Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
On the morning of Wednesday, August 1, 1860, hundreds of African Americans- women, men, children- from Hartford and surrounding towns gathered at the Talcott Street Congregational Church, on the corner of Talcott and Market Streets.
They formed a procession and marched up to Main Street and north to Albany Avenue to a place known as Carter’s Grove. This was probably the largest gathering of Black folks in the history of the city. They were celebrating the emancipation of the enslaved people of the British West Indies from Great Britain, which took place 22 years earlier in 1838.
On the islands of Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and a dozen other islands Black people gained their full freedom and began celebrating this day on August 1, 1838. [Haiti was established after a slave rebellion on January 1, 1807.]
Rev. Amos N. Freeman was the pastor of Talcott Street from 1860 to 1863. Because he and his congregation welcomed music and musical instruments in the church, Talcott Street was sometimes derided as a “theater.”
In spite of that criticism, the 1860 Talcott Church Emancipation Day celebration was full of music: “music, singing speech making and Mitchell’s Band performing.”
This event was significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which that local African Americans were marking the freedom of others, outside of the United States, who had achieved emancipation.
Eight months before that celebration, in 1859, John Brown was executed in Charles Town, Virginia. Eight months after the Talcott Street parade in April 1860, the American Civil War began.
A lesser known but no less striking event in December, 1860, when three hundred assembled Hartford school children sang Christmas Carols in front of City Hall on Market Street, just few blocks away from the Talcott Street Church. For some unexplained reason, they also sang “Dixie.”
Nineteenth Century Black Resistance
Over the years, The Talcott Street Church community supported the Amistad captives, participated in the Underground Railroad, publicly disobeyed the 1850 fugitive slave law, convened a national meeting of African American ministers in 1858, and hosted members of the Scottsboro Nine in October, 1937, the nine young men framed for the rape of two Alabama white women.
Today, as Faith Congregational Church on Main Street, the community continues this work, from spiritual uplift to most recently sponsoring the Martin Luther King Day public celebration, supporting striking nursing home workers of District 1199/SEIU, and defending the rights of immigrants even at the risk of arrest.
The Church’s story records the unflagging resistance of Hartford’s Black community to protect themselves against racism in the face of personal attacks. legal constrictions, and national political pressure.
Just a few years before the powerful 1860 African American public display in Hartford, William T. Minor (1855-1857) was elected Governor of the state by the Know Nothing Party, the “nativist,” racist, anti German, anti-Irish, anti immigrant political movement of the 1840s-1850s.
Reading history, we find that it was “the states,” “the courts,” “the legislatures” which tackled slavery and made gains. These days, historians give “significant credit to enslaved people for promoting freedom, and turn attention away from the judges, slave owners, and politicians who are so frequently the focus of legal history,” notes one scholar:
“Related to this, some of them suggest that the enslaved could draw powerful slave owners into court and thus upend traditional power structures. This changes our view of African American history, where those frequently treated as objects of law and become wielders of power.”
“The story that emerges is one where humble enslaved people—those with so seemingly little power—use multiple strategies to make their freedom a reality.”
Rev. James Pennington
The Reverend James W.C. Pennington, D.D. had been warmly received in Scotland, had his biography published in England, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg University in Germany. But back home in Hartford, James Pennington was a wanted man.
Hartford’s James Pennington was originally Maryland’s Jim Pembroke, an enslaved black man who successfully made a daring escape. He was sheltered by a sympathetic Quaker family, and changed his name in honor of Isaac Pennington, a 17th century defender of Quaker beliefs. He attended Yale, studied for the ministry, and made Hartford his home in 1838, preaching from the pulpit of the Talcott Street Congregational Church. That same year, he presided over the marriage of his friend and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass to Anna Murray in New York.
Reverend Pennington spent his life serving congregations in New York, Maine, Florida, and Mississippi. He battled alcoholism, the premature death of his wife, and fights within the abolition movement. He finally resolved his own status by having his Hartford friend John Hooker “purchase” him and free him the next day.
In 1855, Pennington was arrested in New York City for riding on a segregated street car in support of a longstanding organizing effort. The campaign took the case to the state Supreme Court and won– exactly one hundred years before Rosa Parks broke the Jim Crow barrier on a Montgomery, Alabama bus.
The Right to Vote: Selah Africanus
Two decades before the Fifteenth Amendment confirmed in 1870 the right of Black men to vote, Selah Mills Africanus was in New Haven at the Colored Men’s Convention. Africanus was a teacher of Black children in Hartford and an active suffragist. He became the Recording Secretary for these meetings and other gatherings at the Talcott Street Church.
Shortly after the passage of the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Law, Africanus issued a broadside that reprined the entire law, along with a succinct 12 point synopsis that decoded the “legalese” of the statute, and a brief poem expressing his opinions. The Fugitive Slave Act, he wrote, “violates the spirit and letter of the Constitution. It clothes any ruffian as… Slave-Catcher with magisterial authority.”
On September 30, 1850, the Talcott Church issued a powerful and eloquent resolution that condemned the Fugitive law, composed in part by Augustus Washington, the teacher and daguerreotypist. It was published in Hartford newspapers, including, presumably, The Republican,, the city’s own abolitionist newspaper (published by John Denison Baldwin, who was the victim of racist violence while the paper was being put out).
The statement quoted the Declaration of Independence and “entirely repudiated” those who did not resist this law as “absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”
James Mars was another political activist, a founder and a deacon of Talcott Street. Born in Connecticut, he had been born into slavery couple kept in bondage by a local Congregational minister from Canaan. Mars escaped from the preacher and eventually bought his freedom, raised a family, and wrote a brief but revealing autobiography in 1864.
At the age of 74, while writing his book, Mars was also tending to his farm. He ends his book this way: “[In Connecticut] it has been my privilege to vote at five Presidential elections. Twice it was my privilege and pleasure to help elect the lamented and murdered Lincoln, and if my life is spared I intend to be where I can show that I have the principles of a man, and act like a man, and vote like a man, but not in my native State; I cannot do it there, I must remove to the old Bay State for the right to be a man.”
“Connecticut, I love thy name, but not thy restrictions. I think the time is not far distant when the colored man will have his rights in Connecticut. “