Black Heritage Trail uncovers little known stories of Black resilience
New London — Years of research by a dedicated group is providing a glimpse of Black life and resilience in New London across three centuries.
The Black Heritage Trail was unveiled in October 2021 and provides a self-guided tour of 15 different historical sites around the city all marked by bronze plaques.
Former City Councilor Curtis Goodwin sparked the initiative after attending New London Landmarks presentation a few years back about Ichabod Pease. Pease, formerly enslaved, was an emancipated man who established New London’s first school for Black children in 1837 at 111 Union St.
Goodwin, excited about revealing more about the city’s Black history and significant figures, spoke with city officials who in turn garnered funding for what would become the Black Heritage Trail. The team of researchers that gathered information on sites and individuals was led by Tom Schuch, Lonnie Braxton, Nicole Thomas and New London Landmarks Executive Director Laura Natusch. The end result of their work is an array of different sites that Braxton said tell the story of not only Black history but of American History.
The telling of the story of Ichabod Pease during a New London Landmarks presentation in 2019 was the spark that led former City Councilor Curtis Goodwin to pursue a fitting tribute to a man who established the first school for Black children in the city. A bronze plaque stands at 111 Union St. at the site of where the school opened.
Pease was a man born into slavery and one time fugitive in New London after escaping his captor. Pease had fled bondage in 1779 after his slaveholder made plans to move south, a move that would have separated Pease from his wife Rosa. He spent two years in hiding before being recaptured. He gained his freedom in 1794 and his wife Rosa was freed two years later. The couple lived quietly in New London and attended St. James Episcopal Church.
Historian Tom Schuch said that while Pease was now a free man, the nation and city were divided over the growing abolitionist movement. By 1835, New London was strongly anti-abolitionist and there was a growing resentment against schooling Black children in classrooms with white students.
Pease came forward with a proposal to open a school for Black children at his own home on Church Street, now Governor Winthrop Boulevard. While his initial proposal was rejected by the New London School Society, Pease was persistent and the society accepted his proposal in 1837.
“Mr. Pease had provided a solution in a time of crisis for New London’s Black children,” Schuch said in a special ceremony in the city in 2021.
By 1839, the state legislature changed the law to state that no child could be excluded from any publicly funded school.
“Ichabod Pease is the story of how one man was able to use his personal qualities of strength, determination and resilience on behalf of the children of his oppressed brethren,” Schuch said. “He did so in the face of strong racist opposition in the midst of a national controversy over abolition and education. This is the stuff of heroes — an authentic New London hero.”
42 Rogers St.
In October of 2021, the unveiling ceremony for the Black Heritage Trail was held at 42 Rogers St., the former home of Spencer Lancaster. The now 93-year-old pioneer was all smiles as the crowd of more than 100 people joined in the celebration.
Lancaster, at the age of 32, became the first elected Black city official when he was elected in 1960 to the Board of Selectmen. He is a New London native, an Army veteran who served during World War II, and a civil rights leader who served as vice president of the New London branch of the NAACP.
“When you’re given a talent, don’t bury it. Use it. That’s what I’ve tried to do all my life, use my talent to get something better for everybody,” Lancaster said at the unveiling ceremony.
In the 1950s, Lancaster was an advocate of racial integration of what was, at the time, New London’s all-white public housing. In 1963, he became the first Black homeowner on Rogers Street.
Lancaster also launched an unsuccessful bid for a spot on the city’s all-white City Council after his term as a selectman. He was the first Black man in the city to run for that position.
“I want it to be understood that I am running for office as a citizen interested in the total welfare of my home town, and not only as a Republican, or only as a Negro. I believe I can make an important contribution to the harmonious race relations here, and that I can help create an atmosphere in which ALL New Londoners can function as first-class citizens,” Lancaster wrote in his campaign literature.
Margaret Lancaster, Spencer Lancaster’s daughter, still lives at the 42 Rogers St. home.
38 Green St.
In its latest iteration, the building at 38 Green St. is home to two floors of micro-loft apartments, the result of an historic restoration by Benjamin Parker Real Estate Services.
It was built in 1924, known as the Arthur Building, and quickly became a center of Black resilience and activism in the late 1920s, research from New London Landmarks shows.
It was home to the New England People’s Finance Corporation, founded by Benjamin Tanner Johnson, a graduate of Howard University and the third Black graduate of Harvard’s School of Business. It was a lending institution to serve Black borrowers and investors.
