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Think slavery wasn't in the North? Think again. Slavery has roots in Connecticut dating to 1600s

Unforgotten is a cross-platform series and podcast chronicling Connecticut's ties to slavery. Learn more.

Adrienne Joy Burns spends a lot of time digging through old documents. In these historic wills, court papers and church records, she finds connections to the past.

She’s also finding difficult truths – like in a 1680 probate inventory from New Haven.

“It mentions things like three cows, five horses, two barns, one enslaved Negro woman and one Indian boy,” Burns says. “People as property in a probate inventory? And the answer to that is enslaved people were considered property. Like a cow or a horse.”

There’s a deeply-rooted perception that the North was home to the “good guys,” the abolitionists. The truth is far different. Slavery existed across colonial Connecticut, as well as colonial New England. Enslaving people was legal in Connecticut for more than 200 years and did not officially end until 1848. Thousands of people were enslaved in Connecticut, and thousands more were enslaved across New England.

This unforgotten history is being brought back to the surface in Connecticut and beyond thanks to efforts from historians, experts and volunteers.

Burns is a public historian who has worked with Yale & Slavery Research Project and the Witness Stones Project, which helps Connecticut communities learn about their past. She says the reality of seeing enslavement casually documented in real records contrasts with America’s sanitized pre-Civil War history often taught in school.

Primary documents at the New Haven Museum inform much of the work done by citizen historian Adrienne Joy Burns (above).
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Primary documents at the New Haven Museum inform much of the work done by citizen historian Adrienne Joy Burns (above).

“They tell us about the famous people. They tell us about the founders,” she says. “They don’t tell us that 20 men – Black men from New Haven – went and fought in the American Revolution. There is no monument in this city that tells you that.

“So I went in search of Black history,” Burns says. “And that led me to the story of enslavement in New England.”

'Intentionally erased'

It’s a story that’s not easy to find – how enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples helped to build New England.

“Slavery in New England has been intentionally erased – the history of slavery in New England,” says Akeia de Barros Gomes, senior curator of Maritime Social Histories at the Mystic Seaport Museum.

“If you think about cemeteries, and where you see some of the burials of the enslaved, they usually don't say ‘slave of,’ they say ‘servant of,’” she says. “And so the story we tell is – this is family slavery. This person was a member of the family, they helped to support the household.”

“It comes off as very benign,” de Barros Gomes says. “And not dehumanizing. When, in fact, it was violent and dehumanizing.”

Akeia de Barros Gomes, Senior Curator of Maritime Social Histories at Mystic Seaport Museum, is interviewed for Unforgotten: Connecticut's Hidden History of Slavery.
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Akeia de Barros Gomes, Senior Curator of Maritime Social Histories at Mystic Seaport Museum, is interviewed for Unforgotten: Connecticut's Hidden History of Slavery.

In the early 1600s, the first European explorers and settlers arrived in what would later be called Connecticut.

The land was already home to a thriving civilization, says Elizabeth Normen, founding publisher of “Connecticut Explored,” a magazine of state history.

Tens of thousands of people – with a 10,000-year history of governance, land management and culture – were here, Normen says.

But as Europeans arrived, they began clearing forests and building farms and ships, creating a labor shortage. Meanwhile, English and French colonies in the Caribbean had already started the enslavement of Africans.

“At the end of the Pequot War in 1637, the captured Pequots were enslaved as war prizes, and traded in the West Indies for enslaved Africans, and brought back to Connecticut,” Normen says. “So that's probably around the time the first Africans, enslaved Africans, end up in the colony.”

Slavery was taking hold in Connecticut.

'It was everywhere'

In 1650, Connecticut passed its first law allowing "hostile Indians" to be captured and either enslaved or shipped out and exchanged for enslaved Africans.

From there, enslavement didn’t take long to spread, de Barros Gomes says.

“There were enslaved men on ships,” she says. “There were enslaved women and girls working in households. There were enslaved men building roads.

“It was everywhere.”

Connecticut and New England soon became players in an international market supported by the work of enslaved people. The colonies established what became known as the “Triangle Trade.”

Here’s how it worked.

Traders in New England would import molasses and sugar made by enslaved workers in the Caribbean. Distilleries in Connecticut, and elsewhere, would take those materials and make rum, which was then sent to West Africa, in exchange for more enslaved workers sent to the Caribbean.

Some of those enslaved workers would also be brought to New England.

A depiction of the Atlantic Slave Triangle Trade.
Sam Hockaday
Connecticut Public
A depiction of the Atlantic Slave Triangle Trade.

