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Ellis Ruley park in Norwich added to Connecticut Freedom Trail

Norwich — When the city created a memorial park to local African American folk artist Ellis Ruley in July 2018, the effort was recognized as a reconciliation for the community to honor a native son whose colorful, dreamlike paintings defied his daily struggles with racism.

On Thursday, recognition of Ruley’s life, art and his rustic, wooded homestead property that inspired some of his paintings was extended statewide as the property officially was added to the Connecticut Freedom Trail of noted historical African American sites. The property, perched atop a steep wooded hill at 28 Hammond Ave., now is the Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park.

About a dozen city leaders, state legislators and member of the Ellis Walter Ruley Project Committee gathered at the site Thursday to receive the official Connecticut Freedom Trail plaque that will be added to the stone that already bears the park dedication plaque, and a Freedom Trail flag.

Ruley committee Chairman Frank Manfredi said he was honored that the park and Ruley’s life and work now are recognized as state treasures — a tribute that never would have been envisioned during Ruley's turbulent lifetime.

“We thought this would be a project not only to honor Ellis Walter Ruley and bring his life to light for the people of Norwich and Connecticut,” Manfredi said of the park project, “but to help bring us together as a community and I think we have done that to some extent. I don’t think when we started that we had any concept that this project would lead to the Freedom Trail, and we’re very pleased and honored.”

Ruley died mysteriously on Jan. 16, 1959, his body, with a bloody gash on his head, found at the base of his long driveway. Authorities ruled he froze to death. Eleven years earlier, his son-in-law, Douglas Harris, was found dead, head-down in the narrow well on the property. Harris' death was ruled an accidental drowning. In 2015 both bodies were exhumed and noted forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden conducted new examinations. He could not determine whether Ruley’s injuries were from a fall or an assault. But he ruled Harris was strangled before his body was stuffed in the well.

Ruley’s father had escaped from slavery and eventually settled in Norwich. Ellis Ruley purchased the 3-acre wooded property in 1933.

In his invocation Thursday, the Rev. Gregory Perry, pastor of the Greeneville Congregational Church, reflected on the peaceful setting of the park now and thanked God for both Ruley and the process that finally brought justice and recognition to his life.

“This park is dedicated to provide a safe and sacred space for peaceful reflection,” Perry said. “As we give thanks for Ellis Ruley, we celebrate that this park will now reach beyond our local community as it is now included on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.”

Regan Miner, executive director of the Norwich Historical Society, nominated the park for inclusion on the Connecticut Freedom Trail, and the Connecticut Freedom Trail Committee voted to add the site this summer. Connecticut Freedom Trail Coordinator Todd Levine, who presented the plaque and flag to the city Thursday, said with the addition of the Ruley park, the trail has 146 sites in 61 cities and towns. Norwich now has five sites on the trail.

Levine said the trail depicts the lives of African American men, women and children who overcame “impossible odds” and became heroes of their own stories.

“What better new addition than the Ellis Walter Ruley site, the man whose story is literally the struggle for freedom and equity,” Levine said. “His dad escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad to come here to Norwich. And here Ellis made a life for himself as an artist, as a folk artist. But it didn’t stop there. He ascended his art to another level with his use of color and his dreamlike qualities of his composition for his work now to be in places like the Smithsonian.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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