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New London's new Black Heritage Trail celebrates a dynamic history that's seldom taught

New London Councilman Curtis Goodwin and Nicole Thomas of the Hempsted Houses with a plaque commemorating Adam Jackson, who was enslaved at the site in the 18th Century.
Harriet Jones
New London Councilman Curtis Goodwin and Nicole Thomas of the Hempsted Houses with a plaque commemorating Adam Jackson, who was enslaved at the site in the 18th Century.

New London’s Black community has a long history in the small Connecticut city, but it’s a history that’s little known and celebrated. Now, New London has unveiled a Black Heritage Trail that the city hopes will shed light on stories of strength, resilience and accomplishment.

Situated on what’s now a busy street downtown, New London’s Hempsted Houses are named for their owner, Joshua Hempsted, a businessman and justice of the peace in the city in the early 18th century. His almost 50-year diary is one of the most important primary source documents for colonial life in New England.

But New London’s new Black Heritage Trail stops at the Hempsted Houses to remember the life and work of someone else.

“Adam Jackson who was enslaved here at the Hempstead Houses,” said Nicole Thomas. “He was born in around 1700. In 1727, Joshua himself purchased him and he comes and he lives here for about 30 years. And then when Joshua passes away, Adam Jackson ends up on the tax rolls as a free man. And that's the last we hear of Adam Jackson.”

Thomas works at the Hempsted Houses, and she wants Adam’s story to be better known. It’s told now for all to see on a tall bronze plaque installed on the street outside the historic site — how Adam Jackson’s work on the farm on this property kept the household prosperous.

“It frees up Joshua’s time so he can do other things, and that’s why Adam’s labor at this house is very, very important,” Thomas said.

And while they know Joshua Hempsted from thousands and thousands of his own words, they have just one small glimpse of Adam speaking for himself, in a court record.

“The only thing you hear from Adam Jackson on his own is that ‘John and Joan Jackson are my parents,’ and that's the only words you get that Adam would have said,” she said. “I always talk about how that's Adam's legacy, how it's his heritage, and how he really identifies his descendancy, who he comes from.”

For Curtis Goodwin, a councilman in New London, it’s research that brings his hometown history to life.

“Telling these different stories for me, I get chills just thinking about it,” he said.

The Heritage Trail was Goodwin’s idea. The spark came from another figure from New London’s history, Ichabod Pease. He lived in the city in the late 18th and early 19th century. Twice enslaved, he bought his freedom and founded the first school for Black children in New London on Union Street.

Goodwin said he never heard the name of Ichabod Pease growing up, but only learned about him a few years ago, at a lecture given by the group New London Landmarks.

“So after I left that meeting, I was reflecting that night and I told myself I would honor his legacy,” he said. “I couldn't fathom the amount of resilience and tenacity that it takes to be able to overcome slavery and still decide, ‘it is in me, it is something I have to do, which is take care of those who are behind me to make sure that they are not enslaved like I was.’ I mean, that was one of the most inspirational stories I've ever heard.”

Goodwin collaborated with the Landmarks group and a few researchers, including Thomas, to choose 15 stories of Black history in the city. They include Sarah Harris Fayerweather, the first Black student at Prudence Crandall’s boarding school for girls in the 1830s. The trail goes on into the 20th century with civil rights leader Linwood Bland, and with Spencer Lancaster, the city’s first Black elected official. At 94, he's still around and witnessed his plaque installed at the home where his daughter still lives on Rogers Street.

And it’s not just people referred to in the plaques. Some of the 15 plaques on the trail honor events in history, or Black institutions like Shiloh Baptist Church.

“The church played a heavy role for Black and Brown citizens that came here, whether it was for work or generations before that. It was a church that kept folks grounded or that gave them their footing to buy houses and to understand the legal systems or to get out of jail, to become educated,” Goodwin said. “The church literally was a pivotal, a pivotal institution, in the lives of many Black and Brown people.”

Goodwin said he’s not done — he wants to continue to raise money for more sites on the heritage trail, and widen the circle to tell the stories of Indigenous people in the city.

For Thomas, she hopes that raising awareness of this history may actually bring more of it to light, perhaps prompting someone to find a document, a picture or a land record that adds to our knowledge.

“I plan to find out what happened to Adam. As a woman of mixed descent as a woman of African-American heritage, that's the most important to me. I don't plan to ever stop looking for these people. Adam deserves his due,” she said.

Harriet Jones is Managing Editor for Connecticut Public Radio, overseeing the coverage of daily stories from our busy newsroom.