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.