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In a way that was eerily prescient, the great problem of America had already begun to bedevil Connecticut during the first few decades of the nineteenth century. Founded on the notion of an abiding, universal equality among men, the new nation and the flourishing new state of Connecticut were faced with the problem of how to build a society that would be truly based on human equality.
Stark numbers from the first federal census, made in 1790, showed that there were 3,763 people held in bondage throughout New England, and 2,648 of them lived in Connecticut. The same census shows that 2,771 free blacks now lived in Connecticut. By 1790 the state had become, quite literally, half free and half enslaved.
For almost two centuries, black people had been held to be distinctly inferior to whites, as suited to enslavement, and as a people who did not really mind the brutality and uncertainty of life as slaves. Even as growing numbers of the once-enslaved moved into freedom, and more and more of their children were born free, the idea of blacks as a degraded and uneducable people did not lose its strength.
The movement in status, from enslaved to free, was marked by a similar movement across space, as freedmen like New Haven’s William Lanson left the rural farms of Connecticut to seek a better life in the region’s growing cities. There free blacks shared their urban world with white artisans and laborers, themselves newly arrived from Europe or the villages of New England. These white workers, too, were intent on claiming a piece of the American dream, and often saw their black neighbors as a threat to their own economic and political positions.
A booming new nation was not ready to come to terms with either its history as an enslaver nor its continuing role in human enslavement. It seems natural to assume that as Connecticut’s numbers of free black people grew, the economic and social disparities created by slavery would lessen and then disappear. But that’s not what happened, at least not here…
Read about the living conditions of urban free blacks in Connecticut of the early 19th-century