HARTFORD, Conn. — The graves of hundreds of African Americans and Native Americans lie in downtown Hartford's Ancient Burying Ground, but without headstones they remain invisible. Excluded from official records or referred to only by race, their stories remain as hidden as their graves.
Four centuries after enslaved people were first brought to America, a new project organized by the Ancient Burying Ground Association investigates hundreds of these untold stories. "Uncovering Their History" shares the stories of colonists of color: an enslaved couple given away as a wedding present, Black men who joined the Continental Navy in hopes of obtaining their freedom, Native American doctors and servants.
"We wanted people to know that slavery didn't just happen in the South," said Mary Donohue, a historian who directed the project for the Ancient Burying Ground Association. "This story happened right here."
Donohue said the public is talking about slavery's role in American history more this year, as 2019 marks the 400-year-anniversary of the first enslaved people arriving in Jamestown, Va. At plantations like Monticello and Mount Vernon in Virginia, there is a movement to restore African American burial grounds.
"Connecticut is one of the richest states in the richest country, but much of that wealth is stained with the blood of slaves," The Courant wrote in 2002 when the newspaper traced the state's long history with slavery. "The fact is that politically and socially and economically, Connecticut was as much a slave state as Virginia or Mississippi. ... The big difference is that we hid most of our involvement because, well, we could."
The Courant investigation led to a book, "Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery," that documents the long history of slavery in early New England.
About 6,000 people are estimated to be buried on the 4-acre plot, their coffins stacked on top of one another at Hartford's oldest cemetery, which is located near the corner of Main and Gold streets. It is the city's oldest historic site, dating to 1640.
"It used to be 6 acres, before buildings started encroaching on the ground's boarders," said Ty Tryon, president of the Ancient Burying Ground Association. As construction continued in Hartford, historians say old newspaper articles report that bones found on construction sites may have been dumped in landfills or in the river.
The Sexton's List, an official record of people buried in the graveyard, contains about 2,000 names. In the 1990s, middle school students discovered the legacies of five Black governors buried in the graveyard who did not appear on the list. Tryon sees this project as an expansion of the students' work. "We thought, 'How can we create a more complete picture, including people history doesn't usually talk about?'" he said. "Slavery was ingrained in Connecticut culture, in agriculture, in industry."
Kathy Hermes, a history professor at Central Connecticut State University, led a team of researchers on the project, working for more than a year.
"I wanted to make the findings very clear, and I wanted there to be thematic stories on the slave trade, but also on what people experienced on a day-to-day basis," Hermes said.
They created a publicly accessible database, along with an academic report, and personal narratives featuring artwork from Cora Marshall's series, "Runaway: Going, Going, Gone." ''I needed to find out who these people are and consolidate information, so that we can actually start telling stories about the individuals," said Hermes.
Hermes and her team uncovered the stories of over 300 people of color who were buried in the graveyard, most of whom were not included in official death records.
"What I think this says is that people can have daily interactions with, and still not count, certain others as full members of the community," Hermes said. "It's baffling to me how that happens, except through extremely racial ideology. I don't know how you look at a body of a woman who is 104 and not put her name, unless you really don't think of her as in any way equal."
Hermes considers "Uncovering Their History" as a part of a larger effort to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of slavery in America. "I think this is a profound anniversary," she said. "I see this project as shedding light on old conceptions, rewriting Hartford's past, showing the extent to which people in Hartford were involved in the African trade, as well as the West Indies trade."
With the help of several computer science students, Hermes built a program called RelationshipTree. Similar to family trees, relationship trees map out information about African and Native Americans' families, close friends and owners. Researchers found the information in historical documents and microfilms at the Connecticut State Library, among other sources like Ancestry.com and digitized newspapers.
In one case, the history of the Moore family showed Hermes that racism does not necessarily precede slavery. Phillip Moore, one of the first Black landowners, came to Connecticut on a slave ship. By the 1670s, Moore became a free, literate Christian man and landowner in Hartford. But by the time his grandchildren reached adulthood, they were living in poverty and indentured servitude.
"Slavery can be generated by an economic need, but as time goes on, the color line becomes the thing that starts to show the difference between freed people and enslaved people," Hermes said. "I think racism increases because of slavery."
Even though they owned land, belonged to a white church and had an estate administration, the Moores are absent from Hartford's official history. "They are not mentioned in any book or any subsequent history produced about that graveyard, at all," Hermes said. "If people like that can be left out, that's an erasure. They're just not remembered."
Old Robin was a Wangunk Indian doctor in Middletown, known for curing the King's Curse, a form of tuberculosis. His legacy is disjointed from any records of his life in Hartford. "You would never know that this was the same person," she said. "It doesn't give the Native or African American life the same wholeness that you give to a John Winthrop."
Hermes said this was probably intentional on the part of late 1800s historians. "It's the post-Civil War Era. They don't want slavery to seem like it was a prominent part of Hartford life," she said. "They may not even believe that it was." This glossed-over version of history also served to protect the reputation of Hartford's white founders as decent Christians.
Relationship trees reveal as much about prominent historical figures as unknown people. Rev. Timothy Woodbridge, a founder of Yale, owned a Native American indentured servant. "It's often portrayed as though Woodbridge took him in to Christianize an Indian man, but that was not it at all," said Hermes. Woodbridge purchased the man, then made him work off the cost of his purchase plus interest. Woodbridge's wife once gave an enslaved couple to her son as a wedding present, permanently separating them from their three children.
Normand Morison was a Scottish physician who owned property across Connecticut, including a home on Market Street. Regarded as a learned man who spoke seven languages, he also partly owned a slave ship. "In the 1730s, he was buying beaded baskets and trade beads from London, which he then sent on ships to Africa, to be traded for people," said Hermes. The team's discovery of Morison's ship, the Speedwell, led to a new addition in the TransAtlantic Slave Trade Database.
In 1795, the last Native American was buried in the graveyard, known only as "Abigail's baby." While they cannot be completely sure, Hermes and her team think the last African American adult buried there was Boston Nichols, the final Black governor, in 1808.
Hermes dedicated her work to the descendants of those she discovered, people of color who may be researching their own family histories in Hartford. "I hope it will serve them, and they can build on it," she said. As people make their own discoveries, Hermes hopes to continue expanding family narratives and relationship trees.
To access the project, visit https://www.africannativeburialsct.org/. Select "Database" from the drop-down menu. Individuals can be searched by name, ethnicity, gender, age of death, and ancestry. To read longer, thematic stories, go to "Narratives." Dr. Hermes' final academic report is also available on the site.
On Sept. 12 at 6 p.m. Kathy Hermes will deliver the Thomas Hooker Lecture titled "Uncovering Their History" at the Hartford Public Library. Hermes will offer a workshop titled "Researching Hartford's Early Black Community" on Oct. 5 at 11 a.m. "Uncovering the Ancient Burying Ground," an exhibition at the Hartford Public Library, will run through Oct. 31. — (AP)