The Shoeleather History Project

Stories from Hartford's Grassroots

Speaking Under an Open Sky: Frederick Douglass in Hartford


Douglass mosaic at a Harlem subway stop.

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.

Portrait by Stephen H. Waite, 1864, Hartford

Portrait by Stephen H. Waite, 1864, Hartford

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.

6 comments on “Speaking Under an Open Sky: Frederick Douglass in Hartford

  1. Jill Friedman
    April 23, 2016

    Great article on Fredrick Douglass, Steve!!! Didn’t know about the memorial plaque for Stephen Douglas. Let’s see if the City Council want to remove that one in favor of putting one up for Frederick! Wouldn’t that be cool.

  2. Rev. Damaris Whittaker
    December 12, 2016

    I move we put a placque on the property of the First Church of Christ to commemorate, what I’m certain was a most compelling speech. Thanks for this article a Steve.

  3. Gabel -Brett Carolyn
    May 12, 2017

    So important for us all to learn about this great history – and right here in Hartford! Thanks, Steve! I agree with the idea of a plaque commemorating Frederick Douglas’ organizing efforts here. What has happened in the past year?

    • Steve Thornton
      May 12, 2017

      Hey C– it’s been too long. I’m retired and happy and stress-free. Hope you are too. Thanks for the comment on CT Mirror!

      • Gabel -Brett Carolyn
        May 12, 2017

        Yes, retirement is lovely!! So – what happened about the plaque? Glad that the CT Mirror ran your piece!

      • Steve Thornton
        May 12, 2017

        The plaque will be up on the 18th. I’ll be speaking along with others


        On Fri, May 12, 2017 at 3:57 PM The Shoeleather History Project wrote:


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This entry was posted on April 22, 2016 by in African American, Hartford.

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