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Willis S. James
Willis S. James

My great-grandfather, Willis James, was born the enslaved boy Sam on a Virginia plantation. He ran during the Civil War. Details of his life before his arrival in Connecticut are sketchy. Family stories say that he went to New York where he married Hannah Darby or Derby and then traveled to Canada. We know they were living in Hartford in 1866 because their son, Charles, was born in a residence on Farmington Avenue. Hannah died and in 1874, Willis married Anna Houston.

So what were the benefits of their early arrival in Connecticut? They inculcated the steady habits of their white neighbors by working hard and saving money. As a result they became among the first African Americans to purchase property in Hartford’s North End. Number 6 Winter Street remained in the family until the 1950s.

While we encountered some hostility and racism, the effect was minimal. The numbers of black people in Hartford were too small to represent a true threat. For example, in 1880, out of a total of 42,000 within the city limits, there were fewer than 1,300 “Negroes,” about three percent of the population.

Those small numbers included middle-class people who served as models for Anna and Willis’s children. They were from families that had arrived even earlier. They were teachers and preachers. Oddly, several of them were artists, specifically painters.

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