Hartford’s ‘First Family,’ the Eastons

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Hosea, Rev. Hosea, Samson Easton

In September 1983, the vital statistics office of the City of Hartford, Connecticut received a letter from a researcher, inquiring about Hosea Easton, a former resident who had gained worldwide acclaim as a musician and actor. Helen Armstead Johnson wanted more information on this African American musician, who was supposed to have been born in 1854 in the city. 

Johnson had traveled around the world collecting history on African American stage performers. It was on a trip to Australia that she learned about Easton and his celebrated status in that country and the Pacific Rim. 

The Hartford government records office replied that it could not find any such person. 

In fact, Hosea Easton was the son of a well-respected citizen, and the grandson of the well-known intellectual, abolitionist, and author Reverend Hosea Easton, the original pastor of Hartford’s first Black Church. 

 

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Reverend Hosea Easton (September 1, 1798 – July 6, 1837) Intellectual and Activist 

DD612B5B-5C45-4994-8353-8719814F324AThe Eastons were one of New England’s most notable 19th century African American families.  Their lineage can be traced back to the 1690s. They took their surname from Nicholas Easton, a slaveholder and founder of Providence, Rhode Island, and were emancipated by his relatives who had joined the Quaker faith. Caesar Easton became a landowner  who fought off a series of challenges by white men attempting to claim the property as their own. His son James Easton moved the family to Eastern Massachusetts, and was active in the early movement for Black Freedom. 

After their emancipation, the Eastons migrated to North Bridgewater (now Brockton) near a Wampanoag village in Massachusetts. James and Sarah Dunbar Easton were the parents of seven children, including Hosea Easton who was born in Middleborough on September 1, 1798. 

James, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, possessed Native American heritage, He was a blacksmith and ironworker who sold industrial iron to big Boston construction projects. He opened an academic and trade school for black youth, which Hosea attended in 1816. Hosea married in the 1820’s to Louisa Matrick, became a minister and an effective abolitionist agitator. 

Hosea learned courage and activism when he was only thirteen years old. The Congregational church the Easton family attended built a “Negro porch,” as it was called, in the back of the church.   All Black members of the congregation were to required to sit there during services. James and Sarah Easton refused. The family continued to sit on the main floor of the church until they were physically removed.

At another [Baptist] church, James Easton purchased a pew for his family from a sympathetic white member. The Eastons continued to occupy the pew against the wishes of church officials and members. Thefamily came one Sunday to find that the pew had been painted with tar. The undaunted James Easton, his wife, Sarah, and their seven children responded by returning the following Sunday with their own chairs. This conflict continued until the Eastons were completely barred from the church. 

This struggle went on for 40 years. After James’ death, Hosea’s mother Sarah was kicked out of her church in 1832 for wiring a “very unbecoming letter” to the Elders at the East Stoughton Baptist Church in protest of her family’s treatment. 

As a child, the Reverend Hosea Easton engaged in at least five acts of civil disobedience, from age 1 until he was a teenager. He and his family were the first. African Americans known to have engaged in sit-ins for racial justice.

CED11976-51B6-42C2-A276-CBE01CBF68ADReverend Hosea really came to public attention in 1828 at the age of 30 with a Thanksgiving Day Address in Providence RI attacking racism and slavery. 

It was a frank, explicit, and angry condemnation of the brutalities of slavery, mixed with the call for spiritual uplift of black people. In this sermon he also criticized the African Colonization Society, which was a “diabolical pursuit… where they will steal the sons of Africa… bring them to America, keep them in bondage for centuries.. Then transport them back to Africa by which means America gets all her drudgery done at little expense.”

Rev. Easton continued to write about slavery and broader questions of racism; his major work was “A treatise on the intellectual character, and civil and political condition, of the colored people of the United States and the prejudice exercised towards them,” published in March, 1837 [see article below].

