Hudspeth in Wilton: Presentation with many audience questions reflects rapidly growing national awareness of slavery’s pervasive impact on our country

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Does your street bear the name of a Wilton slaveowner? If Abbott, Belden, Cannon, Lambert, or Middlebrook appears in it, then yes.

Should that come as a surprise? Probably not: Connecticut was called the Georgia of the North in antebellum times with more people enslaved here than in any other state in New England. In fact, between 1720 and 1830, over 130 enslaved peopled lived in Wilton alone.

This information flows from research conducted by Julie Hughes, Ph.D., archivist at the Wilton History Room that is housed in the Wilton Library with much of its fascinating collection owned by Wilton Historical; her research project was conceived by Wilton Historical and funded by a grant from the Elizabeth Raymond Ambler Trust. In a 90-minute Wilton Historical Zoom presentation on February 5th, Hughes offered both a broad overview and a variety of specifics drawn from her painstakingly careful examination into the lives of Wilton’s enslaved people and those who owned them.

Finding the identity, or even existence, of enslaved persons in a specific household is often something of the proverbial hunt for the needle in a haystack. Estate inventory records can be a good source of information, but those enslaved might only be recorded under “kitchen implements” or in some other, to modern eyes unlikely (and frankly offensive), category. Others would be identified merely as “a wench and boy,” as in a Wilton advertisement for the sale of a mother and son. To further complicate research, enslaved persons on being freed might well change their names. Both formerly enslaved and free Blacks are buried in the cemeteries of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and Wilton Congregational Church, and there are reports of separate local enslaved persons’ cemetery sites that have not so far been identified.

Among the many interesting revelations in this research is that, because in 1784 our state passed legislation that freed slaves born on or after that year upon their attaining 25 years of age, birth dates for those enslaved were often not recorded in the usual records, thus likely intentionally obscuring when they would be eligible to be freed.

All of that being said, there are also indications that relations between those enslaved and their owning families could in some cases become more like actual family, with enslaved persons even being deeded land; “almost family, but not quite” in Hughes’ apt description. The simple fact is that they all worked without pay, could be sold at the whim of their owner with young children separated from their parents, and of course lacked the freedom to pursue their own lives.

Yet more than a few led remarkable lives with significant accomplishments, like Philes Abbott (before 1774 - unknown), Jane Manning James (ca. 1820- 1908), Charles D. King (ca. 1810-after 1860), and Susan Jackson Dulliman (ca. 1820 - 1898). Charlotte “Lottie” Gilmore was born in 1853 -- after slavery was outlawed completely in Connecticut in 1848 -- to parents formerly enslaved by the Olmstead family. She continued living here until her death in 1939, and her obituary was published in this newspaper. She worked independently, running a clothes-washing business out of her home, and is believed to be the first “solo” female Black homeowner in Wilton. Earlier male Black homeowners here were John Dulliman in the 1820s and John Wally a decade later.

Hughes’ very well-attended presentation with many audience questions reflects rapidly growing national awareness of slavery’s pervasive impact on our country from its earliest times right down to the present. That growing awareness was driven home for me recently by Brian Kilmeade’s new book, “The President and the Freedom Fighter.” It chronicles in very appreciative terms the growing friendship between Abraham Lincoln and the escaped slave and major Black leader of the abolitionist movement Frederick Douglass and how that friendship impacted in truly transformative ways Lincoln’s beliefs and, ultimately, his policies.

Much of that is well-known to many of us, but Kilmeade adds fresh perspective in his well-researched, engagingly written, and often very moving book. His concluding words are, “Their immense and shared accomplishment was ending slavery; their next goal, however, to achieve true equality, was left unfinished. In their honor, the work must go on.”

Kilmeade co-hosts Fox’s morning show “Fox and Friends.” Perhaps his book signals the possibility for a new understanding, reaching across a broad political spectrum, of America’s complex racial history that so impacts the lives of all of us right down to the present day.

If so, then maybe “the times they are a-changing” - hopefully, and at last!