By Lorraine Connelly
Wallingford has many trails — a wine trail, a Trail of Terror, numerous walking trails, and the historic George Washington Trail to name a few. According to our town’s website, Gen. George Washington made two trips through town, one in 1775 to gather provisions for his troops and the other in 1789 as president. His route to Durham, known as the George Washington Trail, runs from the center of town through East Wallingford. Cement markers can be found along the trail.
In conjunction with the 350+2 Jubilee Celebration this June, Wallingford’s Descendants’ Committee is restoring and adding two new locations to the GW Trail — one in front of the Water Division on South Cherry Street, and another on North Branford Road south of the Water Division’s gate to the Ulbrich Reservoir dam. “The Wallingford Public Works Department will be installing them in the spring,” notes Bob Beaumont, chairman of the Descendants’ Committee. There will be a total of 14 commemorative plaques when the project is completed.
Along with honoring the lives of Wallingford’s descendants, the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust will honor our Black colonial ancestors — who are related to us by their long historical roots in this town. Many of these ancestors have been forgotten and not commemorated formally.
In 2021, WHPT received a matching grant from the Cuno Foundation and a Connecticut Humanities SHARP Capacity Grant to support our ongoing project, “Enslaved Wallingford: The Missing Chapter of Our American Narrative.” Jerry Farrell Jr., Trust president, notes, “This project is an opportunity to provide the colonial history of a significant population of free and enslaved Black Americans in Meriden and Wallingford who were responsible for building the prosperity of our towns, a chapter that has largely remained unexplored in our written history.” “Enslaved Wallingford” will become a permanent exhibit at the Trust’s Nehemiah Royce House this spring.
Chris Menapace, Trust vice-president, and an independent slavery scholar, has identified the first individual to be commemorated by this project — Dick Freedom, a Black soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War.
Born in Africa between 1739 and 1745, Freedom arrived on our shores as part of the transatlantic slave trade — the forced migration of African men, women, and children which lasted from the mid-16th century until the 1860s. European traders seized a great majority of African captives from West and Central African coastal states.
Freedom was captured as a child and sold several times. He was married to his wife, Time, when both were enslaved in 1772 by Capt. Moses Royce of Wallingford. Freedom later enlisted “for the war” in June 1778. He was one of approximately 300 freeman or slaves from Connecticut who fought for the Continental Army, often with the promise of freedom as his aspirational adopted surname suggests. He served in the all-Black Second Company of the Fourth Connecticut Regiment from Middletown, Connecticut.
The Nehemiah Royce House currently displays a powder horn, which belonged to Freedom, engraved with his name and intricate decorations of birds, animals, and reptiles. Freedom’s service in the War, however, did not immediately earn him manumission. He was enslaved again by Rev. James Scovill and Deacon Stephen Bronson of Waterbury. When Rev. Scovill, a Loyalist, moved to New Brunswick, Canada, in 1788, Freedom was finally released. He died a freedman on January 12th, 1835, in his 90s.
As part of Wallingford’s 350+2 Jubilee Celebration, the Trust will dedicate a stone in Freedom’s honor through the Witness Stones Project, Inc., whose mission is “to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities.” Says, Dennis Culliton, executive director and co-founder of the Witness Stones Project,
“We are excited to be part of this trail to help commemorate Wallingford citizens whose history was hidden until now.” The Trust hopes to add other stones honoring Wallingford’s Black townspeople along Main Street, forming a perimeter of Black colonial history in our town.
Colonial Williamsburg in its tribute to Slavery and Remembrance, notes: “Much of the wealth generated by the transatlantic slave trade supported the creation of industries and institutions in modern North America and Europe. To an equal degree, profits from slave trading and slave-generated products funded the creation of fine art, decorative arts, and architecture that continues to inform aesthetics today.”
As we celebrate Black History Month, a trail for the recognition and remembrance of slavery is long overdue in Wallingford, which like other Connecticut communities, has benefited from the efforts of our Black ancestors, who through their labor and commitment to our nascent democracy, formed the foundation of the community we enjoy today.
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and consultant for the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust’s “Enslaved Wallingford” project.