TAPESTRY: A SEARCH FOR "ROOTS"
The desire to get a clearer sense of our own identity by searching for our roots - in family stories or in the return to particular places—strikes all of us at different times. Many people first thought about "roots" in the 1960s, when they read the best-selling book or saw the movie of that name by Alex Haley. The book followed Haley's search for his own ancestors—who had come into this country as slaves—as it expanded into a larger quest for his people's earliest origin in Africa.
Haley's book inspired many black Americans to undertake the research and writing of their family histories. Among them was James Rose, who grew up in New London, Connecticut in the 1960s, and was in New York taking an Oral History class at Queens College when the movie "Roots" came out. Through his teacher and the Kinte Library Project, Rose eventually met Alex Haley and began a serious search for his own genealogy.
James Rose's journey took him back in time, through family interviews, and back to the neighborhoods where he grew up. "On Saturday, July 20, , the day of my thirty-second birthday, I left for New London. It took only two and a half hours.... Driving down toward Shapley Street I noticed right away that the whole black district had been wiped out by urban renewal. All of my old haunts were being torn down, and it was as if a whole part of me had been uprooted and lost to time...." As in most center cities, James Rose's familiar neighborhood contained many old and historically valuable buildings, which were to disappear forever.
Over the next six years, Rose's search, like Haley's, expanded. Beginning in New London, with the archives of the New London County Historical Society and town records, then moving farther afield to Hartford and other New England archives, he read through myriads of letters, account books, census and land records and manumission papers in an effort to piece together not only his own history but the collective history of the black community in Southeastern Connecticut. He interviewed many descendants of the old, original families who still remained in New London, Montville, Groton and the surrounding area.
One of the most important people Rose met in the course of doing his research was Barbara Brown, a white woman from Colchester, Connecticut, who had already begun to trace the genealogies of a number of Connecticut's black families back to colonial and Revolutionary times. Together they wrote Tapestry: A Living History of the Black Family in Southeastern Connecticut.
Here are some excerpts:
The day after I had finished writing Tapestry I drove down to New London and parked my car by the waterfront... My mind drifted back to the late seventeenth century, when enterprising merchants plied their trade to the West Indies. Farmers from miles around sent livestock and lumber to be sold in the ports of the Caribbean and in return depended on the products which were brought back. In addition to molasses and rum, those small sloops also contained the human cargo of slaves…How ironic it was that these enslaved individuals represented the nucleus of thousands of families that would have such a profound effect on the people of the area and on the outside world...
Early Black Families in Southeastern Connecticut
New London in the year 1756 saw its black population numbering more than three hundred. These early black residents included Lycus Simons, Manuel Starr, John Wake, Fortune Alford, and Peter Quartus. In Stonington, the number approached two hundred, ...Groton numbered 179. In Colchester, the number had grown to eighty-four. Primus Arms, progenitor of the Lathrop family, was among the more than two hundred blacks in the Norwich area. Up in Hebron, Mary Peters had just purchased a Negro slave named Caesar, and over in Preston the Moodys, slaves of John Cook, were forming the nucleus of a strong black family. By 1756 some of these individuals were free; but most of them had to wait until the War of Independence to taste the fruits of freedom.
FREEDOM: CHOOSING A NAME
Once free, one of the first steps an individual took was the selection of a surname, which represented a psychological separation from his slave past and a first step toward the future. Many of these surnames were chosen long before emancipation. In fact, Colchester town records show that nine of the twenty-two males whose manumissions were recorded had chosen their names before obtaining their freedom. Only a minority appear to have continued the use of the master's surname, although local officials tended to cloud the issue by continuing to refer to the ex-slave by his master's family name.
Some Negroes indicated their new status as free men by adopting a surname such as Freeman. Caesar Beman, the Colchester Revolutionary veteran, had chosen his surname because he had always wanted to "be a man." Other names were derived from African origins: Quash, meaning "Sunday"; Cuff, signifying "Friday"; Quam, from the word meaning "Saturday". Many of the free black families carried as surnames the given name of the original male. Some of the children of Guy Warris of Norwich took the surname of Guy, while others retained Warris. In a similar fashion, the children of Primus Richards of Colchester went by the name of Primus for some twenty years or more, after which the name gradually reverted to Richards. Consequently, the 1820 census lists Henry Primus in Lyme and George Richards in East Haddam; they were brothers.
BLACK FAMILIES MIGRATE
The phenomenon of migration into and out of state in many instances overshadowed the movement to establish and build institutions in Connecticut. On the farms and in the cities, black Revolutionary veterans and their families began to look for new horizons. The wooded, sandy flatlands of Rhode Island and the rocky farm lands of Connecticut were filled with black and white families who had visions of adventure and opportunities to the west. Between 1783 and 1850, first a trickle, then a flood of blacks followed the whites along a similar migratory trail. For many of them, the first stop was the rocky hills of Vermont.
In 1804, Zilpha, a Negro girl indentured to George D. Avery of Norwich, ran away to Ohio, being told that she would thus be free. Avery made the long journey to Belleville, Ohio, to secure Zilpha's return and to bring suit against those who had arranged her flight. By doing so, he hoped to set an example, "so many slaves and apprentices having run to the State of Ohio and being harbored by white people there.…"
The next major area of migration was the fertile farm land of upstate New York. Ebenezer Hill, born a slave in Stonington in 1739, went on to serve in the Revolution and afterward made his way to upstate New York, at the age of one hundred and ten. Lyman T. Pelham and his wife Lucretia Caples, of East Haddam, lived in Hartford after their marriage in 1841; by 1850, they had removed to Fishkill, New York. Prince Loveridge left Colchester and was living in Brookfield in 1810. Adin Wilson and his wife Catherine moved from Lisbon to Dover, New York, before 1824.
In the May session of 1814, the Connecticut General Assembly changed a previously unofficial exclusion of blacks from politics into an official one. The new law stated that no man should be admitted a freeman in any town in the state unless, in addition to the qualifications already required by law, he be a free white male. In the face of this type of racism, many blacks opted to leave Connecticut. Others, however, remained and began the great movement for Negro rights. With the great tide of blacks into and out of the state, and the fight for dignity and freedom, most blacks found themselves in a period of great turmoil.
Throughout the nineteenth century, blacks continued to play a part in every important migration movement. John Parkhurst left New London in 1849 to seek his fortune in the gold fields in California. Fortunately, he did amass some wealth and returned to Connecticut. Others went even farther than California. One such individual was Prince Saunders, son of Cuff and Phyllis Saunders of Lebanon. Prince's father, Cuff, had fought in the Revolution under the name of Cuff Wells. Prince, born about 1784, was given the opportunity to gain an education through the interest of Judge Orimel Hinckley, the son of his mother's former mistress, Elizabeth Hinckley. After serving as the first teacher of Colchester's black school, Prince went on to teach an African school in Boston. While in Boston, he helped to organize the Belles Lettres Society, a literary and cultural organization. Soon after, he left for England as a delegate of Boston's Masonic Lodge of Africans. In England, he attracted the attention of influential persons who arranged for him to go to Haiti, where he became an active member of King Henri Christophe's staff and one of the four professors of the Royal College of Haiti.
Reprinted with permission of the New London County Historical Society.
For more information on TAPESTRY and other books on the subject of Black Genealogy, go to Dr. Rose's website, Black Genesis.