The Year: 1639
Image: Buying Enslaved Africans
Connecticut had black slaves as early as 1639. In 1650, Connecticut became the second colony after Massachusetts to recognize slavery as a legal institution. The slavery of Africans became a fact of everyday life, and became an accepted system of labor by 1680.
Connecticut grew crops, raised cattle, and felled logs to sell in the West Indies, because many Caribbean islands were busy growing the more profitable sugar cane. That sugar cane, produced by captive Africans, was brought north to the Connecticut Colony as molasses and sugar products, which were distilled into rum in such quantities that Connecticut became the New World’s leading distiller.
The fortunes of many of Connecticut’s earliest leading citizens were made through their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. England had been buying black people from Africa and trading them for money and goods in the rapidly expanding New World, and some colonists dabbled in the trade as well.
With the wealth coming from the food, lumber, and livestock that settlers sent to the West Indies, there was money to develop the Colony. But who would do the work? There were farms to tend, stone walls to build, ships to manufacture, roads and wharves and houses—work that must be done by human hands. And there were not enough white hands to do it all.
It was legal to buy and sell enslaved people, and to own them, and many Connecticut ministers, farmers, and businessmen did. Slave ownership was not the province of just the wealthiest families. With the exception of a few plantation-style farms in the eastern part of the state, colonial Connecticut practiced a kind of personal slavery: Many people owned just a single black man or woman, or a married couple, or a small family.
In stony Connecticut, enslaved blacks worked on farms. But they also built barrels, shoed horses, rolled casks across wharves, dyed cloth, and raised barns. The women made medicines, tended children, cooked, cleaned, milked cows, and made clothes.
They lived in many places throughout the colony, and their labor was sought-after. When they tried to run away and escape their captivity, their owners advertised for them. Sometimes they were freed when their owners died, but there is also evidence from wills and probate documents that slaves were passed on through generations of families.
As the black population grew, servitude in Connecticut became slavery for life, and it became hereditary. It made economic sense and it kept blacks under control. Although slaves and free blacks had legal rights and a part in the society, they weren’t accepted as equals and were not fully trusted.
The growth of black slavery in Connecticut prompted Puritan leaders to justify it. They held religious freedom as one of its guiding principles, but it was an intolerant and rigid society. Puritan leaders embraced the parts of the Bible that support slavery.
The slave codes of 1660 prohibited blacks from acquiring military training in the militia. Blacks, Mulattos, and Native Americans were required to be off the streets by nine o’clock at night, and had to remain within the towns where they lived. Any slave caught wandering about without a pass was arrested as a runaway. If a ferry operator carried an enslaved person without a pass, he was fined 20 shillings.
Prejudice against free blacks was very prevalent. In 1717, the colonial assembly passed a law prohibiting free blacks or mulattoes from residing in any town in the colony. It also forbid them to buy land or go into business without the consent of the town. The provisions were retroactive, so that if any black person had managed to buy land, the deed was rendered void.
The Black Code
As the black population increased, Connecticut’s lawmakers enacted more laws to control it. The Black Code was a series of laws passed between 1690 and 1730 which described the rights and responsibilities of slave and master.
Two parts of the code effectively discouraged manumission—the freeing of slaves. These were sections dealing with the responsibilities of masters and towns to freed slaves. To discourage the wholesale freeing of disabled slaves, masters were required to provide for any black whom they freed if he ever became destitute.
The second act specified that the town would provide for any needy ex-slave and would sue the former master to recover expenses if the master refused support. Designed to save the town the expense of supporting former slaves, the laws served in numerous cases to prolong slavery.
Unlike Southern black codes, crimes against slaves were treated no differently from crimes against whites, although there were practical differences. Most significant were the rights of slaves in court. They were obviously considered members of the society with very specific rights.
Between 1756 and 1774, the proportion of slave to free in Connecticut increased by 40 percent. All the principal families of Norwich, Hartford, and New Haven were said to have one or two slaves. By the mid-1770s, there were about 5100 slaves in the Connecticut colony—approximately three percent of the population. Three percent doesn’t sound like a big number, but 5100 does.
Although their rank was at the bottom of Puritan society, the blacks of colonial Connecticut did have a place in the social order. They were expected to follow Christian principles, and they attended the same Congregational churches as their masters, usually sitting in their own sections.
Many of Connecticut’s early leaders, including John Davenport, Theophilus Eaton and many ministers, owned slaves. Ministers often entrusted the complete management of a farm to their slaves while they tended to their religious duties.
Connecticut, like other New England colonies, allowed slaves to elect black governors or kings. These officials were chosen to help settle disputes among slaves and to determine penalties for minor offenses. Election days were festive occasions. Blacks dressed in their best clothes for the party that followed the counting of the ballots.
In 1774, the Colony outlawed the importation of slaves. Offenders who violated the statute were fined 100 pounds per slave.
The Colony had a number of antislavery activists who urged their fellow citizens to free their slaves, but emancipation bills were rejected by the Connecticut Legislature in 1777, 1779, and 1780.
In 1784, the abolition forces in the state tried a new tactic and presented a bill for gradual emancipation as part of a general race relations statute. Almost as an afterthought, it provided that black and mulatto children born after March 1 would become free at age 25. The strategy worked, and the bill passed without opposition. An act of 1797 reduced that age to 21, bringing slavery in line with apprenticeship, though obviously slavery was not voluntary and slaves did not receive money, clothes and professional standing at the end of their servitude.
By the end of the colonial era, Connecticut’s slave population was greater than that of any other New England colony. They represented a large portion of the colony’s private property. Most of them lived in the cities of New London and Fairfield. The type of slavery practiced there is sometimes called family slavery to distinguish it from the plantation slavery of the southern states.
The Revolutionary War offered some black males the chance for freedom. Connecticut law allowed masters to emancipate healthy slaves who had served the colony in the War. By the end of the War, several hundred blacks also gained their freedom by serving as substitutes for whites in Connecticut’s armed forces.
With more blacks in Connecticut than in the rest of New England combined, lawmakers were hesitant to abandon slavery. A bill presented to the legislature in 1784, as part of a general statute of race controls, finally succeeded in gradually freeing black and mulatto children born after March 1, 1784, when they reached the age of 25. But the law was so loose it was easily ignored.
In 1790, Connecticut’s first abolitionist society—the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom and the Relief of Persons Unlawfully Held in Bondage—was established. In 1796, a statute stated:
No Indian, black or mulatto slave was to be imported into Connecticut “by Sea or Land, from any Place or Places whatsoever, to be disposed of, left or sold within this State.”
Offenders were to be fined $334 for every slave imported.
By 1820, only 200 slaves remained in the State. Connecticut was the last state in New England to free its slaves, which occurred in 1848.