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Sunday, April 29, 2012

A White Slave Trader Once Lived and Traded Slaves on the Site of my Black Baptist Church: Captain Stephen Clay of Middletown, Connecticut


Three centuries ago, Captain Stephen Clay, a white sea captain and trader in slaves, built his large home on the same piece of ground where my church now stands, Zion First Black Baptist Church of Middletown, Connecticut.  I first learned this a few days ago at Russell Library, where I ran into Eric Hesselberg, a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant.  Both of us attended a talk last week by author Richard DeLuca about his new book, "Post Roads & Iron Horses: Transportation in Connecticut from Colonial Times to the Age of Steam."  I learned about the DeLuca lecture by accident, the day of the talk, when I ran into Eric who was on his way to the annual meeting of the Middletown Historical Society.  I first met Eric a year ago, at the last annual meeting, when he talked about his extensive research into the history of the destruction of lovely old neighborhoods in Middletown during the Redevelopment Era back in the 1960's and 1970's.

At the library a few days ago, I asked Eric if he was doing any new historical research and he said he's been working for the past two years on a book about the slave trade in Middletown.  I told him I'd recently read a chapter from a book, "The Underground Railroad in Connecticut" (Wesleyan University Press, 1962) by a black Middletown resident and graduate of the University of Connecticut, Horatio T. Strother.  The chapter described the history of the underground railroad in Middletown but also recounted some surprising history about racism at my alma mater, Wesleyan University.

According to Strother's book, sea captains brought African slaves from Barbados to Middletown and sold them at auction in 1661.  " The slave trade never became as important here [in Middletown] as it was in New London and Boston, and some other ports, but it is recorded that John Bannister, Newport merchant, was pleased in 1752 to find Middletown purchasers for 'the finest cargo of Negro men, women, and boys ever imported into New England.'  The number of slaves had risen by 1756 from its original handful to 218 in a total population of 5664.  Middletown then ranked third among Connecticut towns in Negro inhabitants, but hardly anyone at that time 'held more than two slaves.' "  Id., Stother, at 150-51.

At one time, the Joint Board of Wesleyan University, my alma mater, had ruled that "none but male white persons shall be admitted as students of this institution."  Id. at 154.  But by 1834, the Joint Board opened the doors of the college to male students without regard to race.  When I started at Wesleyan in 1967, there were still no women in our class.  The first women were allowed to attend classes at Wesleyan in about 1969 as part of an exchange program with the then all-women's college in New London, Connecticut College for Women, which, like Wesleyan, has since gone co-ed.  Women have pointed out to me that it took a lot longer for them to get the right to vote in this country than it took black men.  But that's another subject.

Eric Hessleberg said that he had read some of my blog articles and asked me if I was still going to Zion First Black Baptist Church.  I told him I loved the church and had become a full member on February 5, 2012 when I was baptized there by full immersion baptism in the baptismal pool in the front of the church.  Eric then told me, to my great surprise, that his extensive research at the Middletown Historical Society over the past two years revealed that a white sea captain, Captain Stephen Clay, whose portrait is on the second floor of the Society, was a slave trader in the 1700's.  Captain Clay's home was built on the site of my black baptist church.  I asked him if he was sure of this.  He was.  Eric also told me that the slave quarters at the captain's home were located north of where my church building now stands, in the area where the children's playscape of the YMCA is located.

I was suprised but not shocked about this fact.  I did ask Eric if he was sure about this and he said yes.  It's all in the documents he's been studying at the historical society for the past two years.

I was not shocked because this called to mind the place in Spain I remember visiting where a christian church is built upon the site of a former mosque, which was in turn built upon a former synagogue.  And I believe the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey is also built upon the site of a former eastern orthodox church.

I mentioned what I learned about my baptist church to my minister this morning after the service and he was of course interested to hear this bit of history.  I said I thought it wonderful that we are expiating the ghost of our city's racist past every Sunday when we worship God at Zion, the God who loves all humanity, regardless of the superficial attribute of the color of our skins.





24 comments:

  1. Bob
    Nice article. Good history to know for us history buffs. In your travels downtown Middletown, go over to Meetinghouse Opticians and find out from Jeff, the very interesting story about a worm, which made Middletown a seaport and also dried us up as the same.

