Article 6: After the Revolution in Black and White
As the lofty promises of the Declaration of Independence that declared the self-evident truth of man’s equality remained elusive, Black Americans sought to hold the new nation accountable. Unlike the white majority, enslaved and free Blacks in Connecticut understood the principles of the Revolution as emancipatory.
During the war for independence, Prince and Prime, in Fairfield County, had petitioned the Connecticut Assembly in 1779 for freedom arguing, “we are Convinced of our Right (by the Laws of Nature and by the whole Tenor of the Christian Religion, so far as we have been taught) to be free” (1779).
After the revolution, enslaved people, having fought and contributed to national independence, asserted their right to the very same. Major Jack (Sanford) Freeman is exemplary. Born in Fairfield and sold first as a seven-year-old child to Jonathan Booth of Newtown and then again to Hezekiah Sanford, Jack served under Hezekiah’s brother, Captain Ezekiel Sanford of Redding. (Hezekiah and Ezekiel Sanford were the grandsons of Ezekiel, one of the two Sanford brothers to divide the lands of Long Lot 12 between them. Thomas, the other brother would pass his lands to his descendants; these are the very same lands upon which the current Christ Church resides.)
Jack Freeman fought in the Revolutionary War at such notable battles of Peekskill, Germantown, Valley Forge and Princeton. Despite having been promised his freedom in enlisting (perhaps as a substitute for his enslaver Hezekiah Sanford), when Jack fell ill and could not continue his military service, he was forced to agree to work three additional years after the war in exchange for the payment of yet another substitute. Still, Jack Freeman, self-named and claimed Free-man during the war, persisted. Ultimately he purchased a small farm in Redding and emerged a leader of the black community there. (Sanders 2020; Reeve et all. 2009; Jacobin 2009).
Tom, enslaved by one of the vestrymen of the Episcopal Society of Weston, had sought his freedom by self-liberating in January 1787. Despite these efforts, it would not be until 1807 that he became a free man. Pointing to the strange intricacies, immoralities, and irrationalities of enslavement and gradual emancipation, Jonathan Booth sold Tom to his brother Ebenezer in 1807 who just three days later emancipated Tom and granted him “to have and to hold” his child Zilpher until she could legally be emancipated at age 21. Others rebelled outright. As reported by William Wheeler, “18 Negroes liberated by some of their color at the Mill River” at Black Rock in March of 1788 (Reeve et al. 2009; Register; Reeve et al. 2009; 1930; Town History n.d).
Free and enslaved Black communities also organized to sustain themselves and advance economically. Exceptionally, in Weston, Quomano Smith purchased 16 rods from Daniel Hall and Nathan Beach, though he wouldn’t be granted his freedom until 1807. As the century progressed, more free Blacks began to live in Weston. William Prince, Abel Beach and John Nichols, whose name may suggest previous enslavement by the vestryman of the same name at the Episcopal parish, all lived as single free men in 1790, and at least one free Black household led by Sarah Sherman emerged.
In 1800, there were 11 free Blacks living in eight white households and four free Black families: “Caesar Negro,” “Jack Negro,” “Thomas Jackson” and “Cate Freeman.” These individuals subsisted through farming and part-time jobs as basketmakers, blacksmiths, painters, carpenters, hatters, and laundresses (Cruson 2007; Reeve et al. 2009).
By 1820, 76 Black people lived in Weston, and the free Black community would grow consistently until 1860. As it did, “Little Egypt” as the area from Route 58 toward Weston that is now the Saugatuck Reservoir was known, emerged with it, primarily spanning from three Black families, the Baldwins, Burrs and Coleys. The last names of the latter two Black families suggest a history of ties through enslavement, possibly by the aforementioned white families involved in our Episcopal church formation. Sylvanus Baldwin (whose parents had been enslaved in the south, purchased and brought north by Gabriel Baldwin) would, with his wife and their children and grandchildren, constitute a large part of this vibrant community. Their descendants remained in the area through the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries (Cleary 1989; Mueller 2011).
By the middle of the 19th century, the Baldwins were listed as illiterate and working as basketmakers along with the children, Franny, Elbert Abraham, Moses, Francis and Charlie, all at home, and Wakeman and Henry in Weston and William living in Easton next door with his wife Lucinda and their children George, Elbert and Harriet. Suggesting remarkable self-advancement through education as the 19th century progressed, William and Lucinda were both literate at the time of the 1850 census, and in 1860, Sylvanus was listed as owning $200 in real estate for the first time, with additional children attending school (Cleary 1989; U.S. Census 1820, 1850, 1860; Mueller 2011).
Despite significant advancements, inequalities persisted. From 1818-1869 when the 15th Amendment was passed, Connecticut consistently (and as late as 1865) denied Black suffrage. Though Black and white farmers worked alongside one another in the 19th century, Black families lived even more precariously and were compelled to engage in purchases and employment arrangements that led to cycles of debt. In a study comparing Black farmers to white farmers in Newtown, Black farmers had nearly nine times less wealth (as measured by personal wealth and real estate) than their white counterparts.
Inventories at the deaths of those Black farmers included spinning wheels, rope beds, chests, chairs, and often very few clothes and shoes, perhaps suggesting that individuals lacked or were buried with these essential items, having lived a subsistence lifestyle. In many cases for Black farmers, debt followed individuals to the grave, preventing the passing of what little land and possessions community members were able to attain. Illustratively, by 1870, Sylvanus Baldwin had died and the Baldwins in his household lost their property, though other family branches continued to own homes. (Cruson 2007; Cleary 1989; Cruson 2007)
That slavery came to end in Connecticut in the middle of the 19th century did not mean an end to racial inequality or reflect opposition to slavery among Weston (and later Weston and Easton) residents. Though the local Black community sought equality through their own educational advancement, social organizing, anti-slavery activism, and ultimately by the end of the 19th century relocation, the majority of their white brethren remained incalcitrant. That the larger society remained dependent on the southern and West Indies plantation systems meant that statewide and locally, with a few rare exceptions, churchmen in Fairfield County in the 19th century would defend enslavement and racial inequality.
Article 7 will uncover how Fairfield County became known as the “Georgia of Connecticut” and Connecticut as the “Georgia of New England,” as local white supremacist and proslavery mob rule prevailed in our area.
A word on citations: Our historical investigation draws widely from over fifty secondary and primary sources (see here for a full bibliography). We are especially indebted to Stuart Reeve, David Silverglade, and Kathleen von Jena’s 2009 Historical Archeological Assessment and the Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves in Fairfield, Connecticut.