Commentary: Slavery — America’s history, Wilton’s story
Yes, even here, in Wilton.
In this time of reckoning over the legacy of slavery and racial inequality, it is essential to take a clear-eyed look at what the history of Wilton included. As residents of Wilton, we may be familiar with the principled actions of town residents such as the abolitionist William Wakeman, whose home on Seeley Road was a stop on the Underground Railroad. But there is another legacy, that of participation in slavery, which is not well known. The Wilton Historical Society has joined the Wilton Public School’s “Racial Equity and Inclusion — Moving Beyond Protests to Progress” initiative. We believe this is an opportune moment to learn more about a neglected area of our town history; some information is provided here. Everyone needs facts as we have difficult conversations about equity.
Fact: In 1757, David Lambert took possession of an enslaved African man named Jack; an original document on display at the Wilton Historical Society confirms the sale. He also bought “Coffee,” age 11, in 1760.
Fact: US Census data of 1790 and 1810 indicate there were slaves in Wilton, owned by many of the families whose names we know well — Marvin, Middlebrook, St. John, and Belden. Other documents show slaves were owned by additional families: Comstock, Fitch, Davenport, Grumman, Gregory, Hickox, Keeler, Betts, Abbott and more. Not only Africans were enslaved; Native Americans were, too.
Fact: Research has revealed that an enslaved African woman named Haggar, born c. 1770 and owned by Samuel Belden II, was married to Bill Tonquin, an enslaved Native American. Bill Tonquin was owned by another branch of the Belden family in Wilton. Haggar and Bill Tonquin had three children; Prince, Nancy, and Black Jack. The family lived in the Belden Store at the corner of Ridgefield Road and “Danbury Pike.” Haggar Tonquin is documented as being the last slave in Wilton. Her children were slaves, but were born with the promise of freedom, as they would have been freed at age 21 by the Connecticut law passed in 1784. However, that legislation did not free either Haggar or Bill; not until 1848 did the state free all the remaining slaves.
Fact: On Nov. 26, 1838 the Rev. Nathaniel Colver of the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society spoke at the Baptist Church in Georgetown, where “his lecture was disturbed by unruly persons” according to Bob Russell’s history of Wilton. He lectured again on the following two days, hoping to organize a Georgetown Anti-Slavery Society. But about 2 a.m. on Nov. 29, the church suffered substantial damage from the explosion of a keg of gunpowder under the pulpit. No Anti-Slavery Society was formed, and the perpetrators of the crime were never brought to justice.
Fact: An Anti-Slavery Society was never organized in Wilton, either. Its formation was thwarted by two well-directed “torpedoes” made of gunpowder wrapped in sacking and tied with tar ropes. These devices were placed under the windows of the home of David and Aaron Chichester on Pimpewaug Road in December 1838. The Chichesters were hosting Dr. Erasmus Hudson, another organizer from the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society, who was hoping to form a group in Wilton. The slow fuse devices exploded during his lecture, showering the attendees with glass.
The Wilton Historical Society supports the public school’s intention to address systemic racism. One way to achieve this is to add facts about Wilton’s history of slavery to the curriculum. How can racial equality be achieved when students know only part of the story of their town? That should — must — include uncomfortable facts about how slave labor helped produce goods that allowed white Wilton residents to thrive and become more affluent. Our students cannot be ignorant of the moral failures present in the very beginnings of our town and of our country. Ignoring or glossing over the facts has given rise to the noxious atmosphere of white privilege that we as a nation and as a community struggle with today.
On this count, our schools and town can and should do more, including the Wilton Historical Society, to delve into this complex subject. The mission of the Wilton Historical Society is “Shining a light on the making and meaning of history through Wilton’s stories and historic preservation.” Slavery is part of America’s history, and Wilton’s story, too.
Allison Gray Sanders and Kim Mellin are co-cirectors of the Wilton Historical Society.