Ichabod Pease: A survivor of the dark days of New London slavery

I never knew, until this week, that New London County, on the eve of the American Revolution, was the largest slaveholding region in New England.

There were more than 2,000 slaves in the county by 1774, including 60 slave families on a sprawling 4,000-acre southern-scale plantation in Salem.

The town of New London, with some 500 blacks and a white population of more than 5,000, led the state in the number of slaves and black inhabitants. Stonington was second, according to slavenorth.com, a project by historian Douglas Harper.

Of course, New London County's top slaveholding distinction is not something to be celebrated. But it does feel like it's been swept under the rug, a shameful history that included a 1717 vote by citizens at a New London town meeting objecting to free blacks living here or owning property.

In a program by New London Landmarks on Wednesday, held in a packed conference room at St. James Episcopal Church, some of this history unfolded in the telling of the fascinating story of Ichabod Pease, who was born into slavery on Fishers Island in 1755, freed at the age of 39, and, at the age of 81, started a school in New London for black children.

"We, doubtless, all feel, that this was a remarkable man; the more remarkable because his distinction was of an uncommon sort, and lay purely in eminence of goodness," Robert A. Hallam, rector of St. James, said in a eulogy for Pease in 1842. Pease was 86 when he died.

His story is currently being unearthed by Mary Lycan, a history student at the University of Connecticut, and Tom Schuch, a local history devotee, who unveiled at Wednesday's program what they've learned so far.

New London is fortunate to have an organization like Landmarks addressing the city's broad history, warts and all, especially at a time when the country is coping with a rising threat of violence by white nationalists.

One black mother who brought her children to Wednesday's program thanked Landmarks for reminding people of "how far we have come and how much further we can go."

Landmarks also has organized a GoFundMe page to raise money for the restoration of Pease's headstone at Cedar Grove Cemetery. They've raised $515 toward a $950 goal. In addition to the money raised online, attendees at Wednesday’s event donated $940. Additional money will be used to restore Pease’s wife’s stone.

While the story of Ichabod Pease, who secured his freedom, contributed to his community and died a man of property with a house worth some $400, ends well, it is still a chilling reminder of the hypocrisy of a country founded on an understanding that all men are created equal.

Pease's parents were owned by James Mumford, who resided on Fishers Island. He was given to Mumford's son, Robinson Mumford, who moved from New London to North Carolina in 1779, taking the then-married Pease with him.

Pease escaped and returned to New London, was captured and given to Capt. John Deshon, who took ownership as a means of collecting on a Mumford debt.

Pease eventually was emancipated, on the same day as Deshon's daughter's birthday. Deshon died soon after. The Pease emancipation documents are on file in New London City Hall.

Pease, who had been taught to read by Mumford's wife, also was an accomplished cobbler and earned a living later in life as a gardener on the Huntington estate in New London.

The school Pease founded was torn down in urban renewal, but Schuch, delving deep into land records, has located the site, near what is the Salvation Army headquarters today on Gov. Winthrop Boulevard.

Schuch, who called Connecticut the Georgia of the north, the last New England state to abolish slavery, said he was delighted one day, while leading a group of students on a downtown New London tour, to be able to have them stand at the site of Pease's groundbreaking school for black children.

"The better we understand our past," he said during Wednesday's program, "the better we will be able to create our future."

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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