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Freedom fighter Douglass spoke in New London just before state banned slavery

New London — On July 4, we will wave flags and hear speeches about the blessings of liberty on Independence Day. But for many men and women half a century after the Revolutionary War, freedom proved only an empty promise; some who kneel on football fields and wield Black Lives Matter banners during protests about systemic racism today would argue it still is.

Frederick Douglass, the famed 19th century African American orator, author and former slave who bought his way out of bondage, was one of the first in a long line of protesters to challenge the racial orthodoxy of his day. He largely taught himself to read and, after fleeing north to escape frequent lashings at a Maryland plantation, Douglass ran an abolitionist newspaper, wrote a famed autobiography and traveled extensively to denounce slavery and support human rights for all, including women.

During one of his tours in May 1848, Douglass stopped for a weekend in New London, a fact just unearthed in May by amateur historian Tom Schuch of East Lyme, the same man who recently discovered the city's connection to "The Green Book." In an article Douglass penned May 26, 1848, for his abolitionist newspaper The North Star, he reported giving four speeches in New London over a two-day period.

"The first meeting was but thinly attended, and yet I was assured that no lecturer on slavery ever called out a larger and more respectable audience in that place," Douglass wrote. "It is by no means a grateful task to abolitionize Connecticut."

Schuch, who grew up in New London, is white and has an affinity for African American history, pointed out that Douglass's lectures occurred right at the height of the abolition movement that eventually led to the end of slavery with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent passage two years later of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. In fact, Douglass's speeches occurred just a few weeks before Connecticut abolished state-sanctioned slavery for good, though it had outlawed the purchase of new slaves shortly after the Revolution.

Douglass did not hold Connecticut in high regard as being the last state in New England to outlaw slavery.

"(I)t will probably be the last to be reformed," he said in his 1848 article in The North Star. "Its piety has eaten out its humanity. The people seem to think themselves about as good as they can be, and that it would be sinful for them to try to be any better than they now are. Slavery, in their estimation, is a sin which it is unrighteous to preach against."

Just starting to warm up like a preacher on Sunday, Douglass decried as "bloodchilling" the indifference he often saw in citizens as he exposed their own "crimes" and "inconsistencies" regarding slavery and their view of the Black man.

"You look in vain for emotion. No tear of pity at the tale of woe; no look of surprise, mortification, or shame, at the enormities revealed; no manly indignation is evinced at the recital of dastardly deeds; but all is calm and still, as though they were hearing a lecture on geology."  

Yet Douglass said his last two meetings in New London were an exception to the rule.

"The audiences manifested a deeper interest in the subject than I had hitherto seen in any part of Connecticut," he reported in The North Star. "I think New London about the best part in the state."

That's not to say New London doesn't have its own skeletons with regard to slavery. In fact, the Whaling City is one of two municipalities in Connecticut, the other being Middletown, where there is documentary evidence of slaves disembarking, perhaps to be sold locally, said Schuch, who is part of a group researching the city's ties to slavery as part of the Middle Passage Project, which seeks to identify points where slaves were brought into the country.

"People don't know that New London was not only involved in the slave trade secondarily by what is euphemistically called the West Indies trade, but it also was directly involved in the slave trade," he said.

It's unclear whether Douglass was aware of the city's 18th century slave-trade history; most of the records from that time were destroyed in 1781, when Benedict Arnold burned down much of the city, including the U.S. Custom House, in retribution for local privateers' attacks on British shipping.

It's also unclear where Douglass stayed while in New London. But local history buff Frederick Charles Shakir found a notice in the New London Whig newspaper The Daily Chronicle, published May 13, 1848, that states the "somewhat celebrated" anti-slavery speaker would be making appearances on two consecutive weekend evenings, so he was likely here at least three days.

"He is said to be a shrewd and intelligent man and a very good speaker," according to the article. "Those disposed to listen to the doctrines he advances — and those doctrines certainly come quite as appropriately from one of his class and color as from any one — will, we dare say, avail themselves of this opportunity to hear him."

The notice said Douglass would be appearing at Dart's Hall, one of more than a dozen lecture halls in New London about that time, according to an 1855 New London City Directory.

No address is given, but Schuch found a listing for Dart's Hall at 14 Bradley St. A little more research found that Bradley Street has since been renamed Atlantic Street, and a map from the time appears to place the hall in a long-gone building approximately where The Day Publishing Co. now has its headquarters.

Schuch, a self-identified "maps guy," hasn't been able to get into City Hall to double check the records because of the current pandemic, but says he's "99% sure" that he located the hall correctly.

Less than a month after Douglass’s lectures, the General Assembly on June 12, 1848, banned slavery once and for all. Lafayette S. Foster of Norwich, a future U.S. senator who at the time was the speaker of the state House, presided over the final vote, providing Black people in the state their own Independence Day (strangely, in 1865, had the full plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and Vice President Andrew Johnson succeeded, Foster as president pro tem of the U.S. Senate would have become president of the United States).

No records exist stating who attended the lectures but Schuch also noted that New London in the 1840s was a major whaling capital with a fair number of boarding houses where Black mariners were known to live. "Whalers picked up crews all over the world," he said. "New London was loaded with people from all over, a really diverse place."

No reporter appears to have recorded Douglass's words during his time in the city. But the former slave turned human rights advocate left plenty of words to choose from, perhaps none stronger than those he uttered four years later, on July 5, 1852, when he was invited to speak in Rochester, N.Y., during an Independence Day celebration.

In a speech titled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?", he called the founders of the United States brave and great men, and said he respected the principles of political freedom and natural justice embodied in the Declaration of Independence. But Douglass said he could hardly rejoice in the words, since the principles of freedom and justice weren't being extended to Black Americans.

"The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me," Douglass told the crowd that day. "The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine."

Douglass's speech, which will be read in excerpts at 2 p.m. Sunday along with the Declaration of Independence during a Fourth of July celebration at the Hempsted Houses, highlighted the disparities between African Americans and much of the rest of society. For many, it still rings true today.

"Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us," he said. "The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. You may rejoice, I must mourn."

l.howard@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that Bradley Street was renamed Atlantic Street.

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