The first officially organized attempts to improve the situation of Negroes in the city dated from 1826 with the formation of the Antislavery Association and the African Improvement Society. Both organizations were begun by a small group of white Congregationalist ministers, men whose primary interest was the abolition of slavery. The Abolitionist cause was a fast-growing national movement, and it found enthusiastic support among the liberal clergy in New Haven. However, this enthusiasm came up against the reality of public opinion in 1831, when plans were begun for the formation of a Negro college in the city which might serve as an international gathering place for young blacks promoting abolition of slavery and of racial oppression. During the summer of that year Simeon Jocelyn, who will be mentioned several times in this paper, made detailed plans and raised money to begin the project; however, this was also the time of the Nat Turner slave revolt in Virginia, and fear and prejudice combined in the public mind to such an extent that in a public meeting in New Haven in September, 1831, an enraged gathering almost unanimously denounced such a plan. Only Jocelyn and three other participants voted against the anti-college resolution. The idea was the subject of inflammatory editorials in the newspapers; public sentiment grew stronger; and in the next few weeks there were numerous incidents of white mob violence against blacks and the homes of white Abolitionists who had proposed the college.
This incident, which made clear the extent of public antipathy for the rights of Negroes, is in contrast to another which occurred eight years later, known as the Amistad Case. A group of blacks, captured in Africa, were put on a Spanish vessel and brought to the West Indies. They managed to revolt and seize the ship, but were found by a government brig, brought to New Haven, and put on trial. The enormous public sympathy in support of their defense and their subsequent acquittal are perhaps indicative of the public attitude toward race relations at the time. Events such as the establishment of a college, which seemed to herald possible changes in the social order, were met with conservative reaction. A romantic cause favoring a few blacks was met with generous support, particularly when it held no immediate implications or threats of change.
The conservatism of white opinion about race relations was also demonstrated by the results of a state referendum on suffrage for Negroes which took place in Connecticut in 1847. The proposal, which would have become an amendment to the state constitution, was defeated by a vote of three to one.