was erected in September by the Port Marker Project Committee, when Middletown was designated a Site of Memory in UNESCO’s project, “The Slave Route: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage.” “We were actually the first location in the whole country that used the UNESCO logo on their plaque,” Shapiro said.
Slavery undergirded the Connecticut economy in the 18th and early 19th centuries, directly and indirectly because manufacturers depended on Southern cotton. “A lot of people’s livelihood was dependent on sending cotton up here,” Shapiro said.
That brought opposition to abolitionists such as the Anti-Slavery Society in Middletown. “Mobs would try to break up the meetings,” Shapiro said. Even within the abolitionist movement, there were those who wanted slavery ended immediately, and others who sought a more gradual end.
Meanwhile, “slave catchers were coming to New England to capture formerly enslaved people to take them back” to the South, Streets said.
While not the only Connecticut center of slave-trading, which was also significant in New Haven, New London, Greenwich and other coastal ports, Middletown “was one of the biggest ports in New England through the 1700s,” said Jesse Nasta, a visiting assistant professor of African-American studies at Wesleyan University and executive director of the county historical society.
“At least 200 enslaved people were brought from Africa directly to Middletown … and there were at least two men who were listed as slave dealers right on Main Street,” he said.
Going even further back into history, “if you go back to the 1600s … you had enslavement of predominantly Native American people with the trade of Africans just picking up,” Nasta said.
Ron Edens, who was part of the Port Marker Project Committee, believes the full story of slavery in Connecticut is unknown by most residents, but that more is becoming known. The Black Lives Matter movement, boosted by the police killing of George Floyd, may help, he said.
“I think that people here today have a little more understanding, especially with this crisis that’s going on now,” he said. “I think this might be a wakeup call for people to understand what’s really been going on all this time.’