In 1833 Easton moved from Massachusetts to Hartford with Louisa and their son Samson. He became the first pastor of Talcott Street Congregational Church. Beginning on June 8, 1835 for a three-day period, white crowds harassed and beat African Americans on Front and Talcott Street and destroyed a number of Black dwellings. In 1836 the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (Hartford’s second Black church) was burned down. The cause of this was apparently the Black men’s suffrage meeting near Talcott, led by James Mars, a Talcott church deacon and former enslaved man born in Connecticut. 

C342A7F3-C58A-413B-9571-C5CE2C7D1F5FTwo months later in October, 1835 a broadside was printed and distributed throughout Hartford condemning abolition, blasting anti-slavery forces for all the country’s woes, upholding free commerce with slaveholders,  and promoting “states’ rights,” the coded term meant to obscure the racism of slavery and its apologists. 

During the preceding years, racist violence had dramatically increased across the North; there had been deadly riots in Cincinnati, Boston, New York, and Pittsburgh. 

In 1837, shortly before his premature death, Rev. Easton described the effect of slavery, which “renders whites a compound of all evil of all the corrupt passions of the heart…a participant in all the purposes of the wicked one… the very essence of hell.” Only immediate abolition could save the souls of save apologists, Easton declared. 

Rev. Hosea Easton died prematurely on July 6 1837, at 38 years of age. (His father died at age 76 and his mother at 73.) His cause of death is not known. Yet he might have written his own terminal diagnosis in the Treatise:

“The effect of these discouragements are every where manifest among the colored people. I will venture to say, from my own experience and observation, that hundreds of them come to an untimely grave, by no other disease than…oppression.”

 

Samson Easton (1829 – ?) A Courageous and Honorable Life

F157EB95-7315-4B0F-8010-DCBBAFAFF7EESamson Easton was the son of Hosea and Louise, born in 1829, who moved to Hartford with them. He was named after his great-grandfather (on his mother’s side), Samson Dunbar of Massachusetts who died in 1804 at 83 years of age. 

Samson was not a famous man, unlike his father and other relatives (or, indeed, his own son). But there are three incidents that show the same courage and anti-slavery politics that he learned from his parents.

In 1860 census, Samson (age 30) and his wife Louisa (31) lived with their three children: Hosea (11), Ellen (7), and Caroline (5). At the same location, five boarders, all male aged 3 to 49, also lived.

In 1858 Sam Easton attempted to save “Aunt Mary” Robinson, a longtime friend, from being killed by her husband Ben. They and others were at a small party at the Robinsons’ apartment, playing music and dancing. Ben Robinson was drunk and abusive toward his wife, angered that she was dancing with Samson. ( Mary and Samson had known each other since childhood, and had attended school at Rev. Hosea Easton’s church.) By all accounts, Samson tried to peacefully de-escalate the situation, even after Ben assaulted him. Samson and friends started to leave, when Ben Robinson stabbed Mary Robinson many times. Samson put himself in the middle of the attack and was also wounded. Mary Robinson died; Ben Robinson was sent to prison.

Samson Easton was an entrepreneur. He was listed as a livery driver and a hack driver during 1858 and 1859. He also owned the Easton Academy of Music on Commerce Street in 1860, where he crafted, repaired and played banjos, fiddles, and possibly other musical instruments. That may have been where his dance hall was also located.

Two years later, in April, 1861, a Mrs. Thomas Flaherty attempted to commit suicide by jumping off railroad bridge into the Connecticut River. Samson jumped in the cold river and rescued her with some difficulty. He brought her to shore, and she rewarded him with a slap in the face. I could find no evidence that the two knew each other. This was likely a spur of the moment decision on Samson’s part. It shows his character, and his personal courage.