“If you think about the triangle that New England was involved in, the Caribbean was a really important center. That is where the sugar cane would be cut and the molasses would be created,” de Barros Gomes says. “The distilleries were in places like Newport, New Haven, New London, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.”

Slavery could be found across Connecticut. Not all Africans in colonial Connecticut were enslaved, but there were very few free Black residents.

Colonial records from the 1750s show a particularly high percentage of people of color in southeastern Connecticut. These included enslaved people, Indigenous people and free Black residents.

But those records are not necessarily complete, says Nancy H. Steenburg, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, Avery Point. That’s because enslaved people were treated as property.

“In some communities, they may have been taxed as such,” Steenburg says. “People may have concealed people of color because of the potential of being taxed.”

Meanwhile, Connecticut’s economy continued to prosper off the transatlantic slave trade, with companies even insuring enslaved people as property into the 1850s.

Slavery in the state grew, peaking around the time of the Revolutionary War.

In 1784 Connecticut passed a Gradual Emancipation Act, which did not immediately abolish slavery. Instead, it allowed for the phasing out of slavery over time.

Slavery would still persist in the state for generations, de Barros Gomes says.

“All that law really did was it said that the children born to the enslaved would be free after 25 years, right? So it didn't say slavery could no longer be practiced in the state,” she says. “It just said, you would not be enslaved for life if you were born after 1784.”

Connecticut was the last of the New England states to formally end slavery.

Slavery didn't legally end in Connecticut until 1848, just 13 years before the Civil War.

'A deeply prideful thing'

Several efforts are now underway to recover Connecticut’s hidden stories of enslavement. They include the Witness Stones Project, Coloring Our Past and the Yale & Slavery Research Project.

For some, the stories are personal. John Mills founded the Alex Breanne Corporation, a nonprofit that works to uncover the stories of enslaved people across America.

“It’s powerful. Oh my goodness, it’s so powerful,” Mills says.

He says he began researching lives of the enslaved to reclaim his own family story.

“It’s a deeply prideful thing,” he says. “And I don’t know if that's a common thought that a person digging into their lives and finding enslaved people would be so prideful, but it is for me.”

When Mills was growing up, he heard stories of the "exceptionalists," people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman.

“The one-in-a-millions. But I didn't get the million side of the story,” Mills says. “When I started learning about my own ancestors – like my own great-great-grandfather Ned Mills; he was enslaved in Texas – I realized his was the common story. And I didn't know a lot about the common story.”

Other efforts to reclaim these stories in Connecticut include the Hartford Heritage Project and “Creating Community: 400 Years of Fairfield Stories.”

Uncovering these stories of enslavement opens doors to a better understanding of family histories – and how the impact of slavery resonates today.

But de Barros Gomes, from the Mystic Seaport Museum, says society still needs to change the way it speaks about enslavement.

“My hope is that by reframing narratives, by validating and honoring Indigenous and Black perspectives, that people come to see history as complex,” she says. “It’s not a story of hero and villains. It’s a story of systems. Slavery was a system.”

A system that Connecticut was part of.

Adrienne Joy Burns interviewed at New Haven Museum for Unforgotten: Connecticut's Hidden History of Slavery.
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Adrienne Joy Burns interviewed at New Haven Museum for Unforgotten: Connecticut's Hidden History of Slavery.

Talking about it strengthens everyone, Adrienne Joy Burns says.

“If a young person were to say to me, ‘Was this history, my fault?’ The answer to that question is, ‘No, it was not your fault. It's not associated with you, it neither makes you a good or a bad person.’

“Learning about this history is something that's going to be of benefit to you,” she says. “Because it helps us to understand how we got here. And that's the important part, because that's what we can change. We can change it when we understand it.”

Read more from Unforgotten: Connecticut's Hidden History of Slavery

Chapter 1: Think slavery wasn't in the North? Think again. Slavery has roots in Connecticut dating to 1600s

Chapter 2: ‘This is my country': A family learns their ancestors were enslaved in Connecticut

Chapter 3: An enslaved man told his story. Descendants are determined to keep Venture Smith's story alive

Chapter 4: A once-enslaved man’s music was hidden for centuries. Go on a journey to rediscover his melodies

Chapter 5: As CT learns more about its ties to slavery, students shape efforts to ensure the stories live on

About the series: Why we're reporting on Connecticut's history of slavery

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Learn more about our Unforgotten podcast, which features additional reporting and conversations.

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Share your thoughts on the stories in this series via email at unforgotten@ctpublic.org.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.