The first of a two-part series on the history of slavery, abolition, and African Americans in Easton.
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by the minister Francis Bellamy. It was originally published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892. The wording has changed slightly over the years, but the meaning has not. Long a staple at the commencement of many civic functions, the final six words still ring hollow for many Americans over a hundred and twenty-five years after they were first spoken.
Writing any piece that discusses ethnic heritage in connection with racial injustice is a difficult task. It is important to make certain that those who came before us are accurately portrayed within the historical context and mores of their time and not ours. What was acceptable one hundred and fifty years ago is often considered repugnant and evil in today’s world. As we continue to treat the societal wounds caused by centuries of racial injustice, we need to look back to see where we have been before we can look forward in the hopes of improving the world for those who will come after us. A good starting point might be in learning about the history of slavery and race in the Colonies, the early United States, Connecticut and more specifically, right here in Easton.
As we begin our 245th year as a nation we continue to suffer the pangs of racial divisions that predate our country’s founding in 1776. It was undoubtedly with high hopes that the signers of the Declaration of Independence penned these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Two hundred years after of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the Court, declared that the document was “defective from the start.” He contended that the architects of the Constitution omitted many Americans when they penned the opening words in the preamble, “We the People…” While some of those men had voiced rather eloquent objections to the institution slavery, Marshall claimed they had “consented to a document which laid a foundation for the tragic events which were to follow.”
The self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” It is a simple five-word phrase that somehow became lost in the discussion that led to the drafting of the Constitution. Perhaps all free white men were considered equal in the framers’ eyes — but certainly not native American men, nor any other man who was indentured either through slavery or bondage. That was made abundantly clear in the very first article of the document that our entire government would be based on.
Article I. Section 2. Paragraph 3: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
While the word “slavery” was conspicuously absent from the document, there was an abundantly clear indication that the men writing the Constitution valued some men to the absolute or partial exclusion of others. They implicitly condoned slavery by distinguishing men’s rights to representation between “Free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years,” and “all other Persons.”
Twenty-five of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention were slave holders. Even amongst those who owned slaves, many harbored moral trepidations about continuing the institution. Luther Martin, a delegate from Maryland and himself a slave holder, argued, “it is inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character to have such a feature (included) in the Constitution.”
But despite the efforts of many of those men to avoid the stain it would leave upon the document, the framers of the Constitution believed that concessions allowing the continuation of slavery in our new nation were necessary to secure the support of southern delegates for the creation of a strong federal government. They were somehow convinced that if the Constitution restricted slave trade, that both South Carolina and Georgia would refuse to join the Union. This was a clear capitulation to those states that heavily relied upon slave labor to support their industrial and agricultural ventures. If there was any lingering doubt in this group’s intention of preserving slavery, it evaporated quickly later within the same Article.
Article I. Section 9. Paragraph 1: The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
The document was explicit in mandating that no effort by the Federal Government be put forth to end slavery until at least 1808, but that very same government was allowed to profit on each slave imported to the tune of ten dollars a head.
The men who drafted the Constitution of the United States could have clearly prevented well over two hundred years of basic racial struggles by simply abolishing the institution of slavery from the very beginning. They were starting a new nation with a clean slate. They could have adhered to the words and intent of the Declaration of Independence that some of them had signed. They chose not to do so. They chose to abandon one of the basic tenets that our nation had been founded upon — equality among all men.
James Madison wrote of the decision to allow the continuation of slavery: “It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the northern and southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line of discrimination.”
The seeds for continued racial injustice on the national level over the ensuing years had been sown.
Slavery in Connecticut likely dates to the end of the Great Pequot War in 1636. Approximately seven hundred Native Americans were captured and then divided between Massachusetts and Connecticut. Holding captured prisoners of war in bondage had long been considered an economical alternative to imprisonment. The females were enslaved as servants, while the males were shipped to Bermuda where they were sold or exchanged for African slaves.
According to Steiner’s History of Slavery in Connecticut, published in 1893, the 1643 articles of confederation for the New England Colonies provided for the lawful return of any runaway or escaped slave – effectively creating the first fugitive slave law. The Connecticut Code of 1646 officially recognized both Negro and Indian slaves. Slavery was alive and well in Connecticut and the racial inequality and injustice that accompany it would continue impede social progress for many generations to come.
The history of African Americans in Easton, as well as the rest of Connecticut, is sparse at best, and difficult to verify. There is almost nothing that survives written about the subject in the late seventeenth century. Most of the conditions surrounding slaves and their lives during the eighteenth century have been depicted in a patriarchal manner by white writers. While evidence exists that some white slave holders taught their slaves to read and write, there was never an organized effort to educate the enslaved, and almost one-hundred-percent remained illiterate during that era. Recording their own thoughts and experiences would have been virtually impossible. Relying on the depiction of slavery by contemporary whites in the eighteenth century should be suspicious at best. The notion that slaves were content with their lot and generally well-treated by their masters is more likely something that our white ancestors would have liked to have believed, rather than what actually transpired during those years.
In excess of ten million African captives were sent to the Americas to be sold as slaves during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries leading up to the Civil War and the eventual end of slavery. Out of that number, there are only about a dozen or so remaining first-hand accounts of their experiences. One of those was an accounting of a freed slave by the name of Venture Smith. His story, 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 and published in New London, Connecticut in 1798. In all likelihood, this work would have been transcribed by a white schoolteacher by the name of Elisha Niles. Despite her assistance in its creation, the narrative has every appearance of being an accurate portrayal of Smith’s experience’s, first as a slave, and then as a free man.
