The lecture bore the title An African American Family in Connecticut: From Slavery to Triumph. I wanted to make clear that our family was never enslaved in Connecticut. That “distinction” belongs to New Jersey, Virginia, and Alabama. All of us were free by the time we arrived. In fact, few living here can trace their ancestry to anyone held in bondage. I’m aware of only one extended family in this area that can trace back to slavery. It includes descendants of the Bemans, who lived in the Triangle on the other side of the Science Center and founded Cross Street A.M.E. Zion Church, and of Venture Smith, who bought his freedom and settled in East Haddam.
There are a number of reasons for this lack, but two stand out. Poor recordkeeping and records lost or destroyed were a chronic problem. Most early settlers were too busy putting clothing on their backs, a roof over their heads, and food on the table to concern themselves with recording the lives of their bondsmen and women. Unlike Virginia, Connecticut did not breed people for sale, so there was little incentive to keep studbooks.
The second reason was the Fugitive Slave Law. At the time of its passage blacks all over the country felt under threat as kidnappers seized free people and shipped them to plantations in the Deep South. Solomon Northup’s story graphically shows one such instance, but kidnappers struck here, too. Providence Freeman of Hartford (who is tangentially related to us) signed an affidavit saying that his son William “now in a Baltimore jail” was born in Connecticut a free man. It’s not clear whether William was ever released.
These depredations resulted in the flight of vast numbers of black people. Most of today’s African American residents have parents or grandparents who came North between 1915 and the 1960s.