The abolitionist movement in Connecticut and elsewhere involved both white and African American individuals, free and enslaved, male and female, famous and not famous who committed themselves to work together to eradicate slavery. In 1837, in its Fourth Annual Report, the American Anti-Slavery Society identified 29 anti-slavery societies in Connecticut. To accomplish their goal, abolitionists employed various methods including colonization schemes, legal and political action, emphasizing slavery as a sin and “moral suasion” or appealing to the ethical principles of the public to convince them that slavery was wrong. The weapons used included anti-slavery publications, conferences, public speeches, purchases, legal challenges, petitions to the General Assembly and the U.S. Congress, Underground Railroad activity and even armed rebellion. Unpopular even among some who opposed slavery, abolitionists were often viewed as “fanatics” who jeopardized the stability of the country.
The Underground Railroad
Slavery existed in America from the earliest period of colonial settlement at the beginning of the 17th century until it was abolished in 1865 by passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. While some slaves became free through legal means, many who wanted freedom chose to escape from their owners and find a safe location. This system began during America's colonial period and led to laws that penalized persons who assisted runaway slaves. In 1793, the United States government passed its Fugitive Slave Act that allowed for the capture and return to slavery of any runaway slave living in a free state. As it developed over the years, the Underground Railroad, which was neither underground nor a railroad, provided a series of safe havens, or stations, for fugitive slaves who were making their way to the Northern states, Canada or other locations.
The North Star was a guide for runaway slaves leaving the South, but once on the Underground Railroad, the participants were conducted by foot, wagon, horse or boat to a private house, barn or church where they would be hidden until it was possible to send them to the next northward-bound location. This operation required the cooperation of free African Americans, Native Americans and whites. It also required secrecy since free participants could be charged with breaking the law in helping slaves escape their owners. This secrecy has made it difficult to document fully what buildings in Connecticut were used in the Underground Railroad and often this information has survived only in oral tradition.
Fugitive slaves entered Connecticut at a number of points. Some passed through the state by way of Stamford, New Haven or Old Lyme, often traveling on to Farmington, the "Grand Central Station" in Connecticut. From there, they headed north to Westfield or Springfield, Massachusetts. Some traveled to Springfield by way of Middletown, Hartford and other communities along the Connecticut River. Those who passed through the state by way of New London or Westerly, Rhode Island, went north to Norwich and Putnam, and then to Worcester, Massachusetts. A western Connecticut route included Waterbury, New Milford, Washington, Torrington, Winchester and Winsted. Slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad would sometimes choose to settle in communities along the way. There are several examples of these communities on the Freedom Trail, including “Little Liberia” in Bridgeport, Jail Hill in Norwich and the William Winters Neighborhood in Deep River.
Some of the buildings listed cannot be documented with precision. Their inclusion on the Freedom Trail, however, is based on written histories, studies and traditions.