Friday, June 1, 2012
More on the White Slave Trader, Captain Stephen Clay, whose Home was Near My Black Baptist Church
A few weeks ago I reported on the white slave trader, Captain Stephen Clay, who had a home in the 18th century in Middletown, Connecticut. Here's the link to that blog post story:
My reporting was based on a conversation I had with a reporter I knew who has been researching the history of slavery in Middletown, Eric Hesselberg. Eric told me there was a portrait of Captain Clay and a photograph of his house at the local historical society, so I went there to see it two weeks ago. That visit uncovered new evidence which led to a second trip last week. Here's what I found.
I photographed the oil painting portrait of Captain Clay. Debbie Shapiro, the director of the historical society, took me to the second floor and pulled a blanket off the old portrait, which was sitting on the wooden floorboards with a bunch of other paintings. Here's what Captain Clay looked like, in his full military regalia. He's an ordinary-looking man, benign enough in appearance, probably like many slaveowners. One sees no evidence on his face of any internal conflict or angst about owning black human beings as his personal property. There is a sailing ship in the background which probably reflects his status as a merchant who traded in the West Indies, probably goods and raw materials of various kinds as well as slaves. (I do know from other research I've done at the Godfrey Geneological Library in Middletown that Captain Clay was a wealthy benefactor and active member of the local Church of the Holy Trinity, an Episcopal church.) His home was only one block west of the Connecticut River, so it's possible the portrait was painted while Captain Clay was sitting for it in his home very near my present black baptist church.
Debbie Shapiro then showed me an old map of Middletown from 1874. It was by a surveyor named Mr. Beers. The volume can be found at Russell Library also, in the Middletown Historical Documents room. The call number is 912 BEE. Here is a small section of the map on page 36 in that volume, depicting the section of Middletown east of Main Street, south of Union Street, amd west of Sumner Street where Captain Clay had his home and where my black baptist church is now located. Sumner Street no longer exists. It was located about 25 feet east of, and parallel to, the present driveway of the YMCA which enables cars to turn south from Union Street into the parking lot for both the YMCA and Zion First Black Baptist Church. Here is that section of the 1874 Beers survey map. [Note: To enlarge any of the photographs to see the details more clearly, just click on them.]
Later in the day I went to Russell Library to search the historical documents about Middletown there. I found two pertinent bird's eye view artists' rendering of Middletown from 1877 and 1915. The 1877 view is by D.H. Bailey and depicts the same area as the 1874 Beers survey map but with a 3-dimensional rendering of the buildings, including the Captain Clay house. Here is that section of the 1877 D.H. Bailey aerial view.
None of what I found out to this point was a surprise. Then I asked Debbie to help me locate the photo of Captain Clay's home. She knew which box it was in in her archives because Eric Hesselberg had spent several days researching the same history. Here is the photograph.
This is a standard 18th-Century center-chimney Colonial, of which there are many extant examples in Middletown. What shocked me was the handwritten description on the back of the photograh. Here it is.
It says " 'The Stephen Clay House' Southwest corner of Union and Sumner Sts Middletown, Middlesex Co. Conn." This was shocking because Eric had told me Captain Clay's home stood on the site of what is now Zion First Black Baptist Church, but the church is several hundred feet to the southwest of where Captain Clay's home once stood.
On my second trip to the historical society, while looking through 10 boxes of old redevelopment house and property appraisals and redevelopment studies, I found an aerial survey photograph from August 15, 1968 which was flown for H. Ballard Co. for a report Ballard did for the city's redevelopment project planning. The report is entitled "Land Utilization and Marketability Study: Urban Renewal Project #2, Middletown, CT." Here is a small section of the aerial survey mostly showing the area southwest of the intersection of Union and Sumner Streets.
Note the following items. The photograph looks approximately north. The original YMCA building and parking lot is in the upper left corner of the photo, on Union Street, which runs from the top left of the photo at a downward angle towards the upper third of the right side of the photo. Below the YMCA and slightly to the right is Zion First Black Baptist Church (see the cross on the south side of the church building) as it was configured in 1968. Sumner Street is on the right side of the photograph and runs south from Union Street towards the bottom third of the photograph. The southwest corner of Union and Sumner Streets has a building on it, the roof line of which is parallel to Union Street.
From the photograph with the description of the Clay house on the back, the 1874 map, the 1877 aerial drawing, and the 1968 aerial photograph, we know that the Clay house stood several hundred feet northeast of the site of the present Zion First Black Baptist Church. That was what shocked me.
A few days after making this discovery I ran into Eric Hesselberg again at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown. I asked him about the discrepancy. He said what he meant was that the church is located on land which probably was part of Captain Clay's estate. The Clay estate, he said, included the house itself and several acres of property to the south and west of his home. He agreed that the house itself was not located precisely in the same spot as where the church eventually was built.
It was also obvious from comparing the photograph of the Clay home, the 1874 survey map, and the 1877 Beers aerial map with the 1968 aerial survey that the shape and configuration of the Clay home had changed significantly between 1877 and 1968.
This change was also reflected in another aerial drawing I found at Russell Library, the 1915 Aero view of Middletown by Hughes & Bailey. Here's a blown-up excerpt of that drawing showing the area in question.
The original undated photograph of the house, the 1874 map, and the 1877 aerial drawing show the Clay house to be a two-story center-chimney colonial with a third-floor attic, a porch on the Sumner Street side, and a small out-building to the south of the porch. The later 1915 aerial drawing shows the house with the porch and out-building removed. That drawing also shows the home to have three floors and a fourth-floor attic. The 1968 aerial photograph also shows what appears to be a four-story Clay house without the porch or out-building. The 1915 aerial drawing also shows what appears to be another, smaller house or house-like addition to the south side of the Clay home. It's hard to tell from the 1968 aerial photograph what, if anything, was on the south side of the Clay house in that year.
I was unable to find any records about the addition of a fourth story to the Clay home at the historical society. Eric Hesselberg told me his research disclosed that the house at some point was jacked up and an fourth story added to the bottom of the building. He also said a black social club was run out of the newly-added bottom floor of the home. I have no independent source of information to confirm Eric's claim about this and he has not responded to my email inquiry requesting his source.
I have done additional research at the Godfrey Geneological Library in Middletown about Captain Stephen Clay which I will share in a later blog post. Captain Clay was very active in the Church of the Holy Trinity and most generous in his financial support of the church.