What Could Have Been: How racism and poor timing stopped the founding of Connecticut’s Black college
In 1831, Connecticut had the opportunity to become the first state to establish an institution specifically designed to offer undergraduate education to the disenfranchised Black population. But the proposal was violently rejected by the White ruling class and for many years this unfortunate aspect of the state’s experience was rarely cited in its history books.
Providing education to Blacks had been a sore point since the colonial era, dating back to South Carolina’s Stono Rebellion of September 1739 when a literate enslaved person named Jemmy coordinated a rebellion that resulted in the deaths of 25 White South Carolina residents and between 35 and 50 enslaved Blacks.
South Carolina’s power elite feared that Blacks who could read and write would be able to orchestrate more uprisings against their White captors. South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1740 restricted the already onerous limitations put on enslaved people by making it a crime to give them the right to literacy. This piece of legislation would be adopted in other states during the colonial period and after the Revolutionary War.
Within Connecticut, where slavery was not abolished until 1848, the state’s free people of color found their educational opportunities limited. Black children were denied the ability to share a classroom with their White counterparts, resulting in the rise of segregated education, and no school of higher education would admit a Black student.
The first confirmed incident of an integrated school in Connecticut occurred in 1832 when Prudence Crandall admitted Sarah Harris into her Canterbury Female Boarding School. Crandall withstood pressure from the parents of the other students to remove Harris, which resulted in many students being taken out of the school. Crandall refocused her school’s attention to the education of Black girls – a demographic that faced greater challenges for educational opportunities due to gender as well as race.
While a casual consideration of history might assume Crandall would have been hailed as a hero in a Northern state within the heart of the abolitionist movement, the opposite occurred – the Connecticut legislature passed a law that prevented a school from teaching Black students without permission from its municipality. Crandall was briefly jailed; her school was the subject of repeated vandalism and her students were harassed. The school closed in 1834 and Crandall left Connecticut, never to return – even after the legislature belatedly approved a pension for her in 1886 at the insistence of the state’s most prominent writer, Mark Twain.
In this hostile environment, Simeon Jocelyn believed that he could not only succeed where Crandall failed, but that he could go further by creating a “Negro college” that would give higher education to people of color without forcing integration. Jocelyn – who had briefly attended Yale University and later became the founding pastor at New Haven’s Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, which had a Black congregation – recognized how New Haven’s free people of color were able to achieve a degree of economic prosperity despite overwhelming odds, and he theorized they could gain ever greater financial self-sufficiency with the proper education.
Jocelyn proposed the college as an institution that would “cultivate habits of industry and obtain a useful mechanical or agricultural profession, while pursuing classical studies,” adding it would provide the opportunity “where our youth may be instructed in all the arts of civilized life.” Jocelyn also believed the New Haven location would attract free people of color in the British West Indies to send their young people to be educated at the new school, thus strengthening economic ties with that Caribbean region.
The most radical concept Jocelyn offered was a board of trustees with a Black majority membership. Jocelyn gained the support of Arthur and Lewis Tappan, sibling business executives and philanthropists, to acquire land in southern New England; the Tappans also donated $1,000 in seed money for a fundraising effort for the college.
Jocelyn previewed his concept in June 1831 at the annual Convention of the Free People of Color in Philadelphia, an anti-slavery conference, and was heartily endorsed in his work by William Lloyd Garrison, the newspaper publisher and the nation’s most fervent abolitionist leader. But he received a very different reaction three months later in a presentation at the Center Church on the Green in New Haven. Unfortunately, Jocelyn timed his announcement shortly after the rebellion in Virginia led by Nat Turner, an enslaved man who could read and write – the uprising resulted in the deaths of at least 50 Whites. Although the uprising was limited to a single county in Virginia, it created a panic among the slave-holding states and resulted in massacres against Blacks who had nothing to do with Turner’s revolt.
Three days after Jocelyn’s announcement, New Haven Mayor Dennis Kimberly called for a meeting at City Hall to vote on resolutions opposing the creation of the proposed “Negro college.” Kimberly argued that such a school would be seen as “incompatible with the prosperity, if not the existence of the present institutions of learning, and will be destructive of the best interests of the city.” He also claimed it would be seen as interfering with the rights of slave-owning states, many of whom sent their young men to study at Yale.
The vote on Kimberly’s resolutions went 700-4 against the creation of the school. The quartet who favored its establishment were Yale law professor and future Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court David Daggett; I.H. Townsend, a future dean of Yale’s law school; Nathan Smith, former U.S. Attorney for Connecticut and future U.S. senator; and R.I. Ingersoll, Kimberly’s predecessor as mayor and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The day after the vote, a White mob attacked and vandalized Arthur Tappan’s residence in New Haven. The following month, similar attacks occurred against properties in the city’s Black community of New Liberia. Jocelyn would be forced to step down from officiating at the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church in 1834, but he never wavered in his support of civil rights – he was active in the Underground Railroad network to help escaped slaves find freedom and worked to raise funds and secure legal assistance for the Africans of the slave ship Amistad in their successful effort to regain their freedom. against the school sparked Many months of violence followed the New Haven town meeting.
One year after the “Negro college” proposal was rejected, Yale enabled James Pennington, an escaped slave who relocated to New Haven classes, to audit classes in order to receive a ministerial license. While he was never enrolled and was barred from using the school’s library, Pennington completed his Yale experience in 1838 and would follow in Jocelyn’s steps as the first Black pastor at Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church.
Also in 1838, Connecticut would repeal its law requiring municipal approval for the opening of any school for Black children. But no further attempt was ever made to open a college for Black students in Connecticut.
Blacks first gained admission to Yale in the 1850s, with Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed becoming the first African American to receive an M.D. from the School of Medicine in in 1857 and Richard Henry Green receiving an undergraduate degree the same year – he would later study at Dartmouth and receive an M.D. at that school.