Great Expectations: Family and Community in Nineteenth Century Black Hartford

Date of Completion

January 2010


African American Studies|History, Black|History, United States|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies




This study brings together two stories: first, the history of one African American family in Hartford, Connecticut, and secondly that of the nineteenth century black community in which it was embedded. A major source, the Primus Papers in the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, contains some 200 personal letters that provide rare insights into African American life and culture, for outside of slave narratives few first-person accounts treat the everyday lives of blacks in the nineteenth century. The letters reveal that the Primus family participated in the economic and social gains that shaped the black middle class in the 1850s and 1860s, gains that encouraged their expectations that in the aftermath of the Civil War racial uplift would triumph over prejudice and discrimination. Equality and prosperity seemed within reach. ^ Second, using the techniques and methods of social history, this study analyzes the ways in which the fortunes of the Primus family intersect with and reflect changes over time in Hartford's black middle-class community. The revelation made possible by an analysis of census, tax, newspaper and land records is one of paradox As the nation was plunged into the tragedy of Civil War, the Primus family demonstrated a high level of hope and optimism as Hartford's black community arrived at its peak of social and economic achievement; but in the aftermath of the War, as the nation moved into an era of economic expansion and prosperity, the black community suffered an unmistakable social and economic decline. This arc of growth, peak, and decline between 1830 and 1880 constitutes the first cycle in the history of Hartford's black community and is the focus of this study. ^