Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
Much has been written about the “Negro Governors,” an early Connecticut practice where a male slave was chosen to serve as the “leader” of all the state’s enslaved people. Almost without exception, this phenomenon has been seen as a harmless, almost progressive feature of slavery in 18th and 19th century New England. Orville Platt, whose work is often cited on the subject, called it “a curious habit that negroes fell into.”
The subtle implication is that our form of bondage was kinder and gentler than slavery in the South. “We were studying a lot of things on slavery that was all depressing and about getting whipped. Finally, we found some uplifting experience like a black governor,” concluded one African American middle school student whose class tackled the subject in 1998. But just how benign was this episode of our state’s history?
The custom probably began in the 1750s in Connecticut and spread to other New England colonies (and later, states). It continued into the 1850s. How the practice began is not precisely known, but the annual event was most likely used to ensure that slaveholders could keep an eye on their property.
One day each year, white male citizens traveled to Hartford to tally votes for the state’s gubernatorial election (there were one-year terms until 1875). Slaves would likewise hold a celebration in honor of their new “Governor” (in other venues he was called the King). The festival included an elaborate parade down Main Street led by the Negro Governor in military regalia. The event always concluded with a huge party and plenty of food and alcohol provided by the slave owner ending in a “drunken riot” according to one account.
Defending the practice
Some historians have theorized that by having their own “leader,” African Americans were being introduced to the experience of eventual citizenship. The Negro Governor election has been described as “a custom to give the negro an opportunity to become a politician.” The Negro Elections were “preserved for victories yet to come,” writes one expert, as if either blacks or whites could have anticipated the post-Civil War emancipation.
Still others have speculated that slaves considered their event a continuation of the self-governance they practiced in their original homelands (despite the fact that some African tribes were led by women). In any case, the “election” was controlled by the slave masters: an outgoing Governor appointed his successor with the owner’s approval. Having one’s own slave as Governor was a status symbol for the white master and arguably a personal means of influence over the slave population.
The Governor appointed deputies for largely ceremonial positions. His real job was to serve as judge and jury for any slave who committed an infraction, as defined by white law or custom. As punishment, the Governor could confiscate a slave’s property, if he had any, or sometimes have the offender flogged. In a 1851 history published by the Hartford Courant, one particular Negro Governor “unmercifully” meted out punishment. He was described as “a terror to the blacks, and kept them orderly.” The writer left no doubt that the practice was successful, concluding that “we have got a well-behaved set of them now, taken as a whole.”
Even after there were no slaves living in Connecticut (the local census stopped counting slaves in 1840) blacks could not vote in the state’s real elections. African Americans were formally disenfranchised by the General Assembly in 1818; it is unlikely that any free black men voted even before that time. Instead, they had to be satisfied with the sham Negro Governor practice.
Far from being a harmless event, the Negro Governor election acted as a form of social control: it showed every slave the consequences of disobedience. And because one of their own was given permission to inflict corporal punishment, it kept the white master’s hands clean. As one writer euphemistically put it, the practice was “a means of the well-ordering of the negro population.”
There was a very good reason to maintain this form of control. Over the years, graphic details of slave revolts were widely reported in Connecticut newspapers. Even if African Americans did not read these accounts, their masters surely did. Rebellions by enslaved men and women date back at least to 1739 with the Stono Revolt in Florida. In 1741, a series of suspicious fires in New York led nervous whites to believe a slave uprising was imminent. Rebellions led by Gabriel Prosser (1800) and Denmark Vesey (1822) added to the slaveholders’ fear. In 1831 Nat Turner led seventy followers in deadly attacks on whites in Virginia.
Those in power write the history
To investigate the truth behind the Negro Governors is to face an enormous hurdle: all the first-hand accounts were written by white people. Every essay, newspaper article and lecture was framed by their own personal interests and their views on slavery. Every subsequent treatment is based on these earliest accounts.
Is this because slaves couldn’t write their own history? It is true that in many states, slaves who were literate were considered criminals. But in fact, there are many powerful written works by African Americans both slave and free. Hartford’s Reverend Hosea Easton wrote his widely read treatise on the condition of black people in 1837. Rev. James Pennington of Hartford wrote The Origin and History of the Colored People (1841), the first history of its kind, and then his autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1849). Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry (1773) speaks eloquently of her desire for freedom. David Walker’s “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” (1829) is a militant cry for rebellion. The autobiography of Frederick Douglass (1845) recounts his years in slavery and ultimate liberation. None of these works includes a study– let alone a defense– of the Negro Governor phenomenon.
Breaking the will of a community
There is evidence that in our state the Negro Governor, as directed by his white owner, engaged in brutality beyond imposing fines on guilty parties or the occasional lashing. In one of the oldest descriptions of the Governor’s punitive power there is a very brief mention of the use of bastinado. This archaic term denotes a form of torture.
Unlike flogging, bastinado entails the beating of a victim’s feet (and sometimes hands or hips) as a punishment. In one definition, it “relies on the fact that the foot is a fragile appendage with numerous bones, tendons, joints and muscles. It is also a place where nerve endings are close to the surface and therefore particularly susceptible to pain.” The physical effects, besides the immediate pain, can cause permanent deformity and chronic disability, including muscle necrosis (tissue death). Bastinado has been used for hundreds of years around the world to elicit cooperation from torture victims.
Why would white slaveholders grant the power of physical torture to the Negro Governor? As the group Physicians for Human Rights reports, the aim of torture is to “dehumanize the victim, break his/her will, and at the same time, set horrific examples for those who come in contact with the victim. In this way torture can break or damage the will and coherence of entire communities.” (emphasis added.) Torture has always been social control at its most base level.
No reliable accounts
Also troubling is the fact that as the Negro Governor story has been passed down through generations, each iteration has been further sanitized. Early accounts were full of racist terminology, written in a highly patronizing manner, and contemptuous of those who participated in Election Day activities. There was no outrage at the use of violence, however; after all, slaves were property to be bought and sold.
Even on the rare occasion where a writer consulted former slaves to record their recollections, there is no assurance of their accuracy, and no guarantee the stories were not sugar-coated for the benefit of the white interviewer, telling him what he wanted to hear.
Yet today, we are informed that “the black community in Connecticut had its own parallel government during the colonial and early American period,” according to one recent newspaper feature.
Beginning in 2004, African American groups organized the Black Governors’ Ball, replete with period costumes and harpsichord music. The modern event had worthy goals, designed to celebrate the “nexus between Black culture, education and commerce.” It’s premise, however, was built on a flawed analysis. Consciously or not, the Negro Governor myth diminishes Connecticut’s real complicity in the practice of slavery.
Celebrating Ethnicity and Nation, Heidelberg, Fabre, 2001, Berghahn Books
Negro Slavery in Connecticut, Frederick Calvin Norton, Connecticut Magazine, 1899
Scaevas History, Black Governors in Connecticut
Black Governors, Connecticut State Library
Examining Asylum Seekers: A Health Professional’s Guide to Medical and Psychological Evaluations of Torture, Physicians for Human Rights, August 2001
Black Governors Ball Saturday, The Hartford News, April 25, 2007
Speak Out in Thunder Tones, Dorothy Sterling, DaCapo Press, 1998 (this includes the one description I have found by Ebenezer Bassett, an African American who wrote a brief recollection of his father as a Negro Governor)
The Historical Status of the Negro in Connecticut, William C. Fowler, 1901