The story of James Mars, Connecticut Slave (Adapted with permission from Wesleyan University Press from
Five Black Lives
with introduction by Arna Bontemps, copyright 1971, Wesleyan University. pp. 38-68.)
I was born into slavery in North Canaan, Connecticut on March 3, 1790. My father was born in New York and owned by three different masters there. He was sold to a man in Salisbury, Connecticut and finally to the Reverend Mr. Thompson of North Canaan. My mother was born in Virginia and moved to North Canaan when her mistress married the Reverend Thompson. Mr. Thompson ministered to the people of North Canaan while slaves worked his farm.
After a while the minister’s wife became unhappy living in the North and persuaded her husband to move to the South. My mother and father ran the farm in their absence.
Reverend Thompson returned when I was about eight and wanted to sell the farm and take the slaves back to Virginia. Father refused to go since he had heard stories of terrible treatment of slaves in the South. My mother said that she had often seen her mother tied up and whipped until the blood ran across the floor in the room.
The parson sold the farm with the exception of a wagon, horses, and a few other articles. My father, although a slave without education, watched the movements of the minister but kept all he saw to himself, steadily planning our escape. Thirty-six hours before we were to be taken to Virginia, my father hitched up the parson’s team in the still of the night. We quietly departed the farm and escaped to nearby Norfolk arriving about one o’clock in the morning. My father returned the carriage because he was an honest man and because the minister needed it to travel South.
The citizens of Norfolk were a great help. A man named Phelps let us stay in an unoccupied house in a remote area. We cleaned the house and stayed out of sight.
Weeks went by, and we felt safe since we were sure the minister was in the South by now. However, we learned that the minister hadn’t gone South but had vowed to have the two boys in the family, me and my brother Joseph. I was taken to stay in an even more remote area, and my brother was taken to Massachusetts. I would not see my brother again for two years.
(James and his family were relentlessly pursued by the minister and at one point, agreed to return to the farm with him. Not trusting him, they again escaped to Norfolk.)
We hid in the woods for several days narrowly avoiding the minister and fourteen pickets he sent out looking for us. The first night we didn’t know what we would do for something to eat. But, between sundown and dark a man passed by the edge of the woods, whistling as he went. After he had passed on, father went up where the man went along and came back with a basket. In it was our supper. Each day we spent in the woods the man brought food for us.
After several days, I, being the most wanted by the parson, was hidden in a house. The minister proposed a deal to my parents. He would give my father, mother, and sister freedom if the two boys could be sold to acceptable owners in the North. My parents reluctantly agreed, and I was sold by the Reverend to Mr. Munger for 100 pounds on the condition that I would be freed at age twenty-five. I was informed by the people hiding me that I had been sold, and that I must go live with Mr. Munger. I didn’t know him but the thought of being sold and not knowing whether I was to see my parents, or brother, or sister again was more than I could endure. The thought that I was sold was hard to think of, but I did not even know where my parents were.
The next morning (Sept. 13, 1798) I was told to go to Mr. Munger’s house for he had bought me. I thought of my parents. Should I ever see them again?
As I was taught to obey my superiors, I set out; it was a little over a mile. The way was long. I was alone. Tears ran down my cheeks. I then felt for the first time that I was alone in the world, no home, no friends, and no one to care for me. But on my way to my new home, much to my surprise, I saw my father. I will not attempt to describe my feelings when he told me he had taken rooms in the same neighborhood and should be near me. That made the rough way smooth. 1 went on then cheerful and happy.
(James described his bondage with Mr. Munger. Unfortunately, he was not a strong man and James was forced to work long and hard. Much to his great regret he wasn’t able to get much of an education. As James got older, he decided he would end his bondage at age twenty-one (which was the law) instead of age twenty-five. This brought hard feelings between James and Mr. Munger but James eventually bought his freedom for ninety dollars at age twenty-one.
As a freeman he married and had eight children. He also became involved in a court case concerning a slave named Nancy Jackson who was brought to Connecticut from the South by a man named Bullock as a servant for his daughter. When Bullock attempted to return Nancy to the South after two years, James filed a writ of habeas corpus, and the case eventually came to trial. The Supreme Court of Errors ruled that Nancy did not have to return to the South. As a former slave, James probably sympathized when he learned that Nancy had brought two large opium pills to the court and had intended to commit suicide rather than return.
Toward the end of his life he wrote an account of his experiences. He had found that some people were unaware that Connecticut, the land of good works and steady habits much to its shame, had slavery. At the close of his story he wrote, “Connecticut I love thy name but not thy restrictions. I think the time is not far distant when a colored man will have his rights in Connecticut.”)
1. From the reading, describe attitudes toward blacks that were positive. Describe those that were negative. Slaveowners in the North rationalized slavery saying that slaves were happy and content. Cite evidence from the reading which would contradict this viewpoint.
2. What hardships did the constant threat of sale bring upon slave families?
3. James Mars was born in 1790 and sold Sept. 12, 1798 to Mr. Munger for service until his twenty-fifth birthday. What laws were violated?
During the Colonial Period opportunities for blacks to become freemen were few. However, the American Revolution provided an opportunity for several Connecticut blacks to achieve freedom. Each town had a quota of men to supply for military service and was subject to fines for failure to raise the required number. Since military service might prove to be an economic hardship or result in death, slaveowners were permitted to emancipate their slaves to serve in their place.
