Examining Wilton’s History: Racial Inequality, Justice, and Activism–Part 1: Slavery and Minstrel Shows

An Unnamed Wilton Slave (L, undated) and Black Jack Tonquin (1812 -1893), a slave in Wilton owned by the Belden family. Permanent Collection, Wilton Historical Society

As part of our pledge to tell more diverse stories and better reflect all of Wilton, GOOD Morning Wilton has committed to take a deeper dive into looking at who we are as a community and where we’ve come from. Reporter Lily Kepner took on a project to start delving into Wilton’s history–the good, bad, and truthful. This is the first of many articles we plan to do on the subject of race in Wilton. 

We’re publishing a multi-part series to kick off this week, looking at “Racial Inequality, Justice, and Activism in Wilton.” Part 1 traces the town’s complicated involvement in slavery and the abolitionist movement, as well as more recent theatrical bigotry.


Today, America is erupting into discussion, protests, and action in response to racism, police brutality, and injustice nationwide. It’s clear we’re in a movement; however, our action now, as a nation and a town, raises a question–have we been here before?

Though today’s inequalities may look different from the past, recent events have shown the nation undoubtedly maintains disparities. Just as national news now awakens us to our country’s troubled history with race, examining our own town shows us we are not an exception to a complicated past.

Over the past two weeks, GOOD Morning Wilton investigated the history of race, activism, and inaction in Wilton, to contribute to the discussion of what we can do better today. Wilton’s history with race is complicated and started long before the Civil Rights Movement. From violent pro-slavery bombings in the early 1800s to a barber denying service to a Black child in the 1950s to microaggressions in our schools and town today, it’s clear that despite many positive actions, Wilton is far from perfect.

Our research encompasses documents from the Wilton Library History Room, archived Wilton Bulletin articles sent to us by Julie Hughes, the History Room Archivist for Wilton, and resources from the Wilton Historical Society sent by associate curator Nick Foster. GMW also reached out to Robert Russell, author of Wilton, Connecticut:  Three Centuries of People, Places, and Progress, and other long-time residents of the community for their perspective as well.

In our investigation, we set out to find not the good or the bad in our past, but the truth. Though we recognize our limitations with the resources and documents available to us, we have done our best to begin to present an unvarnished look at Wilton’s history. This is an ongoing project, and we encourage people to share their own memories of Wilton and experiences with us as well.

Early Abolitionist Activism–and Opposition

The Wilton Historical Society released a video on June 17, 2020, entitled “History is Here–Episode 11, Am I Not A Man and a Brother:  History of Slavery in Wilton.” The video credits former high school students Megan Downey, Eve Mandel, Nina Mellin, Kyle Nash, and Ian Sanders for much of the research, and was narrated by Foster. It discusses the complicated history of slavery in the town and state, beyond the simplified narrative they say has often been promoted.

After the Pequot War (1636-38), the state of Connecticut sent enslaved Native Americans to the Caribbean in exchange for enslaved Africans. By the American Revolution, Connecticut had the largest number of slaves in New England, numbering around 5,000 enslaved people. Wilton’s first slaves arrived in 1734, and Norwalk, which governed Wilton at the time, counted 136 slaves. Famous Wilton families–the Comstocks, the Lamberts, the Keelers, and the Middlebrooks–were among those who took advantage of the work of enslaved people, according to the video.

Photo illustration: Lambert House (original image courtesy Wilton Historical Society)

“There are no monuments, no tombstones, and few traces of these men and women who contributed meaningfully to the development of the town,” the students wrote in their account, calling Wilton’s a “small but prominent slave presence,” and one that was well documented through the 18th and 19th centuries.

“After the Revolution, the practice of keeping slaves became more widespread. The Belden family owned a Native American slave named Bill Tonquin. He married a black slave named Haggar Tonquin who was owned by Samuel Belden II, born in 1770, and the last slave in Wilton. Bill and Haggar Tonquin lived in the Belden store at the corner of Ridgefield Road and Danbury Pike and had three children, ‘Prince’, ‘Nancy’, and ‘Black Jack’. Prince, born in 1795, married a slave from Long Island who lived with Captain Belden’s son, Colonel William Belden. Nancy married the previously mentioned ‘Black Harry’. Black Jack married three times and was [a] notable figure in Wilton, known and liked by all. According to his obituary, by the time of his death, he was ‘nearly blind’ and had been’supported by the town for several years’.”

 

–”Slavery in Wilton, A Hidden Legacy Prepared for the Wilton Historical Society
Meaghan Downey, Eve Mandel, Nina Mellin, Kyle Nash, Ian Sanders
June 16, 2017

Their account also takes a white history teller’s perspective, detailing how common the “respect and generosity” was with which Wilton slaves were treated by their enslavers. Town records show that enslaved peoples were baptized and married in Wilton churches, taught to read, given property, and regarded with “fondness” by their owners.

Notwithstanding perspective, the research does examine Wilton’s engagement with slavery, and is a credit to the Wilton Historical Society’s collection of records of the times. Among the items mentioned is a deed from the sale of a slave purchased by David Lambert “for forty-two pounds and ten shillings.” The students theorized that the few records that remain suggest “…people likely tried to conceal their family records of slaves when the abolitionist movement became popular in Wilton.”

