Since the founding of Connecticut, blacks have known far more struggle than equality there. From the 1640s when black slaves were first brought to Connecticut until 1870 when the 15th Amendment was passed, the rights cherished by white male Americans were enjoyed by Connecticut blacks on a limited basis or not at all. Despite the fact that New England was the main rallying point for abolition, slavery was finally made illegal in Connecticut only fifteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation and seventeen years before the 13th Amendment. Although many Connecticut citizens opposed slavery and were glad to see it abolished, a sharp dichotomy was present in their thinking. Though black emancipation was in their realm of understanding, black equality simply was not. Even after slavery was ended, blacks were rarely, if ever, granted economic, political, or social status on par with Connecticut’s whites.
The first slaves in Connecticut were Indians who were taken prisoner after battles. They were found too troublesome and exchanged for blacks. Although it is not documented as to when or how slavery began in Connecticut, slavery was recognized by courts and mentioned in several laws. As early as 1643, the United New England Colonies, of which Connecticut and New Haven were members, enacted a law that required runaway slaves be returned to their masters.
Although this law applied more to Indian slaves at the time the Connecticut Code of 1645 recognized Negro slavery, as well.
Despite the fact that there were few blacks in Connecticut, in the 17th century, laws were passed to control and restrict their movement. Blacks, unlike whites, were relieved from compulsory military duty after 1660,
presumably because they could not be trusted with arms. October, 1690 marked the beginning of a Connecticut black code similar to those found in Southern colonies. If a Negro, mulatto, or Indian servant were found wandering out of bounds of the town to which he belonged without a pass from his owner or from a magistrate, he could be seized and returned to his master who had to pay any costs incurred. To discourage anyone abetting an escape, a fine was levied against any ferryman if he transported a slave without a pass. The black code wasn’t limited to just slaves. Even a free black without a pass had to pay costs if stopped and brought before a magistrate.
Restrictive laws continued in the 18th century. In 1703 a law was passed which prohibited innkeepers, or retailers of strong drink from “suffering any one’s sons, apprentices, servants, or negroes to sit drinking in his house or have any manner of drink there, without special order from parents or masters.” The black code was expanded in 1723 when it was decided a slave caught out of doors after nine without order from his master or mistress could receive up to ten lashes unless his master paid a ten shilling fine securing his release. In 1730 the black code was completed when it was enacted that if a slave spoke words for which a free person would be liable, he should receive not more than forty lashes. He could also be sold for court costs unless his master paid them. One measure was given to slaves in that they were allowed to make pleas and offer evidence in court the same as free men.
From 1730 to 1774 very few laws were passed in Connecticut concerning slavery. Then in 1774 after more than 100 years of laws which strengthened the institution of slavery, a momentous change took place. The General Assembly declared that any person who brought or imported an Indian, Negro, or mulatto slave into Connecticut would be subject to a $100 fine.
The legislation did not reflect a sudden humanitarian interest in ending slavery. The prohibition banned the importation of slaves in part at least, for economic reasons. Poor whites has been thrown out of work when they couldn’t compete against slavery.
Although slaves were treated a little better in the New England colonies than in the Middle Atlantic and significantly better than in the Southern, they did not enjoy an advantageous existence. The status of slaves in Connecticut in the late 18th century was not greatly different from those of other northern states. In numbers, Connecticut had more blacks than any other New England colony, but nevertheless Negroes accounted for only about three percent of the population. This is about the same percentage as Massachusetts’s two percent and more than New Hampshire and Vermont which had very few and far less than Rhode Island. The Middle Colonies were substantially higher than Connecticut with New York having fourteen percent and New Jersey eight percent. One New Jersey master, for instance, dressed his slaves in rags and forced them to go barefoot in winter.
All the colonies passed laws to restrict the free activity of blacks. Laws were passed in the northern colonies to limit the movement of blacks, especially at night, to prevent assembly, and to punish anyone helping blacks to escape. Strict corporal punishments were set up in the North to deter crimes by blacks.
Although black slaves were treated poorly in the North, they enjoyed some rights. A master could be sued by a slave for wounding, beating, or using immoderate chastisement; he could also receive the same punishment for killing a slave as a free man. A slave was allowed to hold property if it was bequeathed to him, and he could take legal action against his master if he should try to take the property away.
However, Connecticut slaves didn’t necessarily agree that they enjoyed special advantages. William Grimes, an escaped Southern slave, wrote, “To be put in irons and dragged back to a state of slavery, and either leave my wife and children in the street, or take them into servitude, was a situation in which my soul now shudders at the thought of having been placed . . . if there is any man in God’s creation, who will say . . . that there are any possible circumstances in which it is just that he should be at the capricious disposal of a fellow being . . . that man lies!”
Other black feelings against slavery ran much stronger. The Reverend G. W. Offley recounts that when he was young, his father, a black freeman, attempted to buy his three children who were about to be placed into bondage until their twenty-fifth year. A white family told the father that they would shoot him dead if he attempted to buy his children’s freedom. Offley’s mother said that if anyone but their father bought any one of the children, she would cut the throats of all three children.
Slavery was so repugnant that she would defy Solomon’s judgement in order to save her children from bondage.
Segregation of the races existed from the meeting house to the graveyard. Those blacks fortunate enough to be admitted to a church were relegated to a separate gallery, usually in the back. In Torrington the black gallery seats were boarded up so that blacks could see and be seen by no one. Attempts of blacks to sit in seats other than in their gallery could result in excommunication from the Church.
Black slaves could not travel or stay out after nine without passes. Rarely could they receive formal education, and they could not vote or participate in the government.
Even in death blacks were segregated in a remote part of the cemetery away from whites.