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Slavery and Abolition

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About Slavery and Abolition

This research is part of an Eagle Scout project by Andrew Foster of Troop 27 in Durham. Andrew Foster also suggested two plaques be placed in Durham recognizing the contributions of enslaved people and abolitionists in this town. Special thanks to the Coginchaug Valley Education Foundation for their financial support, as well as United Churches of Durham and the Durham Historical Society, where the two plaques are located. 

 Slavery is often thought of as an institution that was largely prominent in the southern portion of the United States. While it is true that the vast majority of slaves were concentrated in the predominantly agricultural South, there were still a large number of enslaved people in the North up until the middle of the 19th century. Of the New England states, Connecticut had the largest slave population with 2,648 slaves at the time of the 1790 census. 1 
 With the large concentration of enslaved people in Connecticut, it is no surprise that slavery was present in the town of Durham. Slavery in Durham (and New England as a whole) was different in some significant ways from slavery in the South. In the North, it was uncommon for there to be plantations with tens to hundreds of enslaved people. Most enslaved people in Durham would have performed household chores and smaller agricultural duties and it was rare for a family to own more than one or two slaves. In 1773 there were 44 enslaved people in Durham which accounted for just under four percent of the population of the town. 2 
 Some of the most prominent families in Durham owned slaves. One account describes the sale of an enslaved person described as a “Negro man, about 30 years of age named Ginne,” from Mary Merwin to Elnathan Chauncey in 1759. Another source describes accounts from an enslaved person named Devonshire, who was owned by Reverend Chauncey of Durham. The anecdotes describe Devonshire attending church and taking notes on the sermon and Reverend Chauncey explaining to him why they were going to pray for their crops even though it was not the Sabbath. 3 
 Many were opposed to slavery and, after tireless work by freed slaves and abolitionists in Connecticut, the Gradual Abolition Act was passed in 1784. Although the law made positive progress toward total abolition, it also allowed slavery to persist in Connecticut for another 60 years. The number of enslaved people in Connecticut declined from over 2,600 in 1790 to under 100 in 1820. The last enslaved person was finally freed in 1848. 4
 Shortly after 1804, when all Northern states had voted to move toward ending slavery within their boundaries, the abolitionist movement began to advocate for total abolition of the institution, and the freeing of the over two million enslaved people still living in the South. There were people in Durham involved in this movement. While at this point, the number of slaves was decreasing in the North, the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law required that any southern slaves who escaped north still had to be returned. This created the Underground Railroad, which was a secret network of abolitionists working together to help escaped slaves. 
 In next-door Middlefield, William Lyman was well-known as an abolitionist and even helped enslaved people escape through the Underground Railroad. He was ridiculed by many people in Connecticut for his condemnation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, yet he never compromised his convictions. Lyman, along with others, even wrote a condemnation of the Fugitive Slave Act and sent it to the Middletown Sentinel in 1850. In an excerpt from the letter Lyman wrote: “The Fugitive Slave Law commands all good citizens to be slave catchers; good citizens cannot be slave catchers, any more than light can be darkness.” 5 
 In 1860, Reverend Irem W. Smith delivered a sermon at the Congregational Church in Durham (which later became part of what is now United Churches of Durham) titled, “American Slavery, a prayer for its removal.” In his sermon, Reverend Smith talked about the evils of slavery and how it conflicts with biblical morality. His main focus was encouraging prayer in the name of abolition, although he also talks about the importance of taking action. He wrote: “In short, we should pray, that men may begin now to take the necessary steps in preparing the way for the complete emancipation of every slave in this country.” 6 
 The abolitionist efforts in Durham also extended to having soldiers fight for the Union during the Civil War. A comprehensive Durham historical timeline documents that 100 men served from Durham during the war. A book called A Noble and Glorious Cause names three specific soldiers from Durham who fought, although there were many others. These men are 1st Lieutenant Ira Graham, Private Samuel Camp, and Corporal David Robinson. As a small town, Durham did not have its own military regiment, so these soldiers fought with soldiers from other towns. 7

[1] “Connecticut Abolitionists”, National Park Service, last updated: August 18, 2017,,Connecticut%20was%20practiced%20until%201848

[2] William Chauncey Fowler, History of Durham Connecticut, published by the Town of Durham, 1866, pages 161-162

[3] Fowler, History of Durham, page 163

[1] “Connecticut Abolitionists”

[4] “Lyman ancestor was considered an 'early, earnest and steadfast abolitionist”, The Middletown Press, April 10 2009,
[5] Irem W. Smith, American Slavery, a Prayer for its removal, Published in Middletown, 1860
[6] Thomas E La Lancette, “A Noble and Glorious Cause”, Middletown CT: Godfrey Memorial Library, Copyright 2005, pages 96-98

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