Wallingford slavery project reveals ‘history that affects us today’

reporter photo

WALLINGFORD — The descendants of a man who was enslaved on a Virginia plantation before coming to Wallingford with Union soldiers are reconnecting with their family’s history with the help of local researchers working on the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust’s “Enslaved Wallingford” project.

Meriden resident Carol Naamon-Kelly first learned of the journey Allen Lorenzo Washington, her great grandfather, made from Virginia through the work of Bobbie Borne, who was writing about Washington’s life for a magazine article published in June 2021.

Last November, Borne and Naamon-Kelly attended a presentation at the Wallingford Public Library where Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust researcher Chris Menapace was speaking about his research into the town’s history of slavery for the trust’s upcoming “Enslaved Wallingford” exhibit. During that lecture, he mentioned the history of the Naamon family in the town, prompting Naamon-Kelly to connect with him afterwards.

“(Borne) deserves credit because she brought me to this thing in Wallingford and then when I was sitting in this lecture that this man gave, Chris (Menapace), and he said he was doing this research and then he talked about the Naamons and I raised my hand in the lecture and I said ‘Oh my God, I'm a Naamon,” she said.

She now plans to attend the opening of the “Enslaved Wallingford” exhibit on June 19 to show how the descendants of a man who escaped slavery and became a central part of the local community continue to uphold his legacy of hard work and education. The exhibit will be held at the trust’s Royce House.

“Being an educator, my brother being a doctor … there are hundreds of us who are shaping America as doctors, lawyers, social workers, standing on this man’s shoulders who came out of slavery,” she said.

Drawing from obituaries in the Record-Journal and Hartford Courant, town records and articles mentioning family members, Borne traced the family’s history starting from when Washington left the plantation where his family had been enslaved. His parents were sold to a slave trader three years prior and his siblings had fled or were sold before he left with Union soldiers at 15 years old in 1864. He joined the company as a horse groom and followed them back north and eventually settled in Wallingford.

He worked as a general laborer, according to census information Borne acquired, and purchased land in the Pine Hill area of town, where he built a home. In 1886 he moved to Meriden and worked for several horse-drawn trucking companies.

He was involved in several organizations in the city, including the Ionic Lodge, the Excelsior Lodge of the Knights of Pythias, he served as a trustee of the Meriden Parker A.M.E. Zion Church and promoted voter registration among the local African American population, according to Borne’s article.

Washington died on May 8, 1930 at 82 and was buried in the Center Street Cemetery in Wallingford, Borne wrote. He had 18 children in two marriages, though only about half lived to adulthood.

Exploring the real story

Menapace said his connection with Naamon-Kelly demonstrates how history connects to contemporary life. He said a majority of the families with historic ties to Wallingford have some connection to the local history of slavery, which went on from 1704 through 1840. The trust’s work on the “Enslaved Wallingford” project has identified around 500 enslaved individuals who resided in town.

“I think it helps bring home the point to a lot of people that this is a history that affects us today,” Menapace said.

He’ll be giving a second presentation of his research at the library on May 26 at 7 p.m. His work looks at enslaved people, the enslavers, resistance to slavery, paths to freedom and the legacy of slavery in Wallingford.

“It’s oftentimes been an ignored part of Wallingford's history. When we talk about enslavement in Connecticut, we often talk about abolitionment, but Connecticut had over 200 years of slavery and Wallingford is the same … it’s not something that’s talked about, but it’s still very impactful,” he said.

Naamon-Kelly hopes that the project will help other descendants of enslaved people connect with their history and that the wider public will also attend to learn about how the history of slavery continues to affect the present.

"We celebrate Black History Month in February, but we should be celebrating it every day. Because look where we are right now, things have gotten a little bit better, but I don't believe they are where they should be. To have seen an African American president in my lifetime, to see a woman of color as vice president is amazing, so that would be my wish: that not only African Americans, but whoever wants to explore the real story would take time to do this," she said.

The trust is planning several other programs throughout June in recognition of the Juneteenth holiday and the Wallingford 350th+2 Jubilee commemoration of the town’s founding. The Jubilee runs June 15-23.

The “Enslaved Wallingford” exhibit will feature artifacts and seven panels with text, graphics and photos detailing the town’s history of slavery. The exhibit will be open throughout the Jubilee and Trust President Jerry Farrell Jr. said they’re exploring loaning it out to other local organizations for display.

“I think it would be very eye opening for those who know history and those who want to know more about Wallingford history,” Farrell said.

Farrell said the work to uncover historical records of enslaved persons was arduous given the poor documentation of their lives. They were able to collect information about enslaved residents of Wallingford from 1704 through 1840, with around 500 individuals identified as being enslaved.

“It's certainly the culmination of lots of effort to uncover the history of enslaved people in Wallingford. For almost 150 years there were enslaved people in Wallingford and so many of those lives have been hard to document,” he said.

Witness Stones project

The library will also be hosting Dennis Culliton, chair and co-founder of the Witness Stones Project, on June 15 at 6 p.m. He will be giving a presentation on the organization’s collaboration with the preservation trust to install witness stones at sites in town where enslaved persons lived, worked or prayed.

The Royce House, where the “Enslaved Wallingford” exhibit will be hosted, is one such site — research for the project has shown that the Royce family enslaved several individuals in their home. Menapace said most prominent families and institutions in town have intersected with its legacy of slavery.

The namesake owners of the Johnson Mansion, another preservation trust property, also enslaved individuals and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Choate Rosemary Hall are exploring installing witness stones as well, Farrell said.

“One could walk all over the center of Wallingford and come onto sights that are connected with slavery in Wallingford and most people have no idea,” Farrell said. “For instance the Esquire (Stanley) Family House at Choate, there were enslaved individuals that lived in that house and yet I don't think that’s on anyone’s radar screen … There’s a history that's remembered and a history that’s forgotten and we’re trying to get at some of that forgotten history.”

Leah Farrell, head of adult programming at the library, said it’s important that the town’s understanding of its history is inclusive of all of the lived experiences Wallingford’s residents have had, including the uncomfortable parts.

“There’s a renewed interest in telling those stories, because enslaved people did build this country, state and this town,” she said. “ … We’re not rewriting history, we're just looking at it a bit more closely now.”

The library will also have its own Juneteenth display up throughout June to give visitors more information about the holiday and it has also been hosting monthly conversations on race, most recently on May 10, in the library’s Community Room. Information on future discussions is available on the library’s website, wallingford.lioninc.org/.

“We just want to continue the conversation going and continue to make our community a welcoming place for everyone,” Leah Farrell said.

Reporter Devin Leith-Yessian can be reached at dleithyessian@record-journal.com.


More From This Section