This column was published on June 4, 2006, in a special section of this newspaper called Two Centuries of Meriden. It is reprinted here, edited for length, in observance of Black History Month.
On April 20, 1750, it was decided that a little girl named Violet would be moving from a farm in Haddam to a farm on Misery Road in Wallingford, which is now Paddock Avenue in Meriden. Little Violet was three years old, and that’s pretty much all we know about her. Parents? We know nothing about them. Siblings? We don’t know. Did she ever marry? Have children? The record is silent. Did she even survive to adulthood? (So many children didn’t in those days, when disease was rampant and medicine was primitive.)
As I say, we know very little about Violet, but there’s quite a bit we can surmise — because this was still pretty much a howling wilderness in 1750, with wolves and cougars and other hungry things skulking around, and you had to work from dawn to dusk just to put food on the table, and you had only the spring and summer to coax enough grub out of this rocky soil to last through the fall and the long, dark, cold winter and the following spring. And if you didn’t manage to do that, there was no backup plan; there were no supermarkets, no soup kitchens and, of course, no government to turn to. And even if you did everything right, you could consider yourself lucky to go to the grave in your mid-50s, as the old tombstones attest. And there were no labor-saving devices to speak of — not in the fields and not in the kitchens. So little Violet, as a woman, would have faced a future that consisted mainly of drudgery.
And little Violet would have been burdened with another misery, one that we don’t usually think much about when we think of Colonial times in this part of the country. You see, the only document we find about Violet in the history books is not a birth certificate, nor a baptismal record, nor any of the other kinds of papers most people accumulate in the course of their lives. It is a bill of sale.
So when I say “it was decided,” what I mean is that it was decided by farmer Joseph Shailer of Haddam to sell “one negro girl aged about three years” — little Violet — to farmer Benjamin Roys of Meriden, to be his slave for life, her ownership then to pass on to his heirs or, for that matter, to anyone to whom farmer Roys might decide to sell her. Farmer Shailer made this transaction “avouching my self to be the proper and sole owner of the said negro girl and have a right to dispose of the said negro girl during the term of her natural life.”
Is there a moral here? Sure: By all means, let’s celebrate the accomplishments of our forebears — while at the same time asking how on God’s green Earth these people, who supposedly were so pious, could think it was perfectly OK to buy and sell other people’s children.
End of story?
Although slavery was not outlawed in Connecticut until 1848 (which would have made Violet a free woman at age 101, if she should live that long), later in the book we find this entry: “Dec. 17, 1798 Abner Rice emancipated negro woman Violet.” If that’s our Violet, she would have been 51 by then — free, no doubt, only because she was past child-bearing age.
But free at last.
Reach Glenn Richter at grichter@record-journal. com.