The first recorded murder victim in Hartford was a Black man— Louis Berbice in 1639. He was the slave of Gysbert Opdyck, the influential leader of the Dutch fort, known as the House of Hope, near the Connecticut River. The Opdyck genealogy records the incident:
Gysbert Opdyck… declares that Lewis Barbese took a pan to bake cookies and as the fire was too hot for the boy, Opdyck took the pan from him and ordered him to bring a shovel. The shovel which the boy brought was dirty, whereupon Opdyck whipped the boy who, to escape the whipping, ran away and Opdyck gave him a kick in the side. The boy ran before the door where he fell down. Opdyck went toward the boy and found a crooked knife bent like a hook and that the boy had a wound ‘left side near his arm wherefrom he died very soon.’
Later, Opdyck would say it was an accident. He was never found guilty of any crime. Call it Hartford’s Original Sin.
Was our form of bondage kinder and gentler than slavery in the South? As Hartford’s Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote: “the north wanted all the benefits of slavery without the screams and horrors.”
Over the centuries, we have tried to make it so. That’s one reason why 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 this “government” was a positive aspect of the chattel slavery system. “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.
The “Curious Habit that Negroes Fell Into.”
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 academic, as if either blacks or whites could have anticipated the post-Civil War emancipation.
Still others have speculated that slaves considered the event a continuation of the self-governance they had practiced in their original homelands (despite the fact that generations had passed, and 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, giving him “bragging rights,” if you will, 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.”
“[These] punishments were carried out by the Negro executioner after the culprit had first been sentenced by a white magistrate,” according to Dr. Lorenzo Johnston Greene. “This was the case of a Connecticut thief whose sentence of thirty lashes was publicly administered by ‘Squire Nep,’ a Negro barber, on the town green.”
“Negro ‘government,’” argued Greene, “induced the slaves to inform on and to punish their fellows [so that] the threat to the masters’ security was diminished.” The Negro Governor charade “served as a subtle means of slave control,” Greene wrote.
“Those slaves who were the object of especially kind treatment by their owners manifested their gratitude even to the extent of giving their lives in protection of their masters’ children,” Greene said. Despite this amiable conceit across New England, “there were Negroes who found their bondage so intolerable that they committed suicide,” he declared. (Lorenzo Greene was an African American historian, civil rights activist, and labor advocate, born in Ansonia in 1899.)
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.
There were slave insurrections in Hartford (1657), and New London (1768), as well as in Boston and a number of other Massachusetts towns. In 1776, the Connecticut Courant warned its readers to “Remember the bribing of negro slaves to assassinate their masters.”
Rebellions outside of New England by enslaved men and women dated 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 eighty followers in deadly attacks on whites in Virginia. It was in all the Hartford papers.
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, and every subsequent study, was framed by whites’ 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 prosecuted as 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). Ann Plato, also from Hartford published a book of poems, including one on emancipation, when she was sixteen years old.
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 defense of the Negro Governor phenomenon.
Torture: 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 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.
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 blacks 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 very 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.
Consciously or not, the Negro Governor myth diminishes Connecticut’s real complicity in the practice of slavery.
This story appears in my book Wicked Hartford (The History Press, 2016)