The African American Experience in Easton

Part Two of our series on the experience and history of African Americans in a rural Connecticut town.

Today, Easton is more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse than any time in its history, as either a parish beginning in 1762, a town combined with Weston starting in 1787, or as an independent entity beginning in 1845.

The first non-native settlers of northern Fairfield were nearly all of English heritage. The few who hadn’t emigrated from England were Irish, some of whom may have come to the colonies as indentured servants. Indentured servants usually signed a contract requiring a set number of years of servitude in exchange for their passage to America. While these people weren’t technically considered slaves, their treatment wasn’t necessarily any better. But unlike the slaves that came here from Africa, they would gain their freedom and independence if they survived the ordeal of fulfilling their contract.

It is almost without question that the first African Americans to populate the northern part of Fairfield that is now considered Easton arrived here as slaves. Slaves were imported into the harbors of Southport, Black Rock, and Stratford during the early 1700’s. These enslaved peoples were sold to farmers, merchants, tavern owners and even ministers. The Reverend Hezekiah Gold of the Congregational Church of Stratford was one such man of the cloth who was an open proponent of the institution of slavery.

Early records of slave ownership in the area are scarce at best. Prior to the taking of a decennial census beginning in 1790, there were very few instances of written records regarding either the number of slaves or free blacks residing within Connecticut. Church records confirm that at least a small number of earliest settlers of the North Fairfield Parish were also slave holders. It is with great thanks to the research of Stuart Reeve, PhD that we now have some insight to the earliest African Americans who lived in what is today’s Easton. From his 2009 Historical and Archeological Survey of Easton, Connecticut: “Some of the earliest landowners in Easton had slaves baptized in the Greenfield church. Captain Moses Dimon had his slave Mathew Faden baptized in 1729. Jehu Burr had Thamer, the daughter of Tom, baptized in 1732. Joseph Hill had Ned baptized in 1738 and another “negro” baptized in 1748. John Bradley had Jack baptized in 1745 (Talcott 1915:173, 372). Unfortunately, records of African American baptisms were not entered into Stratfield parish records, perhaps reflecting stronger biases against slaves in this port-of-entry.”

We do know that one of the earliest benefactors of North Fairfield Parish was Samuel Staples. Staples lived his entire life as a single man. Describing him as eccentric would be mild. He often walked to church in his bare feet, not wanting to muddy his shoes nor wear out the leather soles. In addition to a very substantial amount of land he had inherited from his father that included a good deal of the original Fairfield Staples Long Lot, he accumulated many additional rent producing parcels in the North Fairfield Parish. In a will signed a few days before his death in 1787, he left his entire estate to the people of the Norfield and North Fairfield Parish for the purpose of establishing and maintaining a free school for the education of “poor children.” What many people may not realize was that Staples was a slave holder and that his slaves tilled the land on his farm and erected many of the stone walls that still line the fields along Banks and Wilson Roads where he lived. Slaves working on his farm were alleged to have been fed the poorest of his vegetable crop so that the rest of the harvest could be sold to accumulate more money for the school he was supporting.

William Wheeler, a diarist and one-time teacher at the Weston (Staples) Academy recounts in his journal this tale of Samuel Staples as he neared his death: “He was a man of singular sentiments…His close way of reasoning & living, his black Dubby did not altogether relish, for in his last sickness he cut down the Walnut wood Staples had saved for the Academy, saying: “Massa soon die and ought to have a good fire,” for which, being wrathy, he sold poor Dubby for life.”

As to the veracity of this account, one can only surmise, as it appears that many of the tales in Wheeler’s journal were laced with amusing anecdotes about the people he was describing. Many were also based on often repeated oral histories of the day, and perhaps then enhanced a bit to make them more interesting to the reader.

