From slavery to emancipation: The African Americans of Connecticut, 1650s--1820s

Date of Completion

January 1999


History, Black|History, United States




In 1702 a New Haven mulatto, born to an enslaved black mother and a free white father, sued for freedom on the claim of having free blood. He lost when the court ruled that slavery was determined by maternal status. By then, blacks had lived in bondage for over two generations in Connecticut, where slavery continued for another century and half. Like other colonies, Connecticut enacted slave codes, albeit without officially adopting slavery. Unlike their neighbors, the people of Connecticut played only a small role in slave trading, neither directly in the “triangle trade” nor indirectly through shipping. Connecticut's economic activities were often related to but never dependent on the business. Nor was its economy fit for the large-scale work forces required on great southern plantations. Consequently the slave population never went beyond a few thousand. ^ Although economically inconsequential, unfree labor benefited the elite and served masters of many backgrounds, such as ministers, public officials, farmers, and merchants. By 1776, a quarter of the wills probated in the colony included slave property, and virtually every town had at least one slave. Slaves were thinly but widely spread. The institution's pervasiveness reflected the legitimacy of slavery in Connecticut. ^ Like fellow New Englanders, Connecticut masters treated their bondpeople relatively mildly, like poor whites, and recognized slave marriage. The election of “black governors,” which lasted a century in Connecticut, was slaves, chief communal experience, since scattered residence and work sites kept them separate and minimized the opportunity for building cultural communities. ^ Mild treatment did not make for contentment or docility. Slave “runaways” represented the most common resistance, offering a commentary on this “benign” institution in Connecticut. The desire for freedom was facilitated by the Revolution. In 1774, the colony outlawed further importation of slaves; the state embraced gradual emancipation ten years later. ^ But emancipation failed to bring racial equality in Connecticut. Indeed the decline of slavery was accompanied by the rise of a new type of racial injustice: exclusion and disfranchisement of free blacks. African Americans continued to suffer from social, political, economic, and educational prejudices in the white man's state and society. ^