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John Brown in a daguerrotype by Augustus Washington

Maybe the moment for which Sam Easton should be remembered occurred on December 2, 1859. A dance was being on State House square, sponsored by Engine No. 5 of the Hartford Fire Department. At about 2:00 AM on Saturday morning, some of the dancers saw a light emanating from the cupola of the State House. They called on police officer Waters, who climbed to the belfry and apprehended Samson Easton, “a colored citizen of this city,” and his white companion from New Haven, Charles Boyle. 

But Easton and Boyle had completed their objective, “draping the figure of Justice upon the cupola with sable fabric, in view of the execution that was to take place in Charlottesville Virginia during the day.” The condemned man was Connecticut-born John Brown, the white abolitionist who electrified the nation with his October raid on the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown visited Hartford in 1857, where he asked the crowd to financially support his cause. There is no way to know for sure that Samson heard Brown speak, but the abolitionist’s words most likely influenced the 28-year old Hartford man.

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Old State House cupola

The pro-slavery Democrats of the time insisted Samson had been hired by a Republican to perform the symbolic action, but Easton denied it. Here is where we find  the only example of his writing, when he sent a note to the daily newspapers rejecting the idea that he had been put up to the draping of Madame Justice.

Easton and Boyle spent the night in the Hartford jail while authorities tried to figure out how to charge them. It was decided that the two ”could be charged with neither insurrection nor resurrection,” and were released at noon, less than an hour after John Brown was hanged.

 

Hosea Easton ( March 6, 1849- 1899) Stage Actor, Musical Virtuoso, Prince of the Banjoists

0E497C09-3141-4AA0-8D55-218E82D63323.jpegArguably the most well-known of the Eastons is Samson’s son (and Rev. Easton’s namesake) Hosea Easton. Born to 20 year old Louisa Easton in 1849, he had three siblings.  Young Hosea did not seem to get off to a good start. He was a wild child who was arrested for disturbing the peace with his friends, and even briefly implicated his father in one of his capers when he brought stolen hams home.  

At some point in time, he must have picked up one of the banjos his father Samson made, and he was good at it. Really good. Minstrel shows and other variety acts frequently visited at the Roberts Opera House and Allyn Hall, both venues were a short walk from his neighborhood. It’s hard to know for sure if young Hosea saw any of these performances, but it seems likely.

The Georgia Minstrels were frequent performers in Hartford. They featured, among others, “Dick Little, the greatest banjoist living.” Who knows what Hosea Easton, then 16 years old, thought of this act?

In 1866 the Georgia Minstrels advertised “No Burnt Cork Here” in their ads, boasting that they had replaced the white performers who sang and played in blackface since the 1830s. The white blackface acts perpetuated the offensive stereotype that deliberately corrupted the public image of African Americans among Hartford’s white citizens.  Unfortunately, the troupe’s owner also advertised the musicians as “the great slave troupe,” although most, if not all, of the performers were freedmen and women.

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Hosea Easton is number (3) at the top

By 1875, the Georgia Minstrels were endorsed by none other than the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who according to an advertisement was quoted as saying: “No imputation can be brought against them of presenting anything offensive to the eye or ear.” And the next year, the Georgia troupe was boasting that they were “commended by Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Oliver Wendell Holmes, PT Barnum, etc.”

Minstrelsy is, of course, historically weighted with negative baggage, and rightly so. This popular form of entertainment arose in part from the fascination white people had with the African American experience. Blackface minstrel shows featured white men in grotesque makeup, singing and dancing with an exaggerated parody of Black performers (in fact, some white audiences had never even seen Black musicians or actors). The effect only enhanced white racism and widened the gulf between the races.

Yet the musical genre fostered authentic Jubilee music (spirituals), ragtime, and ultimately jazz, all of which entered into the wider the wider public culture. And while Black minstrels played into the images of white audiences, they also subverted those images. As Amiri Baraka wrote “in one sense the colored minstrel was poking fun at himself, and in another probably more profound sense he was poking fun at the white men.” 

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Hosea Easton in Australia

Nowhere was this paradox more apparent than the travelling minstrel shows that sought out venues beyond the United States.