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    Replies
    1. Dear Buff Anonymous (April 30, 2012 at 4:40 a.m.),

      I'll do that. I've walked by Jeff Fine's shop on the way to the North End of Middletown to do stand-up comedy practice on the street over the past few months but his shop has always been closed when I've passed his wonderfully-decorated windows.

      You've really wormed your way under my skin with the intriguing thought that a lowly worm was so transformational to our fair city.

      All best,

      Bob

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  2. Bob - Over the years, I have heard stories about the existence of an underground transportation passage-way. The 'tunnel' led from the slave drop off point at the river to the area around Wesleyan. Did you hear anything about this from Historical Society folks?

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    1. Dear Inquiring Anonymous (April 30, 2012 at 5:16 a.m.),

      Again, another intelligent Comment and excellent question. I always thought the tunnel of which you speak ran from the Connecticut River up to Russell House at the southeast corner of High and Washington Streets. I'll have to check the Middletown chapter of the book on Connecticut's underground railroad to see if it's mentioned there. I have not heard anything from the Historical Society folks about this but I'll ask the executive director, Debbie Shapiro, about it when next I see her around town.

      Thanks for writing and asking a great question.

      All best,

      Bob

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  3. Wesleyan was coed from 1874 to 1910 or some such.

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    1. Dear Correct Anonymous (April 30, 2012 at 5:30 a.m.),

      That's true. I'd forgotten about Wesleyan's brief experimentation with co-education back in the Victorian era. Pretty-darned foreward-thinking for the time, and I'm so happy you reminded us. It would be interesting to know the composition and size of those co-ed classes. Were there any black women at Wesleyan during that period? The cynic in me doubts it. But white women do correctly point out to me when the subject arises that black men got the vote before women did, although white women were never enslaved in the strictest sense. They were considered and treated as chattels, mens' property, for a long long time.

      Finally I've gotten three consecutive intelligent Comments in the same day. Yours is the first. I'll now reply to the next two.

      All best,

      Bob

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  4. Hey Mr. Lawyer- you’re a hypocrite. You’ve blasted past comments for taking information they “heard” from one or many sources and called it hearsay and why it is not admissible in a court of law. Now you take an unsubstantiated comment and post it on your blog as fact? Did you research it and determine what your buddy told you was true? It seems your only research was that you asked him “are you sure?”. Good detective work on your part….you know just in case he misspoke the first time.

    You need start practicing what you preach. Learn the facts before you spew out information.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Accusing Cinderella Anonymous (April 30, 2012 at 5:54 a.m.),

      Actually, you're incorrect. Here's the difference between my reliance on third-party sources of information and my Commenters. I identify both myself and my sources. My Commenters identify neither themselves nor their sources. I also invite them to meet with me to discuss their claims of "fact" about me. So far, not a single one of them has called me or otherwise contacted me to set up a meeting.

      I have not objected to these Star-Chamber-like accusing Commenters on the basis that their Comments would not be admissible in a court of law. If I've said that, please tell me exactly which reply it is where I said any such thing.

      I did not post an "unsubstantiated" Comment and post it on my blog as "fact." I simply reported two things: Historical claims about Wesleyan which appeared in the book by Strother about the history of the underground railroad in Connecticut, and historical claims about Captain Stephen Clay communicated to me by Eric Hesselberg. If I had doubts about the integrity of either source, I would either not have reported them on my blog or made clear what my doubts were. There is no need for me to do independent historical research on any of these historical claims. But you are certainly free to do your own research and make a future Comment disputing the book's claims or Eric's claims. If you turn up historical evidence that any of what I learned from them is probably untrue or inaccurate, I'll be the first to want my readers to know the fruits of your research. It would be helpful, in that event, if you would identify yourself so I and my readers can evaluate you as a source.

      Now when people make anonymous claims about my behavior which I know to be untrue, of course it irritates me that they don't identify themselves or agree to meet with me face-to-face so I can discern their motivation and write about them if I choose to do so. And if they identified the source of their information, if anything more than their fantasies and imagination, I'd also be in a better position to evaluate the claims and determine why they are telling lies about me. That's because I'm a curious person and a writer. I like to understand why people tell lies. But if the liars don't tell me who they are, I am left to speculation. Even you, a person too afraid to identify yourself, can understand that point.

      Hey, you're free to use, and abuse, the English language in any way you choose. So if you want to call me a hypocrite, feel free. The shoe doesn't fit me, but it may well fit you as perfectly as the high heel fit Cinderella. Beats me. I have no idea who you are.

