New London moves to mark sites important in Black history
New London — In 1837, a time when the nation was embroiled in controversy over slavery, emancipated slave Ichabod Pease established New London’s first school for black children.
The site of that school, formerly in an area behind the Salvation Army building on Governor Winthrop Boulevard and Union Street, is to be marked with a bronze plaque and included in a new Black History Heritage Walking Tour.
The tour so far is expected to include 15 important historic sites throughout the city — places like the area where Dart's Hall used to stand on Atlantic Street, where records show abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass delivered four lectures over the course of a weekend in May 1848.
Another site is 38 Green St., a site presently under development as micro-loft apartments, that once housed the United Negro Welfare Council and New England People’s Finance Corporation, which was a lending institution for Black New Londoners.
Each of the sites will be marked with a bronze plaque, either on a post or embedded in the sidewalk, with historical information and a scanner code to access further information digitally.
The tour is a collaboration between the city and New London Landmarks, the preservationist nonprofit group that has formed a committee and was tasked by the city to conduct research and develop text for the plaques.
New London Landmarks Executive Director Laura Natusch is joined in the research by Tom Schuch, Nicole Thomas and Lonnie Braxton II, former president of the New London NAACP and who for more than 15 years has put together a Black history film festival. Schuch has developed a walking tour and lecture on the city’s Green Book sites. The Green Book had been a guide for African Americans on road trips during the Jim Crow laws era of the country, when segregation was the norm.
Landmarks already has researched hundreds of properties throughout the city and offered dozens of educational programs that have featured New London’s Whalers of Color, Ichabod Pease and a history of the New London NAACP, among others.
With so many stories to tell, Natusch said the committee quickly came up with a list of 25 potential sites for the project and struggled to whittle it down to 15. Everyone involved agrees there will be room for expansion of the project.
"The history of Black strength, resilience and achievement from enslavement to the present day is inspiring to people of any race or ethnicity. But I hope this project will hold particular meaning for New London's Black residents, who may have walked past these sites their whole lives without knowing their significance,” Natusch said.
She gave an impromptu tour of some of these sites last year to an out-of-state visitor, Willie Jackson, who’d come back to New London to visit family.
"Months later, he told me that even though he'd grown up here, he'd never felt rooted to New London. He hadn't felt connected to its history. But afterwards, he felt proud to be from New London. He said it was life-changing,” Natusch said.
Natusch and Felix Reyes, director of the city’s Office of Development and Planning, credit City Councilor Curtis Goodwin with pushing for the project to become a reality.
Goodwin, at a recent council meeting where the funding for the project was unanimously approved, described it as a chance for the city to have a “well-rounded history option.”
”I am beyond excited today,” he said.
Reyes said the tour and the information provided on the plaques will be another draw for tourists interested in local history.
“This gives us an opportunity to make sure that we’re telling an accurate history of the city and of the diverse residents that lived here and the exceptional people that have come into New London, like Frederick Douglass,” Reyes said. “Those are moments and times that should be captured and spoken about to our children’s children or school system and these are things the city should be known for and respected for.”
The cost of the initiative is $18,000, a portion of which is coming from the city’s sale of Parcel J at the corner of Bank and Howard streets. Reyes said the city is exploring a grant opportunity from the Eastern Regional Tourism District to pay for marketing.
The final locations for the plaques, which still are being researched, is expected to be finalized by the spring, with installation by the summer.