We look to history to tell us about the past, but how can history inform the present and offer guideposts for the future? This year, the theme of Black History Month is “Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.” It explores the African diaspora and the spread of Black families across the United States.
The Black Stories Matter History Project, an initiative of the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust upon the occasion of Wallingford’s 350th Jubilee, is unearthing some interesting facts about Black Colonial life in Wallingford.
Jerry Farrell Jr., president of the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust, says, “The American narrative is missing some key chapters, and the project is our attempt not to rewrite, but to add some very critical chapters about a significant Black population in Colonial Wallingford — lives that should be celebrated for their many contributions as well as their courage, sacrifice, and resolve.”
Along with Nathan Hale, the martyred soldier of the American Revolution, and Lyman Hall, born in Wallingford and later a signatory of the Declaration of Independence as governor of Georgia, who are other notable local figures “tied in a single garment of destiny”?
Slavery scholar Chris Menapace is combing through census, military, and probate records of enslaved and free Black residents of Colonial Wallingford, collecting data points and stories for an exhibit the Trust will have on permanent display at the Nehemiah Royce House (538 N. Main St., Wallingford), one of two properties owned by the Trust.
In Colonial Wallingford, the enslaved and the enslaver were caught in what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., while protesting the injustices of the segregated South some 200 years later, described as “an inescapable network of mutuality.”
By the second half of the 18th century, New London, a bustling seaport on Connecticut’s coast, led the state in both the number of enslaved Africans and Black residents, with a white population of 5,366 and a Black population of 522. New Haven had a white population of 5,224 and a Black population of 160. According to the 1762 census, Wallingford with a population of just under 4,000, had a population of 182 Blacks. Merchants, ministers, politicians, military officers, physicians, lawyers, and farmers owned enslaved people.
As Menapace has also discovered, “Every prominent family in Wallingford — the Atwaters, Cookes, Halls, Stanleys, Royces and Yales — were all enslavers.” Know their names
There is the story of Chatham Freeman, whose headstone lies in the Broad Street Cemetery in Meriden. Freeman, born in Africa in 1750, was enslaved by Wallingford’s Noah Yale. During the Revolutionary War, Yale sent Freeman to fight in his son’s stead with the promise of freedom in exchange for his service. From Freeman’s pension records, it is learned that he served under the command of Captain Eli Leavenworth in the 6th Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Army (1777-1780). Freeman and his wife, Rhea, and son, Jube, were set free in 1782, two years after his return from the war. The Freemans also had a daughter named Kate. Another descendant, Robert Prim, was a popular violinist in Wallingford in the late 19th century.
Research has also uncovered the stories of Jack John and Toby Birdseye, who had gained emancipation and then registered to vote in Wallingford, in 1799 and 1803, respectively. The freeman (voter) statute, under early state constitutions, stipulated the qualifications for voting: One had to be 21 years of age, male, and having met a residency requirement, be a taxpayer and/or property owner. John’s land holdings equaled 26 acres, and his estate upon his death in 1816 was valued at $2,800. Birdseye owned three-quarters of an acre of land and a portion of a sawmill.
While voting records do not exist, it’s likely that both men voted in Wallingford. Birdseye’s registration was not without controversy, according to authors Ramin Ganeshram and Elizabeth Normen in “Constitution of 1818 & Black Suffrage: Rights For All?”
In 1803, Federalist Party members accused Birdseye of a moral disqualification, alleging he had attempted to rape a white woman. No criminal record was ever found to substantiate the claim.
Ganeshram and Normen further explain that the Connecticut legislature, in 1814, reversed Black enfranchisement by inserting the word “white” into the freeman (voter) statute. By 1818, a new state constitution was adopted, outlining a white-race requirement for voters, thereby depriving African Americans of equal representation in the state’s electoral process. The authors state, “As it had in matters of slavery, abolition, and enfranchisement, Connecticut continued to take a more southern approach, protesting any federal efforts to delineate the nature of voting rights.”
Although, the North is often considered the cradle of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, its participation in slavery and “the network of mutuality” cannot be denied. Wallingford should, however, take pride in two African Americans, Jack John and Toby Birdseye, who were the earliest proponents of voting rights for Black Americans in Connecticut. We should know their names.
The issue of Black enfranchisement is still relevant today. Black voters, in certain parts of our nation, are still more likely to have their legitimate votes challenged. Dr. King’s “garment of destiny,” like the Shroud of Turin, is an iconic symbol — if only we could touch the hem of its garment, our Beloved Community could be made whole by its lessons.
Stay current on The Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust’s Black Stories Matter History Project https://www.wallingfordcthistory.org/visit
Lorraine S. Connelly is a writer, a Wallingford resident and member of the steering committee for the Black Stories Matter History Project.