      By the way, you've got to be a LOT smarter than your Comment suggests you are to catch me.


      All best,


      Always 100 Steps Ahead of You

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  5. you do realize you're not black right?

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    1. Dear Puzzled Anonymous (April 30, 2012 at 8:51 a.m.),

      Let me answer you with one of my standing stand-up lines. Look, Bill Clinton was our first black president, right? That's what a lot of people said. And Obama's our next white president after that last asshole white president, right? So couldn't I be the first black comic who looks like an albino?

      All best,

      A Pink Man with a Tan

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  6. Bob- I heard from this guy that a former white supremacist Nazi used to live at your house. I asked this guy if he was sure and he said ÿes, I'm sure". What the hell is this town turning into. Slave traders and now this?

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    1. Dear Neo-History Anonymous (April 30, 2012 at 12:12 p.m.),

      Look, dude, I knew all about Hitler and that last guy who lived at my house, before we moved in right after we built it, was NO Hitler. Seriously.

      Hey, with people like you in this town, what the hell IS this town turning into?

      All best,

      Whoever you think

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  7. Dear Mr. Dutcher- if you acted the way you do in my country they would sentance you to death.

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    1. Dear Threatening Anonymous (May 1, 2012 at 6:43 a.m.),

      Listen, dude, you have an overwrought imagination. I've been to you country, acted just the way I do here, and I've been lauded there, as here, and welcomed back with open arms on every re-visit. Take a Xanax and chill, bro'.

      All best,

      The Unexecuted One

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  8. Dear Bob- I just love hiding in the shadows and throwing stones at you. It makes my days all that more meaningful. I just wish I could dance as good as you. It's been my life long dream to go to dance clubs and hang out with people 1/3 my age and dance, dance, dance the night away!!!! Ohh how lucky you are to be so talented, first at love, then in your career, and now, now you rub it in the face of everyone else with you care free lifestyle. You are truely a giant among men. When you are long gone they will write books about you, maybe even a movie.

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    1. Dear On-the-Money Anonymous (May 1, 2012 at 9:29 a.m.),

      I can't disagree with anything you say.

      All best,

      A Giant Among Men

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  9. Okay Bob- I'll take you up on your dance challenge. I'll also show you what stand up comedy is all about. Meet me tonight at the Buttonwood Tree, we'll have a comedy competition, we'll let the audience be the judge. Then we'll head over to Shadow Room where I'll dance on your head. See you tonight. Unless of course you're a spineless talk all shit and don't back up no-show.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Challenging Anonymous (May 1, 2012 at 9:38 a.m.),

      There is no stand-up comedy at The Buttonwood Tree on Tuesday. But there will be next Monday. See you there, then.

      All best,

      A Man with Backbone Enough to Identify Himself--Unlike You, You Spineless Dude Who Hides in the Shadows

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    2. Where were you last night? I was there and ready. Apparently your balls aren't as big as you claim you chickenshit.

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    3. Dear Wished You Had Big Cohones Anonymous (May 2, 2012 at 3:50 a.m.),

      Hey, dopey, you've got several problems. First, you don't identify yourself. That alone tells the tale about you.

      Second, you can't or don't read. There's no stand-up comedy at The Buttonwood Tree on Tuesday nights.

      Third, I was on a train back from New York last night. I participated in the May Day Strike activities down there.

      Fourth, I'll see you this coming Monday at The Buttonwood Tree.

      All best,

      A Man with Big Cohones such as you can only Dream you had

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  10. bob- i read your blog now and again and i love it. you speak to me. keep it up and don't let these idiots bother you. they are just jealous. you have a unique perspective on life. the other day i was reading your blog masterbating. i'm not a homosexual, it's not like that. i just love your wtiting.

    -sam

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    Replies
    1. Dear sam (May 1, 2012 at 6:11 p.m.),

      Thanks for reading the blog. I'm glad you like it.

      All best,

      Bob

      Delete
  11. Jay Hoggard replied by email to this story about the history of the land on which my church sits. Jay is a professor of music at Wesleyan and a friend of many years. Our daughters went to public school together in Middletown. Jay kindly agreed that I could publish as a Comment here our email thread about this story. Jay's words add a depth to the story which mine mostly missed. Here are our 6 emails.

