A seven-foot-tall bronze statue of William “King” Lanson will soon stand along the Farmington Canal — giving a permanent, public, and highly visible form to a Black New Havener who helped build the modern city.
The Lanson statue represents the culmination of a decade’s worth of advocacy by the Amistad Committee, working in recent years with the City Plan Department to make the memorial a reality.
The public artwork will honor the early 19th century local engineer, entrepreneur, and Black political leader who freed himself from slavery, built a section of the Farmington Canal, and constructed an extension of Long Wharf that allowed for the local port to rival New York’s.
He was also elected “Black governor” in 1825, helped found what is now Dixwell Congregational Church, owned land and ran businesses on what is now Wooster Square — and, after encountering opposition from white authorities and the business establishment, died in the poorhouse.
The plan is for the statue to be unveiled on Sept. 26 on a grassy, city-owned plot near where the Farmington Canal meets Lock Street, in between the Yale Health Center and Yale’s Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges.
According to a presentation by City Plan Director Aïcha Woods during a Cultural Affairs Commission meeting last week, the city-commissioned statue will be one part of an “interpretative landscape” and larger memorial along the Farmington Canal that will be “dedicated to the history of William Lanson.”
“He was so committed to building up New Haven,” Oakland-based sculptor Dana King said about Lanson during a recent interview about the sculpture she’s been working on since March. “He did so by the sweat of his labor, back-breaking labor. It’s just mind-boggling how hard he worked and what he did for New Haven.”
Amistad Committee founder Al Marder agreed, and broadened that lens by noting that the Lanson statue signifies more than the accomplishments of a single individual: “Our purpose in honoring William Lanson is in part to demonstrate how our country was fashioned, and the contributions that African Americans have made over many years to our country.”
For Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison, in whose ward the statue will be placed, the Lanson sculpture represents both a homecoming for an influential and oft-overlooked New Havener as well as a much-needed cause for celebration during this season of heartache, death, and tumult.
“To be the first neighborhood to have a statue that finally recognizes the contributions of Black America to the City of New Haven —what else can you say to that?” she asked. Other than to say the first word that came to her head when she saw King’s statue: “Honor.”
Marder told the Independent that the Amistad Committee has been trying to figure out a way to erect a sculpture of Lanson somewhere in the city since 2010, soon after the committee published a biography of Lanson written by historian Katherine Harris.
He said the city expressed interest in the project on and off for the better part of a decade, and the current City Plan Department helped revive the idea and make sure it actually came to fruition starting at the end of 2019.
King said she learned about the public art commission from a friend in Oakland who is close with Marder and is also a distant relative of William Grimes, the author of one of the first autobiographies penned by a formerly enslaved African American (and a former New Haven resident himself).
King has built an artistic career for herself celebrating Black Americans. As she put it, “I create Black bodies in bronze. I think it’s very important, a duty, to create memories in bronze for African descendants. We have a right to our memories. It’s important to be able to see them, and touch them, and to commune with them.”
‘He was a courageous man’
The Lanson statue commission presented a unique challenge to King’s impulse to tangibly connect with Black history — because no one knows exactly what Lanson looked like.
There are no photographs, daugerrotypes, or illustrations around that depict late 18th-early 19th century New Havener.
King learned from reading his bio that he weighed around 200 pounds. She looked into images of West African-descended men from the early 19th Century to get an approximation of what he might have looked like.
She also tapped into her imagination and a vocabulary of symbols that evoked what she so admired, and found relatable, about Lanson.
“I gave him a scar over his eye on the sculpture because it represents the physical danger he was in,” she said. “It also represents the emotional danger he encountered every day. He did not get through life unscathed. The scar is actually more of a scar of emotional violence.”
She shaped his left hand as a closed fist rather than the downward-facing open palm she had initially planned to have resting on his left leg. (His right hand is depicted holding a top hat.)
His left hand, she said, is just one arm-raise away from becoming a “Black Power fist.”
She described it as a “subtle nod” to the current nationwide reckoning with this country’s long history of anti-Black racism and of the perseverance of African Americans through such hardship.
“Every day he went out into the world as a Black man,” King said about Lanson. “His status was in jeopardy. His life was in jeopardy. And yet he did that every day, and he spoke on behalf of enslaved African Americans at great peril. He was a courageous man.”
She said that one of her goals for this statue is that African Americans see “their fathers and their grandfathers and their uncles and themselves in this face.”
‘He reminds me of my dad’
Morrison said that, when she saw King’s clay model sculpture for the first time during a Zoom meeting earlier this week, she had that very experience.
“It almost brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “He reminds me of my dad: A proud, strong, Black man who has taken on the responsibilities to ensure justice for all people who look like him.”
Marder said that this statue has the opportunity to make as significant of a symbolic impact on New Haven’s cultural and historical landscape as the statue of Amistad slave revolt leader Senghe Pieh erected outside of City Hall in the early 1990s, another product of the Amistad Committee’s fundraising and advocacy.
“I think we’re living in a historic period where we’re examining how our country was fashioned and the contributions that have been made by the African American community since the early days of slavery,” he said.
That, King said, should be the legacy of this sculpture.
“African Americans built this country,” she said. ‘We are in every space. But we have been invisible. It’s time to bring us forward.”
To read more about William Lanson go to https://connecticuthistory.org/successes-and-struggles-of-new-haven-entrepreneur-william-lanson/.