Deed for the sale of “Jack” from Joshua Jennings to David Lambert, May 9, 1757. Permanent Collection, Wilton Historical Society

The push for abolition grew in the late 1700s, as some people and organizations like the Quakers began denouncing the evils of slavery, while other Wiltonians insisted on the rights of property owners. According to Russell’s book on Wilton, the state’s gradual emancipation law enacted in 1784 allowed slaves born after that year to be freed on their 25th birthday; it did not, however, apply to slaves already born. Thus the first slaves were legally freed in 1809, even as some enslavers resisted abolition. By the late 1830s and 1840s, the abolition movement in Wilton had progressed, but not to everyone’s favor.

Reverend Nathaniel Colver, a member of the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society, called Fairfield County the “Georgia of Connecticut,” a play on William Lloyd Garrison’s words calling Connecticut the “Georgia of the North.” According to Russell’s book, the full quote described Fairfield County not only as the Georgia of Connecticut but “the dark part of the state, full of intemperance and the spirit of slavery.”

The tunnel at The Ovals, the house originally owned by the Wakeman family, which was used for the transportation of slaves through the Underground Railroad. 2000, Connecticut Commission on Tourism and Culture

Colver spoke out against slavery at the Georgetown Baptist Church, prompting violence from anti-abolitionists outside who threw rocks at the building. According to Russell’s book, on the night of Nov. 29, 1838, an unidentified pro-slavery supporter threw a keg of gunpowder at the church, causing an explosion. Later, an anti-slavery meeting was bombed, sending glass shards from the broken windows into the assembled group, although no members were killed.

Nonetheless, in 1848, the state officially banned slavery. The last enslaved person in Wilton was recorded in the 1830 census as property of the Belden family. She was born in 1770, and her name was Haggar Tonquin.

Despite the violence, during Civil War-time there was GOOD in the town that prevailed. The Wakeman family turned their Seely House Wilton home (36 Seeley Rd.) into an Underground Railroad stop, caring for and feeding escaped slaves overnight on their journey to Canada, even digging a tunnel under their home. The Wakemans were both station keepers and conductors, sending supplies to other stations along the route.

In-Between Years:  Post-War Minstrel Shows 

After the Civil War, even though Wilton had affirmed its opposition to slavery, it was far from defeating discrimination.

A July 8, 1912 article from The Norwalk Hour illustrates that a Wilton Equal Franchise League fundraising event to help women gain the right to vote involved a “freak” show in which blackface was used. The article states this fact casually, noting, “the fearful and wonderful freaks devised by the clever young people in charge were the limit of fun. and not one of the many patrons begrudged “the dime, ten cents” enticed from them by the blacked up ‘barkers.‘” [emphasis added] The quote shows the limit of the activism, which was clearly not intersectional.

Hughes, Wilton’s current historical archivist, said that this event was one of two suffrage fairs to her knowledge, both held at the Schenck’s estate, where Stop & Shop is located today. It’s unknown who approved the show at the first event or if it was repeated at the second one.

But this was not a historical rarity in Wilton. A file in Wilton Library’s History Room reveals that Wilton often hosted minstrel shows in town–a form of entertainment often performed by white people in blackface that perpetuated damaging stereotypes of Black Americans. These shows perpetuated racist attitudes and became popular in the nation in the early-to-mid 1800s. In particular, they were responsible for the creation of the “Jim Crow” character and had lasting effects on the country.

Minstrel shows were not an unusual occurrence in town–in fact, they were an ingrained part of the local culture for several decades. A play review in the Bulletin on February 8, 1940, titled “‘Darkies’ Jamboree’ Seen in Georgetown” revealed that children were invited to the dress rehearsal. In the review, they were described as the “perfect” audience, and “their hearty laughter did much to assure the players.” Children’s involvement continued in 1942 when children were invited to submit jokes for the show, and the three ‘best’ jokes were awarded prizes. The prizes were delivered by three actors who impersonated the town selectmen, another way that the shows were tailored to the local audience.

Minstrel shows were both entertainment and fundraising sources, encouraged and utilized by Wilton officials. Shows were often held at Town Hall and were planned annually to benefit the town’s Volunteer Fire Department. Records show the “Wilton Volunteer Firemen’s Minstrel Show” listed in the 1938 issue of the Bulletin calendar, though it likely began earlier. An article on the show notes, “[the writing] in the last few years is making the Wilton show more and more local event, depending little on borrowed gags.”

In 1941, two new radios were door prizes at the “Firemen’s Minstrel.” The event was so commonly known that a Volunteer Fire Department ad published on Nov. 20, 1944, to encourage residents to support the fire department included the line “DON’T COME TO THE MINSTREL SHOW and say ‘I’ve done my part.'” A 1964 issue of the Bulletin announced that the minstrel show was discontinued, but it was unclear if it had been discontinued that year or earlier.

In some cases, minstrel shows were held to benefit local churches, including Our Lady of Fatima in Wilton and Georgetown’s Sacred Heart Church. The OLF show’s Men’s Club put on an annual minstrel show starting in 1954; a Bulletin article reported that, by its second year, the cast numbered 70 people. It’s unclear when it was discontinued.

In 1954, Wilton was a very White town, though that would soon change.

On the cusp on the Civil Rights Movement, Wilton found advocates for change in many places as well as new neighbors changing the face of Wilton. But not everyone was welcoming or pushed as hard for equality. In tomorrow’s Part 2 of the series, GMW looks at who in Wilton helped in the effort to promote racial justice at home and in the South, how much things changed–or didn’t–and what it was like for one family who soon called Wilton ‘home’.

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