Monday, September 23, 2013

Waterbury and the Underground Railroad

During the decades leading up to the Civil War, the anti-slavery (abolition) movement became increasingly influential. In Connecticut, slavery was gradually phased out. The last person to be enslaved in Waterbury was given her freedom shortly after 1810. In 1840, there were seventeen people enslaved in Connecticut; in 1848, the state finally outlawed slavery completely. Additionally, a Connecticut law from 1844 prohibited any fugitive slave escaping to this state from being arrested or detained and returned to his owner.

It's tempting to pat ourselves on the back and feel good about Connecticut having given up slavery before the Civil War, but it's very misleading to think that all of Connecticut opposed slavery. Throughout the state, some were adamantly opposed, viewing slavery as an evil to be eradicated, but many were ambivalent--slavery was an abstract concept, something that happened far away, something that didn't impact them directly.

In Waterbury, as in every other town in Connecticut, there were people who supported the right of southern states to continue slavery. Green Kendrick, one of Waterbury's most prominent citizens, was originally from North Carolina and was a public supporter of slavery. Kendrick was also a supporter of sending free blacks to Liberia, donating to the American Colonization Society in 1858.

Waterbury also had active abolitionists and two safe houses on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a loose, dangerous route traveled by people who escaped from slavery. Escaped slaves, if discovered by the wrong person, could be captured and returned to slavery. At each safe house on the Underground Railroad, refugees would be given a place to sleep and food to eat, before being given transportation to the next stop north.

From Waterbury, refugees most likely continued on to Plymouth, then to Torrington and Winsted, continuing north until they reached Canada. It was a dangerous, furtive path to take, with no guarantees of safety.

In 1860, a refugee, traveling alone, made it as far as Stamford, where he hired someone with a wagon to take him to Norwalk (the story was related in the Columbian Register newspaper, January 28, 1860). The refugee, unnamed in the newspaper article, for unknown reasons (but we can imagine!), suddenly leapt out of the wagon, leaving his coat behind. The wagon driver rifled through his pockets, decided that he must be an escaped criminal, and chased him into a Presbyterian Church. Apparently the man was briefly held captive, until a Trustee of the church arrived, figured out that he was an escaped slave from Charlestown, Virginia, and ordered him to be set free. The story had a happy ending, with the refugee given a place to stay for the night and safe passage to an underground railroad station, but it highlights some of the risks involved.

Back in Waterbury, Timothy Porter, a deacon in the Baptist church (and grandfather of Carrie Welton), was a firm believer that slavery was wrong. Beginning around 1840, Porter decided that abolishing slavery was his mission in life. For the next two decades, he hosted anti-slavery meetings in his home and, on one memorable occasion, publicly debated the topic with Green Kendrick. Porter also helped escaped slaves on their journey to freedom in Canada, using his home as a stop on the Underground Railroad. I have not yet been able to identify where his house was; the building is unlikely to still be standing, but it is still worthwhile to track down the approximate location.

Timothy Porter, illustrated in
Anderson's History of Waterbury, Volume III

Timothy Porter's opposition to slavery may have been shaped by his family history. His great-uncle was Dr. Preserved Porter, a slave owner who, when one of his slaves, a man named Fortune, died, chose to dissect the body, boiling the bones and keeping them for medical study. Fortune's skeleton remained with Dr. Porter's son--Timothy Porter was six when Fortune died, and would have been well aware of what happened to him.

John Miles Stocking, a deacon in the Congregational church, was the other Waterbury abolitionist who was active in the Underground Railroad. Stocking had a barn which he used as a resting station for escaped slaves. Stocking raised his children to be anti-slavery, reading Uncle Tom's Cabin and other abolitionist material to them. The Stocking family took pride in knowing that every eligible man in their family served during the Civil war.

On a related note, Waterbury artist Louise Chessi McKinney has recently published two children's books about the Underground Railroad: The Journey to Freedom on the Underground Railroad and Follow the North Star. Check them out!

1 comment:

Teenygozer said...

This is fascinating history! I'm currently reading up on the Revolt (or Riot) of Christiana, considered by many the first true slave revolt in the USA that shook the comfortable bedrock foundation of slavery: that people of color just did not have what it took to rally together and fight back against their oppressors. Boy, were they wrong!