Slavery in Greenwich?

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When the Docent at the Bush-Holley House showed us where the servants (slaves) slept in the attic, I naively thought, "Slaves?  Greenwich?  No way!"  After all, Greenwich is in Connecticut, Connecticut is in the North, and the North fought against slavery in the Civil War.  In fact, there were several decorated regiments from town.  There were also rumors that one house on Railroad Avenue was part of the "Underground Railroad" - a system of houses meant to help slaves escape.  How could anyone own slaves in Greenwich?  I suppose it was an accepted practice at one time.  I also heard that some owners were benevolent, showing kindness, providing food and lodging.  Of course, there were others who were not so kind. 

"It must be resoundingly affirmed and declared that slavery in all its forms, justifications and manifestations was wrong.  It is to be condemned as cruel, tragic and immoral.  It demeaned both slave and Master and had a corrupting impact on those who supported it."

Jeffrey R. Mead, Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in Greenwich; Gateway Press, 1995 (Page 1)

I decided to research this further.  While searching for "slavery" in the library catalog, I found a book titled "Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in the Town of Greenwich, CT" (Gateway, 1995) by Jeffrey B. Mead.  It's a recap of the slaves who were granted "manumission", or emancipation from slavery.  The 1790 U.S. Census listed 80 slaves living in Greenwich.  Some worked on the docks at Cos Cob Landing, some worked on the Bush Farm (which at one time covered 35 acres) and some were servants.  Of the 49 men owning slaves, David Bush was the largest owner of slaves, and the wealthiest in town.  When owners died, it was not uncommon for slaves to be bequeathed to relatives.  In some cases, slaves were given the last names of their Masters, and these appear in some records.

"The very idea of becoming a Land or Sea Pirate to capture Human Beings to sell into Slavery to American Slave Masters fills the mind with Horror."    Shubal Bush  c1850

Jeffrey R. Mead, Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in Greenwich; Gateway Press, 1995 (Page 3)

Slavery was never widespread in town and only a minority of families had slaves.  David Bush even went so far as to "appraise" his slaves.  His most valuable slave, Jubeter, was appraised at $150, a considerable amount in those days.  A girl, Lucy, was valued at $2.   There were several wills which conveyed ownership of a slave to  relatives, and some which actually granted freedom to some.  Some slaves were sold to other people, and there are documents to this effect recorded by a "Register" Mead writes that some slaves were married.  This was with the consent of their Masters. Some owners granted Emancipation in such situations.  Others did not.  

If a slave was freed by his Master and was considered poor, the Master was legally responsible for the slave.  This responsibility was transmitted to heirs and estate administrators after the Master's death.  In extraordinary situations,  responsibility would go to the Selectmen if the Master could not meet his obligation.  In 1777, a law was enacted, which relieved slave masters from any responsibility for the welfare of emancipated slaves.

There is some uncertainty about the burial places of slaves, freedmen and freedwomen ( the title for emancipated slaves).  In November 1851, Robert Mead deeded 3-acres of Union Cemetery owned by the Second Congregational Church for burial of the poor, strangers and "people of color".  Candice Bush - the only emancipated slave with a headstone - had a tombstone erected at Union Cemetery for her mother and herself.  Unfortunately, there are several unmarked stones for other emancipated slaves in Union Cemetery.  Other possible burying plots include the Palmer family cemetery in northern Cos Cob and The Old Burying Ground in Byram.

In reality, slavery was abolished, not because of the outrage against servitude, but because of political and economic reasons.  That's not to say there weren't proponents for abolishment - like the Quakers.  They found it morally wrong. Then, the Assembly banned the import of Indian, Negro or Mulatto slaves in 1774.   The Revolutionary War also contributed to the gradual fall of slavery. After all, the Declaration of Independence declared all men to be "created equal", that men are endowed with unalienable rights such as "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness". In a way, this made African-Americans indirect stakeholders in this conflict.  Slaves, in some cases, were offered freedom and money to serve in the Continental Army.  However, problems arose as slave owners required compensation for slaves, who were considered property.  Furthermore, white soldiers opposed arming blacks.    They were afraid of rebellion.  Still, others served.

Connecticut slowly and carefully moved toward abolition.  In 1776 a Quaker farmer - Robert Field - freed his slave "Cuff".  This is the earliest known emancipation in Greenwich.  In 1777, the General Assembly passed legislation that set forth a legal procedure to acquire a certificate to free a slave. It did not, however, call for abolition.  Another law (1784) broke the vicious cycle of slavery by making children born to slaves after March 1, 1784, free once they reached the age of 25.  "An Act to Prevent Slave Trade" (1788) forbid residents from engaging in the slave trade.  In June 1788 laws were passed making the trade of slaves unjust and directing citizens to end it.  By 1792 the Connecticut Legislature passed a law which forbade the transport of slaves out of the state to trade, and established a procedure by which an owner could emancipate a slave.  Most emancipations occurred between 1795 and 1816, well before the Civil War.  Unfortunately, some slaves didn't know what to do with their new found freedom.  Slavery was the only life they ever knew.  It was a great change for some.

Mead makes a very interesting observation.  There were no independent anti-slavery groups that promoted abolition.  Rather, the Protestant Revival of the 19th Century led to the Second Great Awakening - a social upheaval in moral values, which targeted alcoholism and slavery.  Churches such as the Second Congregational Church, Stanwich Church and North Greenwich Congregational Church joined forces to push for human and social reform.  The seeds of the Temperance Movement were planted.  Interestingly, Reverend Lyman Beecher Stowe - father of Harriet Beecher Stowe ( who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin") - came to Greenwich to speak against alcoholism and slavery.

By 1850, Greenwich was far ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of abolition.  The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, which required the refturn of runaway slaves, antagonized Abolitionists, who started providing safe shelter and established the Underground Railroad. 

Amazingly, by the Civil War in the 1860s, both white and black soldiers from Greenwich fought side by side - and died - to end slavery.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

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This page contains a single entry by Carl White published on July 31, 2011 8:29 PM.

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