Fairfield 375: Fairfield shared in state's shameful legacy of slavery
EDITOR'S NOTE: Fairfield, established in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest communities. From its settlement 375 years ago by English colonists on "four squares" of land that Native Americans called Uncoway to the vibrant town of 60,000 residents that it is today, Fairfield's history is a chronicle of compelling events and colorful characters.
The Fairfield Citizen will highlight vignettes from that rich history throughout this 375th anniversary year on a regular basis.
The following summary of the history of slavery in Fairfield was written by Elizabeth Rose, director of the library at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, for the museum's exhibit, "Promise of Freedom: Emancipation Proclamation." The exhibit was on display from September 2012 through February.
At the time of the American Revolution, Connecticut had more slaves than any colony in New England -- over 5,000. The town of Fairfield had the highest percentage of slaves in Fairfield County, with one in seven households owning slaves.
Most of these slaveholders owned one or two slaves. They included the most prominent members of the community: Half of all ministers, lawyers and public officials owned slaves, as well as a third of all doctors.
Ownership of slaves was highest in cities and towns like Fairfield, New London, New Haven and Hartford, where wealthy families used slaves as domestic servants, laborers or artisans.
Since Connecticut farmers did not grow crops like cotton or rice that required large numbers of workers, plantation-style slavery did not develop here as it did in the South.
Connecticut had a strict "slave code" during the 1700s to regulate the behavior of enslaved people. Slaves were to be off the streets by 9 p.m., and slaves caught wandering about without a pass could be arrested as runaways and whipped.
It was illegal to help a slave run away, and someone suspected of being a runaway could be arrested and held in prison without a warrant. Slaves could not gather in groups larger than three without a white person, and could not sell goods without a permit.
Connecticut was the last state in New England to free its slaves after the American Revolution. After rejecting several proposals, the Legislature provided for gradual emancipation in the revised state statues adopted in 1785. This measure freed no living slaves, but mandated that every slave born after March 1, 1784, would be freed at age 25.
Connecticut fully abolished slavery outright in 1848. By that time, there were only a small number of slaves left in the state.