Cesar Beman marched and fought with black and white soldiers during the Revolutionary War up and down the Hudson River. But he wasn’t supposed to be there.
“He fought in place of the man who enslaved him,” says Jesse Nasta, a visiting professor of African American Studies at Wesleyan University. He says Cesar was one of thousands of enslaved people in New England. “It was sort of a compensation that he would be manumitted.”
There were almost 300 African American soldiers in the Revolutionary War from Connecticut alone, Nasta says.
“Some of them fought in the Revolutionary War for American independence, went home and remained enslaved, believe it or not,” he says.
Cesar Beman was lucky. But he still didn’t have all the opportunities of his white fellow veterans.
“He did not have access to literacy,” Nasta says. “We know from his Revolutionary War pension applications that he was impoverished. And yet he was free.”
When Cesar’s son Jehiel learned a biographer was writing a history of African Americans in New England, he wrote him a letter and explained where the name ‘Beman’ came from.
“My father always abhorred slavery and he wanted to ‘be a man,’” Jehiel Beman wrote. “So when he was freed, he took the name Beman. Be a man.”
Nasta says free black communities across New England built schoolhouses, including one in Jahiel’s hometown of Colchester, Connecticut. Nasta says Jehiel likely attended the African Schoolhouse, and his children definitely did.
Jehiel Beman became pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1830. He was one of the first pastors of a free black church in New England.
Jahiel invited his extended family from the Connecticut countryside to settle in Middletown, where they could find good jobs.
“They’re working on the Connecticut River, going on whaling vessels, and they’re also being drawn by this emerging free black community,” Nasta says.
Historians later named the neighborhood in Middletown the Beman Triangle, after its shape on the map. The community became a magnet for freed black people who’d been enslaved just years before – at a time when there were still enslaved people in Connecticut. Some members of the Beman family became small business owners, for instance, shoemakers.
“We actually see both white and black people going to their shop to have them make shoes and mend their shoes,” Nasta says.
Jahiel Beman’s wife, Nancy Scott, and his daughter-in-law founded one of the first African American women’s societies. The Bemans also founded one of the first African American temperance societies, a movement Nasta says is closely connected to abolitionism.
“It was a statement of African American respectability, fitness for freedom, defying stereotypes of drunkenness,” Nasta says.
But underneath their respectable front, Jahiel Beman’s church had a secret. In addition to their more above-ground work as anti-slavery societies, the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Beman’s work earned Middletown AME Zion the nickname Freedom Church. Jahiel Beman even wrote a letter to Frederick Douglass to let him know he’d rescued a formerly enslaved person. Douglass published the note in his newspaper.
The Bemans got on well with the famous abolitionist. Jahiel’s son Amos wrote for the paper, and Douglass himself came to Middletown and spoke at the church – twice.
Nasta says the Beman Triangle wasn’t unique. By the mid-1800s, just about every large town or city had a free black neighborhood.
“But one reason Middletown is remarkable is the extent to which the buildings are still intact,” he says.
Half of the homes the Beman family built before the Civil War are still here. And there’s a cemetery where some Beman family members are buried.
“For example, in New York City, Central Park was built on top of a historic black neighborhood. There’s obviously no structure standing. So to have half the neighborhood intact is remarkable,” he says.
Today, most are student residences for Wesleyan University, across the street. The church that Jahiel Beman built is gone. The university’s science center stands in its place.
But the congregation lives on. It’s moved twice, and it’s no longer in the Beman Triangle. But it’s still in Middletown. And its name has changed to the Cross Street AME Zion Church. It still gets a good turnout on Sundays.
Historian Jesse Nasta is working on a book about the Beman family and the neighborhood. He says a lot of New Englanders don’t know this history.
“When I talk about this history, people often assume that the Bemans had been enslaved in the South, because there’s so much amnesia around New England slavery,” he says.
Nasta says that’s one of the biggest lessons of the Beman Triangle.
“But the other part of it is how they emerged from enslavement, built free communities, forged the Underground Railroad. And the church they founded is still going strong two centuries later.”