Before its move to 39 Tilley St., the building was also home to the United Negro Welfare Council, an organization aimed at improving the economic, social and cultural life for Black Americans, particularly for recent migrants from the Jim Crow South. Sadie Dillon Harrison, half-sister of Benjamin Tanner Johnson, served as secretary of both organizations. She wrote a precursor to the Green Book, which was a guide for safe places to stay for Black travelers. Her guide was called "Hackley and Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travelers," and was published in 1930 and 1931.
92 Bank St.
Longtime New London resident Lonnie Braxton has been walking or driving past 92 Bank St. for decades without knowing the history of the building. Research he helped conduct as part of the city’s new Black Heritage Trail revealed the building was at the center of a race riot.
In 1919, anti-Black riots had broken out in major cities across the country in a year known as “The Red Summer." The 92 Bank St. building was at that time the Hotel Bristol, a popular social spot for Black sailors. On the night of May 29, 1919 thousands of rioters surrounded the hotel and trapped inside dozens of Black people seeking protection.
Rioters attacked and beat those that did not make it in.
Braxton said the Black Heritage Trail brings to the forefront history that in some cases was either glossed over or just not widely known.
“It’s not like we’re trying to reform or recreate or find an alternate version of history,” he said of the project. “It’s like a big puzzle, putting in pieces that were missing to create a clearer picture for everyone.”
Braxton said he thinks it’s hard for people to see the entire picture when they don’t have an accurate grasp of all of the pieces that make up that history.
“That’s why this is so important,” he said.
Shiloh Baptist Church
"You really cannot talk about Black history in New London without talking about the history of Black churches. And in New London, Shiloh is the first Black church to be incorporated in New London," Natusch said.
Longtime New London resident Sara Chaney is thrilled by the formation of the Heritage Trail. Chaney knew and respected some of the people highlighted along the trail — people like civil rights leader Linwood Bland Jr. and Shiloh Baptist Church Rev. Albert A. Garvin.
Chaney is a 1953 graduate of New London High School also witnessed the rise of Shiloh under Garvin’s guidance.
Shiloh, at the turn of the century, was the first Black church to incorporate in New London. For decades prior, Black worshipers had been gathering at various homes and businesses in the city.
“Rev. Garvin helped keep this town positive, where all could feel welcome,” Chaney said.
Chaney said that Rev. Garvin was well-respected in the community and is the reason there were Black telephone operators and that downtown stores became integrated.
“I think that (it's) just the idea (of the Black Heritage Trail), especially for young people, knowing how this town has progressed and contributions made,” she said.
Chaney has another connection to the trail.
She lived at 73 Hempstead St. during her high school years and summers with her grandparents. She wasn’t aware of the history until recently. The home was one of five built by abolitionist Savillion Haley in the early 1840s, research from Tom Schuch shows. Haley sold the homes at cost to free Blacks and the area became the one of the first Black neighborhoods in the city.
The home passed hands through the years and is tied to many significant Black community members.
In 1926, when it was owned by Sadie Dillon Harrison and known as the Hempstead Cottage, W.E.B. Du Bois was a guest. Du Bois is one of the founders of the NAACP.
Florio, Hercules and Connecticut’s Black Governors
Nicole Thomas of New London said work on the Black Heritage Trail has revealed bits of history that have never been highlighted. It has also led to more questions.
The Ye Antientist Burial Ground in New London has a section where early Black residents were buried. It is home to a gravestone dated 1749 for Florio Hercules, “wife of Hercules, Governour of the Negroes.”
Thomas said the gravestone’s date would make Hercules the earliest known Black governor in the state. Many people might know that there was a tradition in several New England states in the late 1700s and into the mid-1800s of enslaved Black men being elected in different regions or towns to enforce laws and mediate disputes between the Black and white communities.
Elections were held while the white colonists traveled to Hartford to elect a statewide governor.
While there is limited information about the roles of the governors, Thomas said there is evidence that some were advocates of social change. Connecticut had legislation between 1814 and 1870 that restricted voting rights to only white men. During that time, multiple Black governors petitioned the General Assembly for voting rights.
Thomas said the enslaved at the time were listed on property inventories or wills and even then only by age and gender.
“We don’t know where Hercules is buried,” Thomas said. “There is more research to do. The fascinating part about history is you’re never going to have all of the answers.”
Thomas said she is excited about what she expects will be the continuation of research that will expand the Black Heritage Trail.
“This was just the beginning of the journey. We have to keep going. There are people whose stories deserve to he heard,” she said.