The Day – Black Heritage Trail Reveals Little-Known Stories of Black Resilience

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New London — Years of research by a dedicated group provides insight into the life and resilience of Black people in New London over three centuries.

the Black Heritage Trail was unveiled in October 2021 and offers a self-guided tour of 15 different historical sites around the city, all marked with bronze plaques.

Former councilor Curtis Goodwin started the initiative after attending the New London Landmarks presentation on Ichabod Pease a few years ago. Pease, once a slave, was an emancipated man who established New London’s first school for black children in 1837 at 111 Union St.

Goodwin, excited to reveal more about the city’s black history and prominent figures, spoke with city officials who, in turn, raised funds for what would become Black Heritage Trail. The team of researchers who gathered information about the sites and individuals was led by Tom Schuch, Lonnie Braxton, Nicole Thomas and Laura Natusch, executive director of New London Landmarks. The end result of their work is an array of different sites that Braxton says tell the story of not just black history, but American history as well.

Ichabod Pease

Telling the story of Ichabod Pease at a New London Landmarks presentation in 2019 was the spark that led former councilor Curtis Goodwin to pursue a fitting tribute to a man who started the first school for black children in the city. A bronze plaque stands at 111 Union St. at the site of the school’s opening.

Pease was a man born into slavery and once a fugitive in New London after escaping his captor. Pease had fled slavery in 1779 after his slaveholder planned to move south, a move that would have separated Pease from his wife Rosa. He spent two years in hiding before being recaptured. He was granted his freedom in 1794 and his wife Rosa was freed two years later. The couple lived quietly in New London and attended St. James’s Episcopal Church.

Historian Tom Schuch said that while Pease was now a free man, the nation and city were divided over the growing abolitionist movement. By 1835 New London was strongly anti-abolitionist and there was growing resentment against the schooling of black children in classrooms with white students.

Pease offered to open a school for black children in his own home on Church Street, now Governor Winthrop Boulevard. While his initial proposal was rejected by the New London School Society, Pease persisted, and the society accepted his proposal in 1837.

“Mr. Pease had provided a solution in a time of crisis for black children in New London,” Schuch said at a special ceremony in the city in 2021.

In 1839, the state legislature amended the law to declare that no child could be excluded from a state-funded school.

“Ichabod Pease is the story of how one man was able to use his personal qualities of strength, determination and resilience on behalf of the children of his oppressed brothers,” Schuch said. “He did so in the face of strong racist opposition amid a national controversy over abolition and education. This is the stuff of heroes – a genuine New London hero.

42 Rogers Street

In October 2021, the Black Heritage Trail unveiling ceremony took place at 42 Rogers St., the former home of Spencer Lancaster. The now 93-year-old pioneer was all smiles as the crowd of over 100 joined in the celebration.

Lancaster, at the age of 32, became the city’s first black elected official when he was elected in 1960 to the Board of Selectmen. He is from New London, an Army veteran who served in World War II and a civil rights leader who served as vice president of the New London branch of the NAACP.

“When you’re given a talent, don’t bury it. Use it. That’s what I’ve tried to do all my life, use my talent to achieve something better for everyone,” Lancaster said at the unveiling ceremony.

In the 1950s, Lancaster was an advocate for the racial integration of what was, at the time, New London’s all-white public housing. In 1963, he became the first black owner of Rogers Street.

Lancaster also launched an unsuccessful bid for a spot on the city’s all-white city council following his tenure as manager. He was the first black man in town to run for the position.

“I want it to be understood that I am running for office as a citizen interested in the total welfare of my hometown, and not just as a Republican, or just as a Negro. I believe I can make an important contribution to harmonious race relations here, and that I can help to create an atmosphere in which ALL new Londoners can function as first-class citizens,” Lancaster wrote in his campaign materials.

Margaret Lancaster, daughter of Spencer Lancaster, still lives at 42 Rogers Street.

38 Green Street

In its latest iteration, the building at 38 Green St. houses two floors of micro-loft apartments, the result of a landmark restoration by Benjamin Parker Real Estate Services.

It was built in 1924, known as the Arthur Building, and quickly became a center of black resilience and activism in the late 1920s, according to research by New London Landmarks.

It was home to the New England People’s Finance Corporation, founded by Benjamin Tanner Johnson, a graduate of Howard University and the third black graduate of Harvard’s School of Business. It was a lending institution serving black borrowers and investors.

