Freedom: Page 2

The American North did not move as a body to end slavery and in Connecticut, which held 5,100 in slavery in the mid-1770s, the conversation about emancipation began early. In 1774, two years before the War of Independence, Connecticut’s General Assembly decreed that no more slaves could be brought into the colony. Legislation enacted a few years later further streamlined the manumission process and gave town boards the right to evaluate and rule on freedom requests.

Local towns did not want to become responsible for the upkeep of freed blacks who were too old or broken in health to support themselves. When a Middletown family attempted to free an elderly black woman made blind and infirm by smallpox, the town fathers insisted that the family pay for her continuing support.

When Oliver Smith of Stonington released Venture Smith, the sea captain and West Indies trader justified the substantial purchase price as necessary, in case Venture became indigent and his former owner held liable for Venture’s maintenance.

Although racial prejudice remained entrenched, enslaved people made their own powerful argument for freedom. More than once, black men petitioned the legislature for their emancipation, and the war itself, in which both the English and the colonials offered freedom to enslaved black men who would fight, served to usher thousands into free lives.

But hearts and minds change slowly. In Connecticut, as in America’s other new states, black people had always been part of the landscape and nearly always at the bottom of society. Historian Edgar McManus says that Connecticut lawmakers “were extremely cautious about moving against slavery” because the colony had held substantial numbers in slavery and slavery had permeated the culture in a broad way, with slaves found in the households of ministers, farmers and tradesmen as well as the wealthy. Racial anxieties in the state were therefore acute, he wrote. 

Related links:

Cuffee Wells, of Norwich, Connecticut,won his freedom through military service

Read about theAmerican Revolution’s impact on slavery in Connecticut