    1.
    Jay Hoggard
    To Robert Dutcher
    April 30, 2012

    Hey Bob:
    Thanks for this post. Eric Hesselberg"s info is very interesting. Middletown was definitely a central location, in the 18th century, for the transferal of captives of the enslavement system into the brutality of forced labor in the hinterlands of the Connecticut Valley agricultural economy. The fact that Zion Baptist Church and the YMCA currently occupy these sites is both ironic and karmic justice.
    Speak with you soon,
    Jay

    Jay Hoggard
    Adjunct Professor
    Music Department
    Wesleyan University
    Middletown,CT 06457

    2.
    Robert Dutcher
    To Jay Hoggard
    April 30, 2012

    Thanks, Jay. I like the way you put what you said. More emotionally raw and descriptive than just calling the system "slavery." We hear that short-hand descriptor so often, I at least sometimes fail to have in mind the specifics your words convey:

    "the transferal of captives of the enslavement system into the brutality of forced labor in the hinterlands of the Connecticut Valley agricultural economy."

    And yes, it IS karmic justice that we worship the God who loves everybody, in a location where many there were who once were in no way loved by the man who "bought and sold" them there. I can't think of a better way to redeem the earth in that spot than to say "yes" to life and freedom in the Word, song, and dance which take place in our baptist church and in the color-blind (hopefully) play which children of all hues engage in on the YMCA playscape.

    All best,

    Bob

    3.
    Jay Hoggard
    To Robert Dutcher
    April30, 2012

    Hey Bob:
    Short hand descriptor buzzwords are often used to minimize historic realities. The extremely complex web of brutality and finance which made the slavery system in America
    is usually described with simplified, inaccurate general terms . That's why it took Eric Hesselberg and the many other researchers on the topic so long to uncover information that should be readily available. The horrific ugliness of the system of forced labor in America, and in Connecticut, has been intentionally downplayed since the 19th Century. If more people sought true factual information concerning this history, there would be greater understanding of current social pathologies. Redemption is absolutely in the spiritual realm, but psychological freedom comes from confronting the sins and inequities of the personal and multi-generational past.
    Peace and Blessings,
    Jay

    [See next Comment window for the rest of the emails.]

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    1. [The email thread between Jay Hoggard and me continues here.]


      4.
      Robert Dutcher
      To Jay Hoggard
      April 30, 2012

      Dear Jay,
      Thanks again for another intelligent Comment. Is it okay with you if I publish your emails, either with or without identifying who you are, and my replies, as a Comment on my blog? I think my readers should hear your perspective. But if you object, I'll of course honor your wishes.

      I weep almost every week at the church services at Zion. As a white man, although my ancestors were not slavers, these were "my people" and I benefited in so many ways because I was born, accidentally, with light skin color, in a society built upon racism and slavery. Whenever we sing the Black National Anthem I cry at the point where the history of enslavement is alluded to. I feel so graced to be welcomed to worship with people who could, if they chose to hold onto their anger at this horrible history, reject me as a fellow worshiper.

      Of course my tears are mostly tears of thanks that Jesus saved a wretch like me, apart from all considerations of racism, slavery, and black history. And tears of joy at having my soul filled with that music. Oh the music in the black baptist church. I just go so bored with the music in the white church.

      All best,

      Bob

      5.
      Jay Hoggard
      To Robert Dutcher
      May 2, 2012

      Hey Bob:
      Sorry for the delay in replying. I've been swamped this week at Wesleyan. You can publish our conversation with my , you , without it. This information needs to be circulated and discussed by many people.
      Let's talk sometime in the summer.

      Peace, Music, and Good Vibes, Jay

      6.
      Robert Dutcher
      To Jay Hoggard
      May 2, 2012

      thanks, jay. i'll publish it as a series of emails between us, with attribution of our comments to each of us, just as it happened.

      i agree with you about the need to have this stuff discussed more widely. perhaps we could do a forum at wesleyan on it. i really liked the way your put your ideas into the words you did, expanding on my thoughts.

      the more we get "black" and "white" people to talk openly about these issues, i think the more progress we can make on the issue. i know how differently i experience skin color, my own and others, now that i love the church i go to, zion. i had a lot of wrong assumptions about the relation between skin tone and attitude, behavior, and action before i started going to zion and getting to really know people with a better tan than i'll ever have!

      yeah, let's get together when you have time, once the wesleyan madhouse ends for you and the kids leave for home.

      best,

      bob

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