Juneteenth marks the end of slavery in the U.S. But when did it end in CT?
When Wendy Tyson-Wood was 10 years old, she and her friends would roam around downtown Waterbury, she said.
“We would do the picture show, go to the library, go to the museum, get some candy and come home. So that was our whole routine every Saturday growing up,” Tyson-Wood said.
She remembers that when they strolled through the Mattatuck Museum in downtown, she and her friends would stare at a display showing a bunch of bones.
“We just thought they were like a nice prop,” Tyson-Wood said. “We didn’t really read [the placard], we just walked through.”
Later in her life, Tyson-Wood would read it and learn that those bones had belonged to an enslaved man named Fortune who lived in Waterbury and died in 1798. “[T]he doctor who was [his] legal owner stripped Fortune's flesh from his bones and kept Fortune's skeleton for medical study,” according to Raechel Guest, a historian and the executive director of the Silas Bronson Library in Waterbury. Fortune’s skeleton was later displayed in the Mattatuck Museum until 1970.
Connecticut was the last state in New England to have slaves
Slavery continued to exist in Connecticut long after Fortune died. It wasn’t officially outlawed in the state until 1848 – only 17 years before the last enslaved people in the U.S., in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom, an event now commemorated by the Juneteenth holiday.
Growing up, Tyson-Wood, who is now secretary of the Greater Waterbury NAACP, said she was hungry for stories about enslaved people in the North. Her parents and grandparents didn’t talk about it because it was too painful, she said. “But … it kind of like was part of the DNA,” Tyson-Wood said, “You wanted to know, ‘how did they do that?’ We talk about slavery, but they lived it.”
That history, it turns out, had been right under her feet. The Silas Bronson Library, the one she walked through on Saturdays, was built on top of Waterbury’s first burial ground. The cemetery included a segregated section with the remains of about 40 enslaved people, as well as free African Americans and Native Americans who lived in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries.
About 10 years ago, Tyson-Wood started to dig into the histories of the enslaved and freed people of color who lived in this region in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Her curiosity led her to Guest, who researched Fortune’s story.
A gradual end to slavery in the North
While slavery wasn’t abolished in Connecticut until 1848, the state began to phase it out decades earlier. In 1784, it passed the Act of Gradual Abolition.
“Gradually, eventually there wouldn’t be slavery, but they didn’t outlaw slavery. They just said, ‘If you were born into slavery in Connecticut, you would be free upon becoming an adult,’” Guest said, adding that lawmakers at the time worried the sudden end of slavery would be too disruptive to the state’s agricultural economy.
When New York abolished slavery in the 1827, it encouraged a developing abolition movement in Connecticut, Guest said. Around the same time, former enslaved people in the state started to petition for the right to vote.
“They tried, and they tried, and they tried, and it never passed in Connecticut,” Guest said. The question was put up as a ballot measure, and voters overwhelmingly said no. “The year after they failed to get the vote, Connecticut said, “We haven't actually outlawed slavery, so we'll do that,’” Guest said.
By the time the state officially ended slavery, Guest estimates there were still 12 to 17 people enslaved there.
Connecticut was the last state in New England to have slaves, according to the 1850 Census. “I’m still shocked at that,” said Tyson-Wood.
Guest and the Mattatuck Museum compiled biographies for about 100 African American people, some freed and some enslaved, who lived in Waterbury in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In some cases, all they could find was just a name and location.
But Tyson-Wood says those clues give her actual people to celebrate on Juneteenth.
“I look at this day as a chance for me to reflect on where they were and how can I still honor them during the next part of my life,” she said. “We're still trying to ask for answers, and hopefully, they might be able to offer some through their lives and their history.”
The Greater Waterbury NAACP will gather in front of the Silas Bronson Library on Juneteenth this year to commemorate the lives of those resting below.
Tyson-Wood said she wants to help Black and brown children in Waterbury learn that their history didn’t begin with slavery.
“We had a whole beautiful life, and culture … that we bring into this new world we’re living in,” she said, “and how can we take all that and feel empowered to know that you’re not here by chance.”
Learn more about the Greater Waterbury NAACP’s Juneteenth memorial and other celebrations around the state: Here's a look at Juneteenth celebrations across Connecticut