By the time he was 27 years old, Hosea Easton left Hartford and arrived at Hobart, Australia as a member of the Georgia Minstrels, a troupe still at the height of their popularity along the Pacific circuit, especially in Australia, New Zealand, and China. He was singled out by a Sydney Mail reviewer who wrote that “he draws considerably on theology and temperance for his witticisms.”

Hosea also performed with groups such as the Mastodon Minstrels in Hong Kong. The various American shows were popular, but for a variety of reasons (mostly the performers not getting paid, competition between troupes who took the same names, and outright racism of owners and promoters), there was little stability and frequent turnover.

He was lucky to hook up with C.B. Hicks, the African American impresario and leader of the “Original Georgia Minstrels.” Hicks was described as possessing a capable management style and engaged in “combative efforts to maintain independence from the white theatrical establishment.” 

Quickly, Hosea became an audience favorite who entertained with “clever banjo solos riffed on popular airs” which “earned frequent encores.” Crowds were huge, and special trains were scheduled to bring in fans into cities from the outlying countryside.

At the beginning of every performance, Hicks addressed the audience and focused the show’s narrative. He spoke of the African American fight for freedom, and talked about the Georgia troupe’s history. Most of the time this was welcomed. But occasionally a   newspaper critic would complain that the public had not paid admission “to sympathize with their condition.”

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Hosea Easton as Uncle Tom

In mid-1878 Hicks teamed up with a dramatic company and performed the internationally acclaimed Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Hosea Easton played the title role, becoming the first African American to play Tom in the Southern hemisphere. It ran for 12 weeks to sold out audiences in Melbourne. Hosea expanded to other roles, including in a theatrical performance in Robinson Crusoe. He eventually formed his own ensemble, the Easton Uncle Tom Company, which toured with other racially integrated dramatic and musical acts. 

Easton spent the rest of his life in Australia, an extraordinarily beloved figure, until his death in 1899. When he was hospitalized, other performers staged a benefit concert to help pay his medical costs. When Hosea Easton died of cancer, his large funeral became a parade of fans and other musicians who marched with his casket down the street to the cemetery.

Virtually unknown in his own country, Hosea Easton became a legend on the other side of the world.

 

“One Blood:”  Hosea Easton’s Treatise

Rev. Hosea Easton’s 1837 book was based on a life-long experience with racism and the struggle for true equality for all Black people.

Daguerreotypist and Talcott Church activist Augustus Washington, who taught at the church school, was also passionate about emancipation. But unlike Easton, Washington dreamed of a Black nation, either in the western territory beyond the United States, or ultimately in Liberia:

“[S]even years ago, while a student, I advocated the plan of a separate state for colored Americans-not as a choice, but as a necessity, believing it would be better for our manhood and intellect to be freemen by ourselves than political slaves with our oppressors. I enlisted at once the aid of a few colored young men, of superior talent and ability; and we were earnestly taking measures to negotiate for a tract of land in Mexico, when the war and its consequences blasted our hopes, and drove us from our purpose.”

“I have been looking in vain for some home for Afric-Americans more congenial to their feelings and prejudice than Liberia. The Canadas, the West Indies, Mexico, British Guiana and other parts of South America have all been brought under review.” 

Hosea Easton was not a separatist: he was clearly a self-identified republican.  His relatives, including his father, James, had fought side by side with white soldiers during the American Revolution (unlike some enslaved Black men who were enticed by the British with emancipation after the war). His family had married into Native American families and white families alike. Easton argued that the United States belonged as much to his people as anyone else’s.  Whatever differences existed between races were “casual or accidental,” he declared. 

“Prejudice” was the word he used to describe systemic racism, a term which had not yet been popularized. The Revolution had freed Americans from British law, Easton reasoned. British law was the legal basis of slavery. The Declaration of Independence and other founding documents never explicitly denied the rights of Blacks; therefore the sons and daughters of Africa were included, as were all other immigrants, under the protection of this new democracy. Black people were “Americans by birth, genius, habits, language, etc. ” Easton wrote. In his Treatise, Rev. Easton anticipated a new Fugitive Slave law, which was still thirteen years away from Congressional approval.