Smith’s tale reveals his personal struggles and successes. It also explains how an African slave in Connecticut might buy his own freedom. Those wishing to read his narrative can find it here: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/venture/venture.html
While slavery in the Connecticut colony continued to grow throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, there were also signs that many slave owners might have been rethinking both the morality and the economics of the institution.
Much can be gleaned from church records found in the Barbour Collection. There are numerous recordings of baptisms performed on slaves during the second half of the eighteenth century – a clear indication that some their masters considered their souls worth saving. More can be found on the Barbour Collection at: https://libguides.ctstatelibrary.org/hg/vitalrecords/Barbour
Since most slaves were used in agriculture, and agriculture in Connecticut was a seasonal venture, feeding and housing slaves during the winter months was an added expense for their owners. In addition, it soon became evident that keeping a slave beyond his or her productive years was too burdensome for many farmers. Setting older or infirmed slaves free seemed to be the logical solution.
But in 1702, the colonial legislature passed a provision that provided: “slaves, set free and coming to want, must be relieved by the owners, their heirs, executors or administrators.” In 1711, another act was added that provided: “if the owners or their representatives refuse to maintain such emancipated slaves, it should be the duty of the selectmen of the various towns to do so and then sue the owners, or their representatives, for the expense incurred.”
As a result, some farmers found it less burdensome to strike a bargain whereby their younger slaves could buy their freedom much like Venture Smith had done. Masters would allow their slaves to hire themselves out during the quiet seasons of late autumn, winter, and early spring. They would take a portion of the slave’s wages as immediate compensation and allow the slave to save up enough to purchase his and his family’s freedom, thus relieving the master of his responsibility to maintain them in their later years.
But even a free Black in Connecticut was subject to the provisions of many of the laws that had been designed to regulate the movement and actions of slaves. Blacks were required to carry passes or documented proof of emancipation outside of town or be treated as runaways. Sellers of liquor were not allowed to serve Blacks. Blacks were not allowed to sell items without proof of ownership or written permission from the owner. Blacks were liable to whippings for disturbing the peace or “offering to strike a white person.” Blacks found outside after 9:00 P.M. without paperwork could be whipped. Whipping was also used as punishment for slaves who used unseemly language. Twenty, thirty, or even forty “stripes” – the common term for lashes inflicted, were considered normal means of punishment for Blacks, be they free or slaves.
In Easton (Easton was still part of Fairfield in 1770), much of what we know about African slaves comes from church records, court documents or newspaper advertisements such as this one looking for the return of a runaway slave in 1770 in the July 26th edition of the New York Journal:
Fairfield, 24th July,1770
RUN away from his Master Samuel Bradley, Jun. Esq. of Fairfield, in Connecticut. On Saturday the 21st of July Instant, a Negro Man named Mincer, about 23 Years of Age a stout Fellow, very black, Guinea born, speaks good English, but something slow of speech, his Shines bowing more than common out-wards: He had with him when he went away, one blue Vest, and one streaked homespun ditto, each without sleeves, one or two Holland Shirts, one checked linen ditto, one Tow homespun ditto, two Pair of Tow Trowsers, one Pair striped ditto, one or two Pair of checked ditto. A Pair Shoes and a Castor Hat almost new,— and is suppose to have some small Silver Money, and Silver Lace with him; it’s probable he will travel towards New York Government, and not unlikely he will endeavour to get over to Long-Island. Whoever will take up and secure said Negro in any of his Majesty’s Goals, so that his Master may have him again, or bring him to his said Master, shall have Three Dollars Reward, and all reasonable Charges, paid by
Samuel Bradley, jun.
All Masters of Vessels and others are cautioned against harboring, concealing, or carrying off said Negro, as they would avoid the Penalty of the Law.”
In 1774, two years prior to the Declaration of Independence, Connecticut was already on the path towards the eventual ending of slavery within the colony. An October 1774 law stated; “No Indian, negro, or mulatto slave shall at any time hereafter be brought or imported into this colony, by sea or land, from any place or places whatsoever, to be disposed of, or sold within the colony.” While slavery wouldn’t be abolished, the business of importing slaves into Connecticut would.
The Revolutionary War saw many African slaves enlisting in the Continental Army as a means of purchasing their freedom by using the bonus and pay received for serving. The value of slaves wishing to serve was established by the selectmen of each town in Connecticut and not by each slaveholder. That, along with the growing number of other emancipations granted during the final few years of the eighteenth century, saw the number of Connecticut slaves almost halved by the year 1790 when the United States conducted its first census.
In 1784, a measure was passed by the state legislature that was meant to bring about the abolition of slavery as soon as possible while “maintaining the rights of individuals and the public safety and welfare.” The “rights” obviously being the financial interests of those still owning slaves. No Negro or mulatto born after March 1, 1784 should be held as a slave after reaching the age of twenty-five. The age provision would be lowered to twenty-one in a subsequent act in 1797.
The institution of slavery hadn’t been abolished in Connecticut by beginning of the nineteenth century, but enough laws had been enacted by that time, that the direction was clear, and abolition had been set in motion.
Next up: The abolition of slavery in Connecticut and the United States, and the history of African Americans in Easton in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.