As Connecticut’s slaves were subject only to limited servitude and hereditary slavery was abolished, the concerns of Connecticut’s Blacks centered on improving their social position and working to free slaves in the south. These two issues are not really a part of this unit, but I do want to describe briefly the general conditions which Connecticut’s Blacks faced in the early nineteenth century.
: By 1800 83% of Connecticut’s 6,281 Blacks were free, and by the time general emancipation was enacted in 1848 there were only six slaves left in the state. The revolutionary ideas of the last century had released them from bondage, but Connecticut’s Blacks were little better off free than they had been as slaves. They could testify in court and own property, but their place was still at the bottom of society. They could not vote; they were not welcome as social equals in the educational and social institutions of the state.
Simultaneous with the movement toward manhood suffrage was the disfranchisement of Connecticut’s Blacks. Theoretically, free Blacks who amassed enough land could have voted, but in 1818 a state law specifically denied Blacks the vote. Connecticut was the only New England state to disfranchise Blacks. Blacks were voting regularly in Massachusetts before the Civil War. In 1847 and 1865 the Connecticut General Assembly convincingly voted down Black suffrage. Only with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1869 could Blacks vote in Connecticut.
With the beginnings of industrialization free Blacks in Connecticut began to move from the rural areas and small towns into the cities. Living in strictly defined neighborhoods Blacks formed a separate community within the cities. They lived in poor, shabby neighborhoods and held low-paying jobs. The only potential for advancement was through professional or commercial service to their own community. In this Blacks in cities had some benefits denied Blacks who remained in smaller towns. In these towns Blacks were firmly held at the lowest levels of society. Only a few Black farmers were able to prosper in rural areas; others lived much as they had as slaves, working as field hands.
Blacks were not the only people in Connecticut who moved to cities during this period. The high birth rate in Connecticut coupled with continuous immigration from Northern Europe meant that virtually all good farmland in Connecticut was claimed by 1800. Children of farmers either moved west to farm or abandoned farming and moved into the cities. This population shift effectively prevented Blacks from working in the early water-powered factories in Connecticut. White workers were nearly always given preference.
The coming of steam-powered factories in the 1830’s boosted Connecticut’s industrial growth, but this coincided with the mass immigration in 1845-1846 of the Irish following the potato famine. The immigrants served to push the Blacks one notch lower on the social scale by competing directly for those few jobs above the menial level that Blacks had been able to hold. Blacks were squeezed out of municipal and construction jobs they had held earlier in the century.
Although some Blacks held skilled jobs in larger cities like New York and Philadelphia, they were largely within the Black community. Connecticut’s cities rarely had Black populations exceeding five percent during the period and the small size of these cities (2,000-10,000) meant that Black populations were too small to support much independent economic activity.
: Blacks were admitted in small numbers to local schools in Connecticut as early as the 1780’s, but these were exceptional cases. The state of public education in Connecticut improved markedly in 1795 when proceeds from western land sales were used by the state for schools. For the next twenty-five years grade schools in Connecticut were of good quality, and in most communities Blacks attended. Their life was not pleasant in these schools and there was no opportunity for them to go on to public secondary schools. Blacks in larger communities suffered because they were provided with separate—and inferior—schools.
When the state withdrew support from grade schools in 1820, the towns allowed them to decline in quality. In the public schools Whites received poor educations and Blacks, worse.
Henry Barnard as head of education for the state in 1839 and again in 1849 labored to improve public education, but his efforts were of little benefit to Blacks. By 1869 Black children in Connecticut were either unwelcome pupils in small town schools or pupils in inferior all-Black city schools.
Higher education was worse. Few Blacks were admitted to public high schools and few could afford private academies. The social ostracism suffered by Black students in private schools severely limited their numbers there. Much the same was true of Blacks in Connecticut’s private colleges and universities. A few exceptionally determined Black men made it through Amherst, Yale and other White colleges, but most Black college graduates had gone to Abolitionist-dominated institutions like Oberlin, Oneida and New York Central College.
Two clear examples of the problems of Black education in Connecticut are the attempt to establish a Black manual arts school in New Haven and Prudence Crandall’s efforts to run a private boarding school for Black girls in Canterbury. The townspeople of New Haven in 1831 vehemently objected to the idea of a Black school in town as “incompatible to the prosperity” of Yale and other area colleges and “destructive of the best interests of the city.” Prudence Crandall, by operating a boarding school for Black girls, touched off a controversy which resulted in action by the General Assembly. In 1833 it became a crime in Connecticut for any person to open without permission of the town a school for Blacks from other states or countries.
The two episodes I have chosen for this final section of the unit are concerned largely with White feelings toward slavery and Blacks in Connecticut. Both are well-documented historical events which I have attempted to simplify without altering the basic facts or outcome.
Both occurred in the 1830’s and both were the subject of a major controversy. The first is the
Affair. The second is Prudence Crandall’s case, which I present as a play.
Affair concerned slaves captured in Sierra Leone who had seized control of their slave ship and sailed to Connecticut. The court battle over whether to try them for piracy, return them to their Cuban captors or free them lasted several months. Their story has heroic qualities and the brief account of it in the activity booklet places more emphasis on those qualities than on the legal maneuverings that freed them.
The activity booklet lessons are important to this unit but they really only get things started. In teaching the unit myself I find these activities a good way to get students thinking. Then we have something to discuss. The sample lesson plans in the next section are things you can do to follow up on the mental activity the booklet lessons have triggered.