Negroes have been a part of New Haven’s history from its very beginnings, and it is both as a distinct group and as a part of the larger community that their history should be seen and understood.
From the time of its settlement until 1830 New Haven was a Puritan town, controlled politically, socially, economically, and religiously by a small group of lawyers, clergymen, and merchants, many closely associated with Yale University. Negroes were a part of Puritan society. They came as slaves, were used as servants or farm-workers, and were expected to adopt Puritan religious beliefs by participating in religious services in homes and often in the church.
Beginning in the early days of New Haven, laws were passed to regulate the behavior and movement of Negroes and their relationship to whites, and at the time of the Revolution they had no political rights in the state. Denial of the franchise was made part of the Connecticut State Constitution in 1818, and this separate civil status soon extended to every form of public life, even burial, where New Haven blacks were given a corner of the public cemetery more remote than the square reserved for paupers. In 1784 the Gradual Emancipation Act was passed whereby all persons born of slave parents after 1784 were to be liberated at the age of twenty-one, but this created very little immediate change in the lives of most blacks for well over a generation. Negroes who were not slaves were called “Free People of Color,” and except for the right to own property and pay taxes, their civil status was little better than that of slaves.
In New Haven, as in other Connecticut towns, Negroes were allowed to imitate white political customs, beginning in the years of slavery. They elected a “Governor” and other officers within the Negro community at the time of white elections. During the early years of the state this was an office of some prestige and the Negro governor was allowed to regulate certain affairs within the black community, especially disputes between Negroes. By 1850 Negro elections had become more an excuse for celebration than a serious undertaking; a “king” as well as a governor was elected. The custom continued until after the Civil War, although no one took it seriously (an ironic statement, perhaps, by Negroes of their understanding of the real inferiority of their new “equal” civil status).
As the first signs of industrialization began in the early 1800’s, Negroes who were free began moving to cities. In 1790 the Negro population of New Haven was 219, 4.5% of the total population. Up until the time when our study ends, the Negro population reached its highest percentage of the total in 1820, when 624 Negroes formed 7.5% of the city’s population. By 1850, with the first waves of immigration, the percentage of Negroes had once again shrunk to 4.8%
During the first half of the 1800’s some blacks who came to New Haven were freemen from the South, afraid of the misapplication of stringent fugitive slave laws. Other Negroes came to the city from the rural North hoping to find work. Lack of training combined with the racial prejudices of whites to make skilled jobs hard to find, and between 1800 and 1860 nine out of ten Negroes were employed as servants or common laborers. In 1845 half of all blacks were in domestic situations, and one out of four lived in the home of his employer.
Negroes in Connecticut were not totally excluded from the artisan trades. Some of the first southern migrants to New Haven were artisans from Newbern, North Carolina. Among those practicing skilled trades—masons, carpenters, blacksmiths—two Negroes were able to find work for every one who remained unemployed. One black, William Lanson, a mason and contractor, built part of the last quarter of New Haven’s Long Wharf in 1810-1811 with stone he quarried himself. Negroes were also accepted as barbers and seamen, and more often as waiters. However, as immigrants began to come to New Haven beginning in 1840, even these occupations, where Negroes had made inroads, became competitive and less available.
The housing situation for Negroes in these early years seems to bear a striking resemblance to the present, with blacks paying high rents in the poorest sections of town. William Lanson, the contractor mentioned above, first owned a hotel and tenement known as New Guinea in the area which is presently a part of the Wooster Square area. He sold it as the Irish invaded the area, then later bought another tenement known as New Liberia, nearer to the Mill River. This was known as a center of vice and prostitution in the town, a place where whites and blacks illicitly mixed, and it was raided by a white mob in 1831. Whites were dragged out and “arrested,” but Negroes were ignored.
The main Negro residential areas were in the Hill and along Negro Lane, now State Street, which was known as the better section of town for blacks. On this street some Negroes owned their own homes, one of which still stands, a small white brick house at the corner of Olive and State. By 1850 there was a new and growing Negro settlement in the area which now runs along lower Dixwell Avenue. It started in the small triangle bordered by Whalley, Goffe, and Sperry Streets, known as Poverty Square, and extended to the area further out between Dixwell and Goffe, known as Slaughter Woods because the local slaughterhouse was located nearby. In general, Negroes lived in the poorest, most unhealthy parts of town, and the Negro death rate was twice that of whites.