The first U.S. Census for Connecticut lists six black men as owners of slaves, notably a New London County man named Prince, who is shown as owning four people.
In his doctoral dissertation on the lives of black people in Colonial-era Connecticut, Guocun Yang says this demonstrates that "slave-ownership was not exclusively a white privilege, and that free blacks could accumulate material wealth." This ownership by black people of black people also demonstrates the ubiquity of slavery in Connecticut at that time, and the social acceptance of the institution, he says. Still, black owners represent less than one-half of one percent of the state's 1,563 slave owners in 1790.
That first federal census shows that 413 free black families, none of whom owned slaves, were living in Connecticut. Though many black people still lived in slavery, many others had been freed by their owners or had purchased their own freedom. Some black men had also been freed in exchange for their war service. Scholars say that the gust of freedom that blew through the colonies at the time of the American Revolution prompted many slaveholders to free the people they held in bondage.
In his authoritative 1942 survey "The Negro in Colonial New England," Lorenzo J. Greene says that despite the many legal and social sanctions against black people in late 18th-century Connecticut, they were permitted to own property, though sometimes the permission of the town was required.
Greene's research also shows that freed black men usually tried to reassemble their families in freedom, and would, as soon as they were able, buy their wives and children. He cites the case of a Wethersfield man named Abner who was given his freedom in 1777 and four years later bought his wife, Zepporah, for the British pound-equivalent of about $180. In the 1790 census, Connecticut showed an enslaved population of 2,648. In the South in 1830, more than 3,600 free blacks or mixed-race people owned slaves, according to Kenneth Stampp, author of the 1956 landmark study "The Peculiar Institution." A few were substantial planters, but the great majority of these slave owners, he explains, had purchased family members or spouses whom they had been unable to emancipate under existing law.
Yang, now a college professor, notes that Venture Smith, who lived one of America's most famous slavery-to-freedom stories and wrote an autobiography, is not listed in the census, though Smith owned substantial property in the East Haddam area and owned two slaves.
"Being after this labor forty years of age, I worked at various places, and in particular on Ram Island, where I purchased Solomon and Cuff, two sons of mine, for two hundred dollars each," he wrote in "A Narrative of the Life and Adven-tures of Venture, a Native of Africa."
"After this I purchased a negro man, for no other reason than to oblige him, and gave for him sixty pounds," Smith wrote, also noting that the man promptly ran away.Copyright © 2015, CT Now