Easton’s chronology of African and European history condemned white colonizers’ “unholy war with the Indians, and the wicked crusade against peace in Mexico.” In his view, European barbarians and imperialists were far inferior to the civilizations of “Egypt, Ethiopia, and Carthage.” “No pre-Civil war writer refuted the scientific claims of innate African inferiority more forcefully or intelligently than Easton did,” according to his biographer. 

While some of his “racial science” is muddled— he ascribes some Black physical features as ‘deformities” caused by slavery—Easton’s fundamental point is that race was a construct. All humankind is “ONE BLOOD;” All humans bled the same color. Easton argued that outward appearance “cannot be an efficient  cause of malignant prejudice of the whites against the blacks; it is an imaginary cause at the most.”

Easton analyzed and exposed the English language as a primary tool that reinforced racism and thereby slavery. The more that white people used racial slurs to describe alleged physical and intellectual attributes to Black people, and the more young whites heard these insults, the stronger the racist system became. Through constant repetition of belittling phrases (eg. ni**er lips), and use of adjectives in everyday language (ignorant as a –, poor as a –, etc.) the more common usage was widespread.

This evil practice was something with which Reverend Easton was all too familiar.  He noted that racist words were expressed not only by white children, but “sometimes professors of religion as well.”  One term on his list, the ”n**ger priest,” was surely thrown at him as an epithet. We know that the Eastons of Massachusetts, and Hartford’s African American congregants as well, fought the official segregation of white churches which designated what we call today the “negro pew.” But this is today’s euphemism for the real term of the time: the “n**ger pew.”

The work of his father James is described in the Treatise, although Easton does not give him credit by name. Hosea describes the factory and school built by James Easton, costing “many thousand dollars,” to teach trade skills, academics, and “the strict rules of morality.” Yet sustained racism against the effort caused it to fail, which Rev. Easton described as a “hurricane,” sinking a ship “richly laden, and well manned.”

He saved his greatest anger for the white clergy and the church establishment. Few abolitionists were as frank as Easton about organized religion’s culpability.  Of all the verbal attacks on pro-slavers, this criticism seemed to provoke the harshest public reaction. 

Abolitionist speakers such as Stephen Symonds Foster also railed against northern clergy who did not actively oppose southern slavery. Foster was used to being thrown bodily out of church buildings, sometimes from the second floor. Foster, Abby Kelley, and Frederick Douglass spoke in Hartford in 1843 ( it was Douglass’ first visit to the city). By the time Foster began the last speech, the trio was pelted with vegetables and had to make a quick exit, taking shelter with a poor Irish family. 

 idea of an entire reversal of the system of slavery. The work of emancipation is not complete when it only cuts off some of the most prominent limbs of slavery, such as destroying the despotic power of the master.” This simply “leaves the poor man who is half dead … without proscribing any healing remedy for the bruises and wounds.”

“Emancipation embraces the idea that the emancipated must be placed back where slavery found them, and restore to them all that slavery has taken away from them. Merely to cease beating the colored people, and leave them in their gore and call it emancipation, is nonsense. Nothing short of the entire reversal of the slave system in theory and practice—in general and in particular— will ever accomplish the work of redeeming the colored people of this country from their present condition.”(emphasis added)

[Since Easton did not believe in colonization efforts, placing enslaved people “back where slavery found them” certainly referred to their condition, not their location.]

Hosea Easton expected to publish a new volume of work immediately after the Treatise on “Civil, Social, and Moral Economy.” Four months after publication of his signature work, he died. The next book never came.

 

3 Comments

  1. Your passion for Social Justice through research of our history continuously reveals the themes shaping Connecticut and beyond…

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