Speaking Under an Open Sky: Frederick Douglass in Hartford

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 Center Church in Hartford.

Abby Kelley spent years in Connecticut for the abolitionist cause.

While Douglass was satisfied with the event, Abby Kelley, who accompanied him along with Stephen Foster (the abolitionist, not the song writer) were attacked by a growing mob and had to find shelter.

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 A. Douglas at the corner of Main and Pearl Streets. This slavery apologist came to town to drum up support for his failed presidential bid against Abraham Lincoln.

The “open sky” court under the First Church eaves, where Frederick Douglass first spoke in Hartford, is now a permanent Frederick Douglass memorial, thanks to Center Church and their pastor Rev. Damaris Whittaker.


Text of speech by Steve Thornton at the Frederick Douglass memorial, May 18, 2017:

The organizing efforts of black and white abolitionists in the 1800s can provide us with powerful inspiration as we face the dangers of Trump and the Republican majority.

American slavery was a cancer, polluting politics, dominating the economy, and paralyzing the nation’s moral spirit. Abolitionists developed many strategies– some more successful than others– to fight it.

Their tactical versatility sustained what was ultimately a victory over America’s “original sin” and the established order that protected it.

Grassroots organizing was the backbone of the movement. Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley and many others visited dozens of Connecticut towns and cities, building local groups able to fight the top-down powers that kept slavery viable.

Sculpture from the Lincoln series on Bulkeley Bridge in Hartford.

The abolitionists didn’t have a choice: no political party took them seriously. They were forced to oppose slaveholding Presidents, the South’s stranglehold on Congress, and a racist majority on the Supreme Court.

Slavery opponents invented sanctuary (we know it as the Underground Railroad). Defying federal law, they engaged in civil disobedience by hiding and transporting other human beings who escaped bondage at the risk of their lives. Our state’s own Freedom Trail documents the locations where fugitives from slavery could find protection.

They used the boycott to refuse food and goods associated with slave labor. This would have included the “negro cloth” made in Willimantic and the “negro hoes” manufactured in Winsted. [The fabric was rough and cheap, supposedly good enough for slaves. The farm implement was made sturdier than the traditional tools slaves had been breaking in deliberate acts of sabotage.]

Their DIY media was the only way to break through establishment newspapers. William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, Frederick Douglass’s North Star, and Hartford’s own The Republican spoke truth to power and effectively kept the national anti-slavery movement linked.

They supported the early labor movement, especially Douglass, who helped organize the Colored National Labor Union. This should not be surprising, because many abolitionists came from the growing working class: Douglass was a ship caulker, Garrison was a shoemaker, and Kelley was a teacher and a farmer. Abolitionists understood that white workers could either be their allies or enemies, depending on the approach. Their message: no one was truly free until everyone was united in a common fight.

And finally, the abolitionists struggled with their own internal weaknesses. The best were truly intersectional. Kelley, Douglass and others not only fought slavery, they advocated for the full participation of women in their movement. They were first to pick up the banner of women’s suffrage. They opposed the U.S. war against Mexico (1846-1848), condemning it as an imperialist land grab.

Not all slavery opponents truly believed that people of color were equal with the “white race.” Many harbored their own deep prejudices that betrayed a paternal attitude towards black people, both free and enslaved.

Still, there were individuals like Hartford’s Reverend Dr. Joel Hawes. It was he who welcomed Douglass and Kelley to speak on the grounds of Center Church, a gesture that was surely criticized by the city’s elite.

“I would as soon think of holding an angel as property as an immortal man,” Hawes explained. When he offered a venue for Douglass and Kelley, Hawes had crossed the line from passive bystander to active resister.

Today, for the first time in their lives, ordinary people in Connecticut and around the nation are standing up– for peace, racial justice, gender equality, workers’ rights and environmental protection. Like the abolitionists of old, they are connecting the dots between the political and economic policies that foster the evils we now face.

Frederick Douglass and Abby Kelley found the strength to commit their lives to a historic struggle. The fight must have seemed overwhelming to them, like an unassailable wall fortified by money and power. But in the end they persisted, and won.

It will take just as much courage and perseverance for us today.


  1. 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. 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. 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?

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

      2. 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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