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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:

http://wwwbobs-blog.blogspot.com/2012/04/white-slave-trader-once-lived-and.html

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  The volume can be found at Russell Library also, in the Middletown Historical Documents room.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.







13 comments:

  1. boy you got alot of time on your hands huh?

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    1. Dear Wondering Anonymous (June 1, 2012 at 9:35 a.m.),

      Well, I'm retired. I pursue what interests me and I'm interested in history, particularly historical ironies like the one which is the subject of this blog post. Intellectual work is intrinsically valuable, even if it is not economically or otherwise "productive." You may not share that value. I wouldn't know because you don't identify yourself so I cannot make any judgment about how you use your own time. Care to tell us?

      All best,

      A History Buff

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  2. One reader who emailed me a Comment about this story said the following:

    "A fascinating piece of research, Bob, written skillfully and with detail. Have you ever considered offering your services to the Middlesex Historical Society. Your knowledge of Middletown, your many years as a resident in the community and the extensive contacts you have here might make this a perfect match that would benefit many folks, including people from other parts of the country who are always looking up their New England roots vis genealogical records. You could even post your research, as you did here, on your blog. (Though you might use a picture than reflects the evolved you rather than the one with the goddesses.)"

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  3. Why the repeated references to "Black Baptist Church" ?? Why not just "Baptist Church"? What are you trying to impress on your reader??

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    1. Dear Quizzical Anonymous (June 2, 2012 at 1:23 p.m.),

      Two reasons. First, in this story, it's ironic that a white slave trader sea captain had his home very near a present-day black baptist church.

      Second, my church refers to itself in this way. On the front of the weekly church service bulletin is the following: "Zion First Baptist Church: The First Black Baptist Church in Middletown since 1943."

      Some of my white friends ask the same thing and have even reprimanded me for not calling my fellow parishioners "African Americans." I rarely hear that term used at Zion. Instead, the term "black" is what is used, in part because not all the non-white members are African American in origin.

      Hope that helps you understand my use of the term.

      All best,

      Bob

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  4. It may not be interesting to "anonymous" but to those of us who visit the YMCA and who live or work in the area (I lived for 3 years in River's Edge just across Union Street from the area in question) it makes one see this whole area in a very different light. I also agree that Bob's research might be a great benefit to the Mx Historical Society and other history buffs and those who want to preserve historic buildings in Middletown. Connecting the existing infrastructure of Middletown with its slave-trading or opium-trafficking past is very illuminating on many levels. I applaud Bob's work, and find it petty of anyone who criticizes this use of time and energy.

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    1. Thanks, John. I agree with you about the value of this sort of research to the consciousness of the importance of preserving old buildings. Recently I spent a few days in Newport, RI and as always find it astonishing how well-preserved that old town is, thanks to the very wealthy society matron Doris Duke. Thank goodness the redevelopment wrecking ball was not used there as it was in Middletown. The neighborhood of Union and Sumner Street, which some Wesleyan archaeology students and faculty have done some digging in, is now referred to as the Magill neighborhood. Magill was another sea captain who was friends with Captain Stephen Clay. Captain Magill, my research revealed, was also a member of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. During the 18th century and up until about 1830, Holy Trinity was located on the east side of Union Park, now known as South Green. So Captain Clay's home was only one block east of the original Episcopal church where he was a big-time member and financial supporter. I'll write more about this in another blog.

      Imagine how much more interesting the area east of the present-day YMCA would be if it looked like most of the old neighborhoods in Newport, RI and not as it does today: a large parking lot with a car repair garage and Taylor Rental building across the street! The problem with redevelopment is that those who drove the tearing down of the old neighborhoods gave less value to the preservation of the old and the more beautiful than they did to the idea that new is better.

      What Anonymous is right about is this. It takes a lot of time to do this kind of historical research and even more time to scan the documents, write the story, and publish it as I've done. It's painstaking work but well worth the effort, both intrinsically and instrumentally. In itself, the work is a bit like doing puzzles and solving mysteries. For others, like you, John, it enriches your imagination and knowledge of the past which underlays the present. In this way our experience of the present is deepened and heightened, and we also gain moral ammunition in opposing political decisions like redevelopment which fail to honor the wisdom of those who have walked the same way we have, but long ago.

      All best,

      Bob

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  5. Well done, Bob.
    I am happy to see that you are "branching out" in your Blog subjects.
    Keep up the good work!
    John

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    1. Thanks, John. I suspect you, too, would like solving historical puzzles. The skills we lawyers develop to uncover the history of a legal dispute is a form of historical research. It's just that lawyers don't commonly work on the history of events which happened several centuries ago, although they sometimes do. I think of the Indian land claims which led to the creation of the lands on which the two casinos now sit in southeastern Connecticut. The resolution of those federal legal cases turned on the way in which those lands were acquired--taken, really--from the Indians back in the 17th and 18th centuries and whether those transfers were done in violation of the Federal statutes passed in the late 18th century which regulated the conditions under which non-Indians could acquire Indian tribal lands.

      Thanks for writing in, John.

      All best,

      Your former law partner, Bob

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  6. Bob,
    I wonder how Zion Baptist Church came to be located on that property? Had slaves, or former slaves, been living there? It seems like more than a mere coincidence.
    John

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  7. That's an excellent question, John, and worthy of more historical research. I've asked a few people who in the church might maintain archives about Zion but haven't followed up. I now shall do so. I do recall hearing that the church originally met in a house in the Sumner Street neighborhood, which was torn down during Middletown's redevelopment project in the late 1960's and early 1970's. In the course of looking into the history of Captain Stephen Clay's homestead I looked at a lot of old photographs which property appraisers took of the homes in the neighborhood during the process of condemnation of the properties for redevelopment. I recall seeing a lot of black people in those photographs and not many white people, so I got the impression it was probably a mostly-black residential area. I wonder if the people who lived in the Sumner Street area were pushed out of their homes by the local government and relocated to the north end of Middletown, all so a parking lot for the YMCA, an automobile towing and repair building, and a Taylor Rental building could be built in place of a thriving neighborhood? What an ugly bunch of "improvements." Zion First Black Baptist Church is in one of those appraisal photographs from August of 1967. I just tried to copy and paste the photo here but the program does not permit that to be done in Comments. I'll post it as part of a future blog.

    The photo shows that the main entrance to the church at that time in 1967 was on the east side of the building. Since then it's been relocated to the south end, which now faces a new very short street, James Moses Drive, which was not in existence back in 1967. If James Moses Drive continued west from where it now ends it would turn into McDonough Place, the present home of the assisted living facility One McDonough Place. But James Moses Drive is about 15 feet below the level of the eastern end of McDonough Place.

    As for the name "James Moses Drive," I know that James Moses was an important member of Zion First Black Baptist Church. I think he lived in a house in the Sumner Street neighborhood. I will figure all of this out in greater detail when I do more research on this topic.

    Thanks for the great suggestion. Sometimes an idea which is mostly inchoate in a person's mind, like the idea I had but did not pursue of finding out more about the history of my new church, becomes more solidly choate when it's made by another person, as you have done by making your Comment here.

    All best,

    Bob

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  8. Enjoyed reading this article and comments...
    Just an appreciative anon.

    Keep going!

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  9. The photo shows that the main entrance to the church at that time in 1967 was on the east side of the building. Since then it's been relocated to the south end, which now faces a new very short street, James Moses Drive, which was not in existence back in 1967. property appraisal

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