The 1790 census didn’t distinguish residence between the two parishes that then made up the new Town of Weston – Norfield (today’s Weston) and North Fairfield (today’s Easton). But a careful study of the names likely results in there having been eighteen slaves and six free blacks living in the old North Fairfield Parish. Further examination shows the heaviest concentration of African Americans to be located along the Aspetuck River in the Gilbertown section of town, and along the west-east cross highways that consisted of Den Road and Rock House Road along the Redding border. In 1790, the three largest slaveholders in town would have held between two and four slaves each, while seven other men held one apiece.

The 1800 census enumerated only four slaves, but twenty-nine free blacks residing within the old North Fairfield Parish in Weston. There were also four free black families in within the same area. A total of an additional eleven other free blacks were shown living within eight white households. Blacks living in white households might have been employed as domestics or perhaps as workers in some of the mills along the Mill River and the Aspetuck.

By 1810, there were no slaves listed as living within the old Northfield Parish, or any other part of Weston. The total number of blacks living in the area had remained relatively constant over the twenty-year time span between 1790 and 1810, however, all of the former slaves had either been emancipated or passed away. Some of the younger blacks would have automatically gained their freedom as they reached the age threshold that had been set by the state legislature in the late 1780’s, but others had simply been emancipated as a greater number of Connecticut residents embraced the idea of abolition.

While the number of slaves in Connecticut continued to dwindle during the early 1800’s, the state legislature failed to pass a number of proposed measures to end the practice prior to 1848. That lack of resolve showed there were still a large number of Connecticut voters – all male and all white, who were against abolition.

Compounding the issue was the increasing number of Southern slaves who escaped their bondage by fleeing north to Canada where they could not be extradited and returned to their former masters. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was similar to the Fugitive Slave Clause in the original Constitution. However it included a more detailed description of how the law was to be carried out and enforced. Most importantly, it decreed that owners of enslaved people and their “agents” had the right to search for escapees within the borders of free states. Many of those so-called agents were unscrupulous bounty hunters who kidnapped both fugitive slaves and free blacks before transporting them south to either be returned to their masters or sold to new ones.

While the “Underground Railroad” had many safe houses in Connecticut, far more twentieth and twenty-first century homeowners have suggested that their dwellings were once used than can be substantiated. None of the many Easton residences whose subsequent owners have claimed (or hoped) to have been part of that operation have been proven to have been involved. The “Railroad” through Connecticut ran mostly along the coast and then north along the Connecticut River, with another “trunk line” that ran up the western side of the state through Wilton and Waterbury.

During the twenty or so years the Underground Railroad was most active, being a free black in Easton meant staying close to home or risk being kidnapped and transported south. Mobility was limited in spite of being free.

The Census of 1850 provides us with some new information about blacks in Easton – the numbers who were literate, an important factor in being able to better participate in society. The inability to read a newspaper or a book would have at least partially limited the dissemination of current events, ideas, and knowledge.

There were thirty-two African Americans identified in the 1850 enumeration – seventeen adults, and fifteen children. There were only seven adults in Easton that were listed as illiterate – all were African American.

The 1850 Census also listed occupations. This can be somewhat deceptive information, since almost all Easton residents were essentially self-sufficient farmers. However, many of these farmers worked at different jobs during the five to seven months when they were unable to work their fields.

This house was located in or near the Little Egypt Area where workers could walk to jobs at the foundry in Valley Forge. It was purchased and then razed by the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company in the early 1900’s.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the largest concentration of African Americans lived along the cross highways that ran just south of the border Redding – Rock House Road and Den Road. It was a short walk to the Valley Forge area in Weston where Oliver Sanford’s iron forge sat next to the Saugatuck River, or to the Aspetuck Valley in Redding where James Sanford ran a bustling business manufacturing steel plows and his three sons had their button and comb factories. All of those businesses would have provided the work needed to provide income to African Americans who were renting their farms.

Unlike the majority of the townspeople of English heritage who had inherited their farms from their elders, African Americans and the newly arrived Irish had little choice but to rent the farms or houses where they lived. Both the Irish and the African Americans of 1850 Easton made up much of the workforce that produced boots and shoes. Many of those shops were also located in the northern part of town where there were ample supplies of inexpensive labor.

