'African American Connecticut Explored'

The book team: Elizabeth J. Normen, left, Katherine J.Harris, Wm. Frank Mitchell, Stacy K. Close, Olivia White. (John Groo / March 17, 2013)

The history of slavery in Connecticut is a tragic one. The story of African Americans in Connecticut has included living with bias, cruelty and disregard; despicable treatment balanced by hope, perseverance and tenacity.

These experiences are told through essays in a new book titled "African American Connecticut Explored," 390 pages of essays by many of the state's leading historians documenting subjects including slavery from the earliest years of the state's colonization to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century.

Topics including the black governors of Connecticut, the letters of Joseph O. Cross of the 29th Regiment of Colored Volunteers in the Civil War, the civil rights efforts of baseball great Jackie Robinson and stories of well-known Connecticut African Americans are a part of this impressive compilation. There are pages and chapters on Tuskegee Airman Connie Nappier Jr., actress Gwendolyn Reed, opera singer Marian Anderson and black abolitionists, including the Rev. Amos Berman and Rev. James Pennington in the anthology published by Wesleyan University Press.

An official book launch is planned for Monday, Jan. 20, on Martin Luther King Day at an invitation-only event at The Amistad Center for Art & Culture in Hartford. The book represents a collaborative effort by the magazine, Connecticut Explored, and the Amistad Center with support from the State Historic Preservation Office and Connecticut's Freedom Trail. The book team included Katherine J. Harris, Stacy K. Close, Wm. Frank Mitchell and Olivia White. Editor Elizabeth Normen was proud to share the project's path and its significance as an intimate look into the state's history as she Spilled the Beans with Java.

Q: What is the 'why' behind the book and how long did it take to put it together?

A: We are thrilled and excited about the book that our magazine, Connecticut Explored, had actually planned to published for its 10th anniversary in 2011. We had this naive idea we would take essays we had published over the 10 years and put them in an anthology to mark the anniversary. Or that was the genesis of the idea. It took longer than we expected. We had 23 essays that had appeared in the magazine but that wasn't enough so we turned to artisan and heritage organizations and the Amistad Center for culture and said 'we need to flush this book out into a full book form.' So we put together a team of five key people and went out and sought essays from other previous published books, or dissertations and even asked some people to write for the book, contextual essays that would link the more personal essays together.

Q: What is the intent of the book?

A: I knew we already had good stories about the history of African Americans in Connecticut, great, interesting stories that spanned centuries. Once we started digging around, we found more great stories about African American life and scholarship and other stories. And we wanted to put it together in a way to get readers to read the entire story. We definitely wanted to educate people. That is what our magazine is about, bringing history to people, primarily at the academic level. This book is much broader than that. We definitely see this book as something for high school students, college students and then just as a general history for those not interested in history at all. We wanted this to be a book people will read and enjoy and hope it brings more attention to our magazine, the Amistad Center. We missed the anniversaries but are excited about what it brings as far as a broader understanding of Connecticut.

Q: As the pieces began coming together what were some of the biggest surprises when it came to the stories you were collecting?

A: I am always surprised. Truth is stranger than fiction. I did not know the story of William Lanson, a New Haven businessman in the early 1800s. I don't think people realize there were black entrepreneurs in that era in Connecticut. The story is about how the white establishment was so afraid of his success and began tearing him down. It's a little bit of a sad story. Throughout these stories, even though you get a sense of the barriers that Connecticut placed on its people, and in these individuals' ways, they succeeded; Ann Petry who wrote "The Narrows," Anna Louise James, Mary Townsend Seymour. Every chapter was like 'oh my gosh, oh my gosh.' When the book was done you found yourself surprised at what you were looking at.

Q: What about the stories of slavery in Connecticut. How difficult was that to read in black and white?

A: I was taken aback by the prominence of slavery in Connecticut. One of the myths we would like to bust is that Connecticut was indeed a slave state, a slave state for 205 of its 380 years. Does anybody think of Connecticut as a slave state? No. historians do know that. But Connecticut not being a slave state or thinking it was more benign or we were nicer to slaves, this book dispels that myth. There are newspaper stories and court records where you will find records of horrible treatment of slaves. Connecticut was not particularly more progressive than any of the Northeast states. And Connecticut was one of the last to abolish slavery. We were pretty racist but at the same time we want to get across through the book that not all African Americans were enslaved. There were very complex dual parallels going on here, we had free African Americans and slavery. Venture Smith is a good example, an 18th century slave who bought his freedom and wrote his life story as both a slave and free man.

Q: Will you be doing a book tour?

A: We are. We are having the launch Monday, Martin Luther King Day at The Amistad Center for Art & Culture and then we have our first program at the Old State House in Hartford at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 22. We have eight others set up and are expecting to do more.

Q: As you put the book together, what in your opinion was some of the biggest challenges Connecticut's African American residents faced and overcame as the decades and the centuries rolled forward?

A: Access to basic civil rights, voting. Petitions started in the 1790s in Connecticut and there were repeated petitions for those rights. African Americans were being taxed. There was rhetoric about equal access to education and voting, and access to jobs and it was a struggle into the 20th century. That's why there was the Civil Rights movement in the '60s. If you sit down and read this book you say, 'I see how long this struggle has been going on.' What our group who out this book together really wanted was for this book to serve as a message, recounting how many success stories, the fascinating, smart, vibrant people. In many ways it is a history of Hartford as told through African American eyes, a look at what we have not seen so thoroughly and comprehensively before.

Q: Do you think the book team and writers of the book have accomplished what the visionaries wanted when the idea was first suggested?

A: None of us wanted the book to be a downer but rather wanted it to be just what it is. Fascinating, interesting. We want people to enjoy the book, but learn about history as well.