Prior to its move to 39 Tilley St., the building also housed the United Negro Welfare Council, an organization aimed at improving the economic, social and cultural lives of black Americans, especially recent migrants from the Jim Crow South. Sadie Dillon Harrison, half-sister of Benjamin Tanner Johnson, served as secretary to both organizations. She wrote a precursor to the Green Book, which was a guide to safe places to stay for black travelers. His guide was called “Hackley and Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travellers” and was published in 1930 and 1931.

92 Bank Street.

Longtime New London resident Lonnie Braxton has passed or walked past 92 Bank St. for decades without knowing the building’s history. Research he helped conduct as part of the city’s new Black Heritage Trail found the building was at the center of a race riot.

In 1919, anti-black riots broke out in major cities across the country in a year known as the “Red Summer.” The building at 92 Bank St. was the Bristol Hotel at the time, a popular social spot for black sailors. on the night of May 29, 1919, thousands of rioters surrounded the hotel and trapped dozens of black people inside seeking protection.

The rioters attacked and beat those who did not arrive.

Braxton said the Black Heritage Trail brings to the fore a story that, in some cases, was either glossed over or simply not well known.

“It’s not like we’re trying to reform or recreate or find an alternate version of history,” he said of the project. “It’s like a big puzzle, putting together missing pieces to create a clearer picture for everyone.”

Braxton said he thinks it’s hard for people to see the whole picture when they don’t have an accurate understanding of all the pieces that make up that story.

“That’s why it’s so important,” he said.

Shiloh Baptist Church

“You really can’t talk about black history in New London without talking about the history of black churches. And in New London, Shiloh is the first black church to be incorporated in New London,” Natusch said.

Longtime New London resident Sara Chaney is thrilled with the creation of the Heritage Trail. Chaney knew and respected some of the people highlighted along the trail — people like civil rights leader Linwood Bland Jr. and Reverend Albert A. Garvin of Shiloh Baptist Church.

Chaney graduated in 1953 from New London High School and also witnessed Shiloh’s rise under Garvin.

Shiloh, at the turn of the century, was the first black church to incorporate in New London. For decades before, black worshipers would congregate in various homes and businesses around the city.

“Tour. Garvin helped keep this town positive, where everyone could feel welcome,” Chaney said.

Chaney said Reverend Garvin was highly respected in the community and that’s why there were black telephone companies and downtown stores were integrated.

“I think (it’s) just the idea (of the Black Heritage Trail), especially for young people knowing how this town has progressed and the contributions made,” she said.

Chaney has another connection to the trail.

She lived at 73 Hempstead St. during her high school years and her summers with her grandparents. She was unaware of the story until recently. The house was one of five built by abolitionist Savillion Haley in the early 1840s, according to research by Tom Schuch. Haley sold the houses at cost to free blacks, and the neighborhood became one of the first black neighborhoods in the city.

The house has passed through the hands over the years and is linked to many prominent members of the black community.

In 1926, when owned by Sadie Dillon Harrison and known as Hempstead Cottage, WEB Du Bois was a guest. Du Bois is one of the founders of the NAACP.

Florio, Hercules and the Black Governors of Connecticut

Nicole Thomas from New London said work on the Black Heritage Trail has revealed pieces of history that have never been brought to light. It also led to more questions.

The Ye Antientist Burial Ground in New London has a section where the first black residents were buried. It houses a tombstone dated 1749 for Florio Hercule, “wife of Hercules, governor of the Negroes”.

Thomas said the date of the tombstone would make Hercules the first known black governor of the state. Many people may be aware that there was a tradition in several New England states in the late 1700s and mid 1800s that enslaved black men were elected from different areas or towns to enforce laws and mediate disputes between black and white communities.

Elections were held as white settlers traveled to Hartford to elect a statewide governor.

Although there is little information about the roles of governors, Thomas said there is evidence that some were proponents of social change. Connecticut had legislation between 1814 and 1870 that limited the franchise to white males only. Meanwhile, several black governors petitioned the General Assembly for the right to vote.

Thomas said slaves at the time were listed on property inventories or wills and even then only by age and gender.

“We don’t know where Hercules is buried,” Thomas said. “There is more research to be done. The fascinating part of the story is that you will never have all the answers.

Thomas said she’s excited about what she hopes will be continued research that will expand the Black Heritage Trail.

“It was only the beginning of the journey. We must continue. There are people whose stories deserve to be heard,” she said.

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