House taken by Norwich for back taxes was once the home of escaped slave

This illustration of James L. Smith, an escaped slave who settled in Norwich in the 1840s, is from his 1881 autobiography reprinted in 1976 by the Society of the Founders of Norwich. The society has copies of the book for sale for $5 at the Leffingwell House Museum, open from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

Norwich - At a quick glance and on paper in city land records, the small, nondescript house at 59 School St. doesn't stand out.

The city of Norwich recently acquired the 1½-story, 1,000-square-foot, single-family house for back taxes along with a neighboring house and several vacant lots. One committee that had unsuccessfully sought developers for several adjacent tiny vacant lots on Washington Street recommended adding the School Street properties to the package and trying to find a developer.

That caused City Historian Dale Plummer to launch objections.

"It is very, very, very significant," Plummer said of the little yellow house. "It is just so rare. We talk about the Underground Railroad, but here is something that is actually connected to it."

About 20 years ago, when Plummer did a historical survey of the entire Jail Hill neighborhood for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, he did a title search on the small house. The result surprised him. He traced the ownership to one James L. Smith, an escaped slave who used the famed Underground Railroad network of contacts to make his way north.

"The question then becomes what to do with it and how to preserve it," Plummer said. "They can't just sell it without really seeing what the various options are. I would hope there would be some creative way to preserve it and, I hope, make it open to the public. It's something we can't afford to let slip from our grasp."

Smith settled in Norwich and worked as a bootblack in various downtown shoe shops. Before long, according to Smith's 1881 autobiography reprinted by the Society of the Founders of Norwich in 1976, Smith opened his own shop on Bath Street and "established myself in business with a full line of customers."

He then brought his wife and family from Massachusetts to Norwich and rented a tenement on School Street.

"The next year, I had accumulated money enough to pay one-half for a frame house - only a few steps from where I then lived - before taking possession of it. Three years from this time, I paid off all the mortgage on the house; then I truly felt that it was my own, since through my energy and toil, I had gained it."

Plummer said Smith's prideful tone in describing his hard work, establishing his business and buying a house is characteristic of escaped slaves who finally were able to reap their own gains from their labor.

Plummer also speculated that the city probably also acquired the tenement Smith had rented. The foreclosure action included a very similar style house at 61 School St. that almost touches the Smith house.

The Smith family likely lived in the School Street house from the mid 1840s to the 1850s - a tumultuous time, as the controversial Fugitive Slave Act mandated that slaves be returned to their Southern owners.

Smith described racial discrimination he experienced in Norwich, especially when he bought a larger house on Oak Street as his family grew. He said young black men were not allowed to attend the school on School Street. But, quoting the old saying, "the darkest hour is just before dawn," Smith boasted that his two daughters, Louie Amelia and Emma J.I. Smith, completed their classes at the new Norwich Free Academy and graduated.

Records on the Underground Railroad are understandably scarce, Plummer said, because those helping escaped slaves were subject to arrest as the captured slaves were remitted back into slavery. Plummer believes Smith remained active in the movement. In later years, in the 1870s, Smith lobbied for donations and support for freed blacks moving from their former Southern homes to the west, especially Kansas, to start new lives.

"It's a remarkable story," Plummer said.

Plummer met this week with City Manager Alan Bergren and expressed his concern about preserving the Smith House. He plans to bring the issue to the Connecticut Freedom Trail Committee and other preservation groups as well.

City Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll said the city usually schedules an auction soon after acquiring properties for back taxes, not wanting to hold onto numerous properties for long. Driscoll said the city could have more control over a buyer if it separates the Smith house out and seeks buyers through a request for proposals.

The Washington Street Committee had attempted unsuccessfully to find a developer for several tiny lots and one rundown house at 47, 49, 51 and 53 Washington St. Committee Chairman Andrew Zeeman submitted a report to the City Council this week that recommended the city add the several adjoining rear properties on School Street "to make a future request for proposals more enticing."

c.bessette@theday.com

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