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The History of Slavery in Middletown
Originally published in The Ankh, vol. 20 (Spring 2014), 8-9. Reprinted here by kind permission of the author.
The enslavement of Africans in Middletown was fundamental to the life, growth, and freedom of not only the United States but of colonial forces occupying the Caribbean Islands as well. Contrary to the common misconception, New England and much of the North, including Middletown, was complicit in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Connecticut River was one of the first sites of slavery in the North. After the Pequot Wars of 1638, in which European colonial forces massacred indigenous Pequot natives, the surviving Pequot’s were enslaved and shipped to Bermuda in exchange for African slaves. These bartered African slaves were the first of their kind in New England. White indentured servitude, parallel to slavery in some conditions, predated slavery in much of the colonies as wealthier colonist required cheap labor immediately upon invading the New World; the construct of racial hierarchy had not yet taken form as white, immigrant servants were treated in the same regards as their later African counterparts and were not seen as naturally superior in any form.
Middletown was founded in 1650, and by 1660 the trade of Africans in Middletown had already commenced. Middletown, being the deepest and first port along the Connecticut River, was home to many travelling sea captains, merchants, and traders. Merchants from Middletown in specific amassed large amounts of capital by provisioning the Caribbean with the much-needed cattle, beef, wheat, onions, potatoes, salted shad and codfish. Almost all of the farmable land in the Caribbean islands was used for large plantations. The colonists in the Caribbean relied on imported goods from New England to survive. Middletown also played a role in the exchange of human slaves. By 1770 there were documented slave dealers on Main Street. Most of the slaves sold were born in West Africa. To this day, we are still learning more and more about New England’s colonists’ involvement in the West African acquisition of human slaves.
Unlike the South, where African captives were overwhelmingly agricultural workers laboring in groups, the North had a different style of slavery; Captives had to adapt to the diverse requirements of their owner’s household, farm, or other businesses. Slaves in the North worked in agriculture and in the maritime trades, but they also had tasks as varied as operating printing presses, shoeing horses, and constructing houses and barns. Newspaper advertisements offering decent sums of money for runaway slaves are a testament to the variety and skill level of their work, and they further indicate how valuable the slaves were to their owners. Enslaved black women in the North were maids, household servants, and concubines. They were spinners, weavers, cooks, and cleaners. They grew food, hauled wood and water, watched the children, tended the sick, made medicines, and helped with the family business. They were seamstresses, soap makers, dyers, and laundresses.
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was the foundation for all of the wealth of New England, as well as for much of the European world’s capital. Capitalism and slavery are inextricably linked. New England could not have existed without stolen Africans. From the provisioning of Caribbean islands and the insuring of slave vessels, to the bartering of human lives in West Africa, New England, including Connecticut and the Middlesex County, was as complicit in slavery as any slave trader in the South or Caribbean was. Wealthy families from Connecticut like the Van Durzens, Gleasons, Alsaps, Mathers, Mansfields, the Russels, and many more founded their wealth in this lucrative trade, maintaining it until today.
In the years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, there were tens of thousands of Africans in bondage in the Northern United States. Although precise figures are impossible to obtain, in 1760 there were at least 41,000 Africans enslaved in the North. This includes New England and the Mid-Atlantic States of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. After the American Revolution, the numbers of slaves in the North dropped. George Washington had freed many Africans who fought for America because the British had promised freedom to Africans who joined the Loyalist cause. He did not free these people out of kindness or sympathy; he had no. Without African soldiers, Washington and his forces would have fallen to the British. Despite Washington granting some Africans their freedom, in the 1790s, Connecticut and Rhode Island together still had more than 6,000 Africans in bondage. It is not uncommon for slavery in the North to be romanticized as a mutually agreed-upon indenture. Two centuries of human bondage was purposefully recast as a paternalistic; a “family style” arrangement, as beneficial to the slave as to the owner. This could not be further from the truth, for missing from this whitewashed view of history was the fact that owners had the power of life and death over their ‘property’. In 1758, Jonathan Trumbull, the future governor of Connecticut, sentenced three slaves, Cato, Newport, and Adam, to be publically whipped on the naked body for ‘nightwalking’ after nine in the evening without an order from their masters. Slaves in the North, like those in the South, served at the whim of their owners and could be sold or traded at moments notice. They were housed in unheated attics and basements, in outbuildings and barns. They often slept on the floor, wrapped in coarse blankets. They lived under a harsh system of ‘black codes’ that controlled their movements, prohibited their education, and limited their social contacts. The two defining assumptions of all the codes were that blacks were dangerous in groups and that they were, at a basic human level, inferior.
Although there are only mere traces of slave resistance in historical texts, possibly the attempt by early historians and archivists at pacifying the brutal relationship between slave and master, it is understood that resistance to slavery was nonstop. Resisting slavery did not always mean killing one’s master; slave resistance came in many shapes; from Negro spirituals and the Underground Railroad, to the attempt by African mistresses to get their children into positions of power within their plantation. The struggle for African liberation in America was no homogenous storyline. Most descriptions we have are written down second hand, by close friends and relatives of freed men. Many stories have gone untold; many more stories have been lost. As mentioned before, what glimpses we do have of free life in New England can be noted in the common ad in local newspapers for ‘Runaway Slaves’. Slave resistance was one of the fundamental factors, along with industrialization and the declining need for a slave-based economy, to growing abolitionist sentiments, more so than the notion of ‘American Independence and Freedom’ that was present at that time. In 1784, the first emancipation-like law was passed allowing any “Negro or Mulatto” to be freed from slavery after reaching the age of 25. In 1797 another manumission adjustment was made to require the freedom of African slaves after the age of 21. Finally in 1848 all African slaves were legally emancipated in CT.
It is very difficult to accurately retell the life of the early African/African American in Middletown or anywhere in America before the Civil War because of the lack of primary documents. What little remnants of first hand stories we have are continuing to gain popularity amongst preservationists, archivists, archaeologists, and scholars, but there is still so much missing from the story. One can look at the life of Venture Smith, a West-African prince who was captured at the age of 8 from present day Ghana and sold into slavery throughout the Americas who, through great determination and industry, bought his freedom in Connecticut, for a glimpse into the harsh life of the African in America and the constant struggle for freedom. One can also look at the ‘community project’ of Leverett Beiman, native of Middletown, for another example of African American self-determination. Beginning in 1840 Beiman helped found one the first free, Black owned community in Connecticut. The grandson of a slave and the son of a prominent abolitionist preacher, the vision Leverett Beiman had of an African community within a white, colonial space was no easy task, and took many years to come to fruition. Existing as a triangular plot of land between Vine St, Knowles, and Cross St; about 5 acres in total, Beiman was able to facilitate the construction of 11 houses, as well as a church, the A.M.E. Zion Church. Currently there is much dispute about the process of preserving the ‘Beiman Triangle’. Recently the A.M.E. Zion church was sold to Wesleyan and reverted into a dance studio. Many of the Beiman triangle buildings are owned by Wesleyan University and are currently being used as senior housing. If you are a senior, or have senior friends, you may have played a casual game of beer-pong in one of these historical houses. Do they deserve much more respect and a place in public history? That is a question I hope to address in another issue.