Female African Americans of all ages, and Irish women between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five seemed to make up the largest part of the domestic workforce in town. Elderly farmers were apt to employ domestics to take care of the household chores and collect the eggs from the hens.

As there had been in slavery, there was still a clear demarcation of one’s place in society should they be African American. Blacks may have been free by 1850, but they still did much of the menial labor in town. Rather than prosper by being free, most struggled to survive.

Perhaps the largest societal gain for Blacks by the middle of the nineteenth century was that most of their children were finally receiving a free education in the town’s school system.

The Wilson Street School c.1890’s. Note the two African American children to the left of the teacher.

While slavery had been abolished in Connecticut in 1848, by the early 1860’s, the Civil War and all the talk of abolition hung over the heads of the African Americans living in Easton during that era. The constant reminders of how life had been just a few years before couldn’t have been awe inspiring for the few African American children in Easton who were among the first generation of publicly educated students in the short history of the recently incorporated town. Add that to the fact that many of the white students had fathers or uncles who were then fighting to save the union, and being black couldn’t have made life any easier.

While most students have long been taught that the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln in January of 1863 “freed the slaves,” nothing could be more misleading. That document only covered the slaves in the ten states that were still members of the Confederacy, making it a rather hollow victory for abolitionists since those slaves were only “free” in the eyes of the Federal Government. Not one enslaved man, woman, or child had actually been released from bondage in those states remaining at war with the Union. More importantly, the Emancipation Proclamation hadn’t even dealt with the remaining slave holding states in the North. Lincoln realized that would require an amendment to the Constitution that had clearly recognized the institution of slavery in its original language and form. That would take an additional two years.

Congress wouldn’t adequately address the issue of abolition until April of 1864 when the Senate passed the Thirteenth Amendment. It took the House until January of 1865 to do the same. By the time the amendment was fully ratified, nearly ninety years had elapsed since the founding fathers had declared that “all men are created equal.”

The Census of 1870 listed fifty-six African Americans as living in Easton out of a total population of twelve hundred and eighty-eight. Among them was a twenty-eight year old man named William Gregory who lived on Rock House Road. He listed his occupation as “laborer.” He was a bit of a storyteller, and for many years he referred to himself only as Bill Injun, claiming to be of Native American heritage.

c.1895 African American William Gregory of Easton referred to himself as Bill Injun.

By the turn of the century, most of the small industries that had employed local African Americans in Easton, Redding, and Weston were failing or had already closed. Nearby, coastal cities such as Bridgeport and Norwalk were thriving. Jobs were plentiful, but anyone living in the northern fringes of Easton would have had a difficult commute. The automobile wouldn’t be a factor until after the First World War. Many African Americans seeking employment packed up and moved to where the jobs were. The 1900 Census saw Easton’s total population dwindle to nine hundred and sixty. There were only three African American families totaling six adults and six children, plus an additional five live-in African American servants residing in town by then. It wouldn’t be long before there were no African American families left living in Easton.

WPA Mural “Shucking Oysters” by Alexander Rummler depicts a typical job available for local African Americans in the early 20th Century.

After land purchases by the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company displaced at least two of the remaining African American families between 1910 and 1915, the town would go nearly the next half-century with few if any black families calling Easton “home.” In fact, the first African American student to graduate Joel Barlow was in 1966 – and he was a two-year guest of a Redding host family as a part of an exchange program that introduced southern black students into some all-white northern towns in an effort to ease racial tensions and promote racial understanding during the era of the Civil Rights movement.  

This has certainly been the condensed version of the history of African Americans in Easton. But slavery, poverty, and a late start in education obviously put this group of Americans at an extreme disadvantage. While my research could find little in the way of overt racial discord, distrust, and divide in Easton, I can assure you it existed. Sadly, I’m sure to some degree, it still does. But if we can understand just some of what multiple generations of our African American neighbors have had to endure, perhaps we can come together to make a better future for all of us.

A special thanks to Stuart Reeve and Calista Cleary for the volumes of time-consuming work they produced that made my research that much easier!