30-year-long effort details Fairfield’s slave history, past
FAIRFIELD — Tim, a slave in Fairfield during the 1700s, has no recorded birth date and no last name.
History remembers him by his baptism on Feb. 17, 1766, at Green’s Farms church, where he was supervised by his owner, William Bennett.
According to an inventory, Tim was said to be worth 34 British pounds at the time. Tim, along with his wife, Lille, was freed on April 8, 1799, but his age at that time is, at best, a guess.
Tim’s brief, punctuated “bio” is robust in comparison to that of the nearly 900 individuals — then dehumanized and catalogued as mere property — on the searchable Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves in Fairfield, an effort almost three decades in the making.
Alec Lurie, a 2019 Fairfield graduate and researcher for the project, acknowledges that the work is never done; even in recent days, the researcher continues to find and receive new information about slave history in town.
“There’s so much you can look through,” Lurie said of what is essentially a living and ongoing project.
The amount of research was and is, to put it lightly, daunting.
Property documents, military and church records, newspaper advertisements and museum archives from the Fairfield and Westport Museum were some of the many sources used to “identify this often-overlooked history by providing real record of birth, death, amarriage, family and service as best available and appropriate as possible.”
And due to the nature of the records, lack of surnames and dehumanization of these individuals, the register could have potential errors, something researchers admit.
“This is a constant frustration for those who study American slavery...there may be many slaves that simply slipped through time without ever making it into any documentation,” the register reads online.
The project dates back to 1992 under Vincent Rosivach, a Fairfield U. professor for 53 years. An aficionado of local history, Rosivach considered it a shame that no one had looked into the town’s slaveholding past.
Olivia McEvoy, who joined the project in the spring of 2017, said that the team was resolute on continuing the project after Rosivach’s passing away in April of last year.
“It became so abundantly clear that if we didn’t continue, it would be 30 years lost and the work was way too important for us to let that happen,” McEvoy.
For the past years, researchers have trickled in and out of several record rooms, like the vault in the town’s probate court.
The probate court books and records, dating back to the 17th century, are tight, handwritten documents according to Probate Court Judge Kate Maxham, who has seen the various researchers drop in and out of the court’s vault constantly.
“A clerk would handwrite the documents, the originals are at the state library,” Maxham said. “We just opened our vault (to the researchers) and they would read the inventories of all these deceased Fairfielders.”
McEvoy said that the register could help descendants of slaves look up their relatives, a genealogical exploration on a group of people whose past -- if recorded at all -- has been historically altered and erased.
Current and former members of the research team include Lurie, McEvoy, Brendan McCarthy, Anna Kamradt, Katie Henderson and Erin Monahan according to the register’s page.
Giovanni Ruffini, professor of classical studies at Fairfield U., has vowed his support to future endeavors with the project research by helping and guiding students.
“We already have student signed up and faculty support is very high,” Ruffini said. “The longer I’m at Fairfield, the more I realize there is more history to the place...we realize how interconnected we are to slave past and history.”
For Lurie, the work is its own reward but he doesn’t hide the fact that something keeps gnawing at him, something that the town of Fairfield should remember about their history.
“Fairfield is a very historic town...The street names are named after all these town residents but these were slave owners, there’s nothing to memorialize the slaves,” Lurie said. “I’m hoping that these people’s names don’t get erased from Fairfield’s history.”
McEvoy and Lurie are planning to mentor current undergraduate students on their research, part of a plan to keep the research alive -- one that even after nearly 30 years is a starting point for so many more questions, discussions and reflections.
“There’s so many sources that we haven’t looked through, so many places we haven’t sought to explore, so many avenues like the laws of slavery, population density of slave-owning households,” McEvoy said. “There are so many avenues that other people can continue with this work.”