Museum artifacts tell of Connecticut’s rich Black history

Natalie Belanger

Photo by Patrick L. Sullivan

Museum artifacts tell of Connecticut’s rich Black history

FALLS VILLAGE — Natalie Belanger, adult programs manager at the Connecticut Museum of Culture and History in Hartford, spoke at the David M. Hunt Library Thursday, Feb. 22, about Black history in Connecticut to an audience consisting of Lee H. Kellogg middle school students and a dozen or so adults.

Belanger had a slide show that focused on artifacts from the museum’s collection, starting with a receipt for a slave dated 1772.

“We’ve got a lot of these,” she said.

A document from 1782 dealt with an indentured servant, who would be freed after completing 20 years’ service.

This reflected the gradual approach Connecticut took toward eliminating slavery, as opposed to Massachusetts, which simply outlawed the practice.

A powder horn, used to keep gunpowder dry, was made by John Bush, a free Black artisan, in 1756. Belanger said the intricately carved and crafted horn is just one of many examples of Bush’s work in museums and collections.

She touched on James Mars, whose 1868 autobiography “A Life of James Mars, a Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut, Written by Himself” addressed a problem Mars identified — that younger people in 1868 had little or no knowledge that slavery did occur in Connecticut.

Belanger said it was important to Mars that the historical record be accurate.

Belanger talked about other notable Black people in Connecticut, including:

— James Pennington (1807-1870), the first Black student at Yale and a friend of Frederick Douglass.

Charles Ethan Porter (1847-1923), regarded as one of the finest American still life painters — Mark Twain bought several of his paintings.

A photo of Hartford’s Shiloh Baptist Church from the 1920s is instructive. Belanger said as American Blacks moved from the Reconstruction and Jim Crow South to northern cities in search of work, they brought a very different kind of Christianity with them, which sometimes clashed with the customs of the Black people already there.

Belanger mentioned Ann Petry (1908-1997) of Old Saybrook, whose 1946 novel “The Street” sold a million copies and brought unwanted fame to the author.

And there is a direct link to Black history in the form of the minor league baseball team the Hartford Yard Goats, who, once a year, don replica Negro League uniforms to honor Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor (1916-1987), a tremendously talented ballplayer who was coveted by major league teams well before Jackie Robinson became the first Black major leaguer in 1947.

Belanger said a scout suggested Taylor change his name to something Spanish and pretend to be a Cuban as a way around the color barrier, but Taylor refused.

Belanger urged the audience to come visit the museum. “I drove it today,” she exclaimed. “It’s not that far.”

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