Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass had significant ties to Connecticut. He visited Hartford many times, spoke to appreciative crowds, and dined with elected officials.
Douglass had his portrait taken by a local photographer and his autobiography published in 1882 by Hartford’s Park Publishing Company. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass was so popular it went through four printings. His wedding in Philadelphia was conducted by Hartford’s Reverend James Pennington, himself a fugitive from “slave justice.”
Douglass had not always been so popular in this state, however, and today his Connecticut presence is fading.
In 1838 Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland, but not before knocking the brutal “slave breaker” Edward Covey on his ass in self-defense. The Fugitive Slave Law was in effect at the time, making it a crime to help enslaved people free themselves from bondage. Douglass moved to the relative safety of New Bedford, Massachusetts. After a series of jobs (and constantly looking over his shoulder) he began speaking publicly against slavery alongside well-known abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison.
A story surfaced in 1845 concerning Douglass’s trip to England aboard a Cunard steamship. He was asked to speak on the promenade deck by the steamer’s captain. No sooner had Douglass begun than he was heckled by a hostile “Connecticut Yankee” who bragged he owned many slaves. Southern passengers then chimed in and a fight broke out with Douglass supporters.
The ship’s captain ended the melee by ordering three sets of chains to be prepared for the instigators. The captain revealed that he too had once owned slaves, but due to the efforts of abolitionists like Douglass he freed those whom he had enslaved.
Frederick Douglass did not find his first trip to Hartford very welcoming. He and his comrades “found several towns in which people closed their doors and refused to entertain the subject,” he wrote in Life and Times. “Notably among these were Hartford, Conn., and Grafton Mass. In the former [we] determined to hold our meetings under the open sky, which we did in a little court under the eaves of the “sanctuary” ministered unto by the Rev. Dr. [Joel] Hawes, with much satisfaction to ourselves and I think great advantage to our cause.” The site of this speech was the First Congregational Church of Hartford.
As time went on, and the pro- and anti-slavery debate sharpened, Frederick Douglass gained greater popularity. In October, 1854 he was in Chicago to rebut the pro-slavery rhetoric of Stephen A. Douglas. An anti-slavery Hartford newspaper reported on the event, exclaiming “the Black Douglass against the White one! Who can doubt as to the result!” The Senator from Illinois, nicknamed “the little giant,” would later debate Abraham Lincoln in 1858 and then lose the 1860 presidential election to Honest Abe.
The black freedom struggle in Connecticut did not end with the Civil War. In 1865 the state’s voters overwhelmingly rejected giving African Americans the franchise. (It is important to note that only white men could vote at the time.)
Just one town, Meriden, supported voting rights for black people in that referendum. Frederick Douglass went on to address the people of Meriden in 1868. Despite racist treatment by Stephen Ives, the landlord of the Meriden House where Douglass stayed, the speech was very well received.
Ironically, present-day Hartford has a memorial plaque commemorating a speech by Stephen Douglas at the corner of Main and Pearl Streets. There is no corresponding memorial for Frederick Douglass.
Perhaps the “open sky” court under the First Church eaves, where Frederick Douglass first spoke in Hartford, would be an appropriate spot for such an honor.