Approximately three to four hundred free Connecticut blacks and emancipated slaves fought in the Revolutionary War.
Although Connecticut had two all non-white units (the officers were white) the rest of the units were integrated.
19 Most evidence seems to indicate
that the black soldiers did enjoy fairly equal status, provisions, pay, and duties.
Most slaveowners seemed to have honored their word to free slaves in return for military service. One notable exception is Jack Arabas. With his master’s consent Arabas had enlisted in the Continental Army and fought in the American Revolution. After his discharge his former owner, Thomas Ivers, tried to reclaim him. The court upheld Arabas’s claim that he was a freeman on the grounds that assent to enlistment implied emancipation.
By the late 18th century, slavery was beginning to decline. In 1784 it was declared that no black born after March 1, 1784 should be held as a slave after reaching the age of twenty-five. This was amended in 1797 to lower the age of freedom to twenty-one.
Laws were also passed in 1788, 1792, and 1798 providing for heavy fines for those caught transporting slaves in or out of Connecticut.
The reasons for these laws are probably mixed. The growth of new political ideas, the questionable economics of slavery in Connecticut, and also the libertarian ideology of the Revolutionary era all contributed. How could good Americans demand freedom from Great Britain while enslaving blacks? The hypocrisy was painfully evident. Some students have rejected the claim that slavery was abolished for any noble notion of religion, morality, or humanity. It was, they claim, a matter of simple economics. After the Revolutionary War, agriculture was no longer profitable in Connecticut. Older slaves would be taken care of by their masters; younger ones would learn how to take care of themselves and be gradually phased into the economy.
By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, several northern states began to abolish slavery altogether or by degrees. Vermont (1777), Ohio (1802), Illinois (1818), and Indiana (1816) banned slavery in their constitutions; Massachusetts by judicial decision (1783); New Hampshire by constitutional interpretation. Acts providing for gradual abolition were passed in Pennsylvania (1780), Rhode Island (1784), Connecticut (1784 and 1797), New York (1799 and 1817), and New Jersey (1804).
The census of 1790 showed the number of slaves and free blacks in Connecticut to be roughly equal, 2,759 to 2,801. By 1800 the figures showed a dramatic drop in the number of slaves to 951 and a rise in free blacks to 5,330. There was a steady decline in the number of slaves until only a handful remained in 1848 when Connecticut totally abolished slavery.
However, the period from 1784 to 1848 was not filled with remarkable achievements in equality for blacks in Connecticut. White treatment of blacks contained strange contradictions. The abolition of slavery was a relatively popular crusade in the North after the 1830’s, but living with blacks on an equal basis was an entirely different matter. Blacks were disenfranchised by statute in 1814 and by the Connecticut Constitution of 1818.
Yet, in 1838 the Connecticut legislature very nobly passed resolutions against the annexation of Texas and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and also passed an act, which for all practical purposes, invalidated the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.28 However, in 1845 Connecticut reaffirmed the inferior status of its own blacks by continuing white suffrage in an amendment to its Constitution that removed the property requirement for voting. The reaction to Congress’s Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 revealed again the righteous opposition Connecticut residents felt about slavery. The law, part of the California Compromise of 1850, required that runaway slaves be returned to their masters. Governor H.B. Harrison introduced a bill in 1854 which made the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act almost impossible in Connecticut.
The abolition of slavery in 1848 did little to improve the status of blacks in Connecticut. The abject and disgraceful position of blacks was looked upon as normal. Blacks were considered by most white Americans to be “by nature shiftless, slovenly, childlike savage, and incapable of assimilation as equals into white society.”
The Reverend Mr. Easton, a black minister, while traveling in New England was amazed and dismayed to hear people make derogatory remarks about him. Children asked him in the streets “Hey nigger, where’d you get so much clothes?” They also made fun of his fat lips and flat nose. “Nigger” was a word used in polite society, and “nigger” and blackness were used to scare children. In country schools in Connecticut the dunce stool was sometimes called the “nigger seat” and punishment for whites consisted of being forced to sit with blacks.
Blacks were forced to live in the worst conditions and work at the lowest jobs. Since housing was scarce in cities and since most people did not want black tenants, blacks usually had to live in the most deplorable conditions. In New Haven, they lived in segregated sections or with poor whites. While it was not uncommon in the early 1800s for whites to live in homes with wallpaper, carpeting, and sufficient heat, blacks lived in filthy, crowded, poorly heated homes. Since many blacks were servants and lived with their masters, they owned no homes.
More than housing was segregated. Blacks were educated in separate public schools, and were excluded from good eating houses, public lectures, and transportation, except for stagecoaches on which they were required to ride outside.
Employment was difficult for blacks since it was hard to acquire trades and to practice them. Artisans were not likely to take black apprentices and black workmen faired poorly when competing for jobs especially after the Irish immigrations of the 1830s and 40s. Consequently blacks were forced into the poorest jobs. In New Haven nine of ten black adults were menials or laborers.
The treatment of blacks in Connecticut in the 19th century was typical of that of the other northern states. In 1840 blacks could vote only in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. In northern states ninety-three percent of the free black population had a limited right to vote or none at all. Schools, prisons, and hospitals were segregated. Blacks were excluded from or put in separate sections of entertainment halls and public transportation. Not only in Connecticut, but throughout the North, hostility from native and immigrant white workers resulted in blacks being excluded from trade unions and working at the lowest-paid, unskilled jobs. Blacks everywhere lived in the worst sections of towns.