New London poised to unveil Black Heritage Trail
New London — The city next week is expected to unveil a Black Heritage Trail, a project several years in the making that will provide a look at the lives of Black historical figures and events to provide a glimpse into the city’s past.
The self-guided trail is composed of a series of 15 bronze plaques marking and explaining the significance of historical sites ranging from the place where Frederick Douglass gave lectures to the former home of Black female abolitionist and civil rights activist Sarah Harris Fayerweather, who was the first Black student to attend a Canterbury school run by Prudence Crandall that would later become the first school for Black girls in the state.
The unveiling of the trail, tentatively set for Oct. 7, is expected to coincide with development of a website that delves even further into Black history in the city. City workers installed the last of the 15 bronze markers on Tuesday on Bank Street, at the site of the former Hotel Bristol, where Black sailors sought refuge from a race riot during what was referred to as the Red Summer of 1919.
City Councilor Curtis Goodwin said the idea for the trail was sparked some years back, when he attended a New London Landmarks presentation about Ichabod Pease, an emancipated slave who established New London’s first school for Black children in 1837.
Pease’s story, Goodwin said, served as a catalyst for him running for public office and “sparked a flame” within him to honor Pease and further recognize accomplishments of Black residents. The site of Pease’s former school, in the area of Governor Winthrop Boulevard and Union Street, was the first plaque installed.
Goodwin started conversations with Felix Reyes, director of the city’s Office of Development and Planning, about what more could be done. It led to development of the trail and application for grant funds to make it possible.
“For others, it’s a tourist attraction. For me, it's uncovering stories I wasn’t aware of growing up as a Black child in New London,” Goodwin said. “This is about legacy, our youth uncovering stories of resilience.”
“If this one story could inspire me, imagine what 15 others could do for our young people,” he said. “This trail will hopefully give New London youth of color some identity in the city.”
Nicole Thomas of New London, who works at the Hempsted Houses, helped with the research and agreed it will mean a lot for the city’s youth.
“It’s really a heartfelt thing. Some of the things we’re rediscovering weren’t taught to us growing up unless it was part of family history. It’s a pivotal moment to be able to show my children, give them a glimpse of what representation looks like. We read about and talk about slavery," Thomas said. "We weren’t told about the Black people prospering, serving as role models for others.”
She joined Tom Schuch, Lonnie Braxton II and New London Landmarks Executive Director Laura Natusch in the painstaking research for the project. The group unearthed and explored numerous notable sites across the city, starting with a list of 25 potential sites that was narrowed to a more manageable 15.
“I feel a responsibility to tell the histories that haven’t been told to date and histories that reflect the diversity of our population,” Natusch said. “For me personally, I have found researching these sites moving, inspiring and at this point I would say the highlight of my professional life to be able to contribute to this. It tells a story that spans 300 years and that was deliberate on our part.”
Among the sites is the space on the city’s waterfront where the schooner La Amistad was brought to New London and stayed during a trial of slaves who revolted against their captors. The former home of Spencer Lancaster, the city’s first Black selectman, is marked on Rogers Street. Lancaster, 93, said he’s pleased with the way the trail turned out and thankful for recognition for his part in opening doors for local Black men and women.
“I think its nice to let people know, especially the young people, that we were doing something back then that mattered,” he said.
Lancaster recalls the days when housing opportunities for Black families in the city were scarce and when he moved to his Rogers Street neighborhood, he heard there was a petition being circulated to keep him out.
“It’s come a long way," he said. "Back then, you would never find a Black person south of Willetts Avenue, towards the beach."
Some of the stories told on the trail are stark reminders of the racism that historically has existed in the city and state. One of the earliest sites on the tour is the former home of Robert Jacklin. In 1717, New London passed a referendum, directed at Jacklin, prohibiting African Americans from owning land or operating a business in New London and urging the General Assembly to do the same.
“It’s an early example of a blatantly racist action taken by the legislature led, by the way, by Joshua Hempstead, who is prominently honored here in New London. Yet, he was the guy that on the very day the land was sold, added a caution to the seller not to do it,” said Landmarks member Schuch, who researched the location and history of many of the sites.
“It was not an easy existence. People think of Connecticut as a progressive state, as a blue state, that we didn’t have the problems like they had down South,” Schuch said. “It wasn’t Jim Crow South. It was Jim Crow America.”
Schuch previously developed a walking tour of the city’s Green Book sites, a guide for African Americans on road trips during the Jim Crow laws era of segregation in the country.
The various Black Heritage Trail markers throughout the city are under wraps until the official unveiling. More information on the unveiling and website are forthcoming.
The trail will be presented nationally on Friday during a conference of The Slave Dwelling Project that takes place from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. For more information, visit slavedwellingproject.org.