In a back corner of Middletown’s Riverside Cemetery stands a gravestone that reads, “Sambo, Negro servant to Thomas Hulbert, died April 24th, 1776, aged about 70 years.” The stone is all that is left to remember a man who might serve as a symbol of Middletown’s early inhabitants from Africa.
The first Africans came here unwillingly, ripped from their families and forced into slavery. Those who survived the terrible sea crossings faced lives of forced servitude in a place where life was strange and threatening. Their struggles and sufferings were obviously far greater than those of other immigrants here.
A very few Africans may have been in Middletown as early as the 1660s. In 1687, Middletown minister Noadiah Russell noted in his diary, “at night, Mr. Hamlings negro woman was delivered [of] a boy.” The Africans’ numbers increased in the coming decades, both through births and new arrivals from Africa or the West Indies, where slave trading flourished.
Sambo himself was probably born in Africa. Although his name has a derogatory sense today, its original meaning in Africa was “second son.” As with most slaves, little is known of Sambo’s life. He probably was brought here as a boy, and may have grown up with his white “master,” Thomas Hulbert. A blacksmith, Hulbert lived in Middletown’s North End; Sambo lived with the family, and his tasks probably included farming, household work, and helping in the blacksmith shop. We don’t know if Sambo had a wife or children. Yet the fact that he was remembered with a carved gravestone–an expensive and unusual luxury for a slave–indicates that he was beloved and mourned.
By the time Sambo was 50 years old, in 1756, there were over 200 other slaves living in Middletown. Gradually, Connecticut began to pass laws limiting slavery. By 1790, about a third of Middletown’s African Americans were free. A handful had received their freedom in exchange for fighting in the Revolutionary War; some were freed by their owners; others purchased their freedom with money they earned from work outside of their forced labor. Two years later, a new Connecticut law emancipated all slaves between the ages of 25 and 45. But it was not until 1848 that Connecticut completely outlawed slavery in the state.
During the 1800s, Middletown’s black population declined drastically, as many families moved to larger cities with greater opportunities. The African Americans who remained here overcame enormous odds to succeed, becoming teachers, firefighters, business owners, dressmakers, sailors, ministers, and much more. Many of the men fought bravely as Union solders in the Civil War.
Today, the community still boasts descendants of some of Middletown’s early African immigrants. The scarcity of objects to represent them reflects the injustice of slavery: as slaves, African men and women had few (if any) possessions to leave behind, and their histories were largely unrecorded.
Few vestiges remain of Middletown’s early African immigrants. For over a century they were slaves, and as such had little to mark their lives here. The gravestones of Sambo and Fillis, which stand in a back corner of Riverside Cemetery, are rare examples.
In the 1700s, gravestones were luxury items that many–perhaps half of Middletown’s population–could not afford. Though simple, these two carved stones stand as testimony that Sambo and Fillis were beloved and important. Because slaves’ lives were rarely documented by the white men who controlled society, these gravestones are the only known objects to show that Sambo and Fillis existed.
Manumission Document, 1779
Mimbo was about 35 years old in 1779 when this document, signed by her three white male “masters,” officially granted her freedom. Judging from her name, it is probable that Mimbo (also known as Membo) was born in Africa and came here as a young child.
She was the slave of Judge Seth Wetmore and his wife Hannah, and lived in their mansion (which still stands today on Washington Street Extension). The Wetmores’ daughter Lucy was about the same age as Mimbo, and the two girls probably grew up together, though obviously in vastly different circumstances.
Once freed, Mimbo supported herself, until in 1815 she contracted smallpox, which left her blind, infirm and unable to work. Lucy Wetmore (who became Lucy Whittelsey at her marriage) aided Mimbo with care and supplies, but billed the town of Middletown for her expenses. When Lucy Whittelsey died in 1826, her will declared: “If poor blind Mimbo should outlive me, I enjoin it upon my children…that they never forsake her but to see…that she is comfortably supported and has those little indulgences & gratifications which conduce so much to the comfort & enjoyment of old age.”
Nevertheless, Whittelsey’s children applied to the town for money to care for Mimbo, who at her death in June of 1828 received a pauper’s burial from the town.
Connecticut Courant, September 22, 1766
Connecticut Courant, December 9, 1776
In 1766, Timothy Miller placed a newspaper advertisement offering three African children for sale. A sea captain, Miller may have purchased the children on one of his voyages to the West Indies. Their names and fates are unknown.
Likewise, Dr. Eliot Rawson, a Middletown physician, offered for sale “a likely Negro woman, about 25 years old, with three likely children” in 1776. Unlike many other white owners, Rawson specified that the slaves should go together to “a good Master.”
It appears that Rawson did not, after all, sell his slaves at that time; in 1780, he entered into the town records the following resolution: “Eliot Rawson…being truly desirous to do everything in my power to relieve all of those who are suffering for their country, for liberty, or for righteousness sake, do will and determine that my five Africans or Negroes shall be free…that Phyllis Rawson shall be free, in six months from the first day of June, that Duchess Rawson, Francis Rawson, Lettice Rawson and Eve Rawson, shall be made free at twenty-four years of age….”
Revolutionary War document, 1780
The first three men named on this 1780 list of Middletown’s Revolutionary War recruits were African Americans. Peter Tumina, Exeter Freeman, and Peter Middletown were three of approximately a dozen black men from Middletown who enlisted as soldiers.
Early in the war, the idea of blacks in the military was frowned upon in Connecticut, but a shortage of troops soon changed that. Soon African Americans were eagerly recruited and fought alongside white soldiers in integrated units.
Some white slave-owners liberated their slaves to allow them to enlist as soldiers, giving additional meaning to the Revolution as a war for liberty.
Connecticut Courant, April 3, 1769
Middlesex Gazette, September 14, 1793
Occasionally, slaves were able to escape from their white masters in Middletown. Most of those who dared were young and male. The newspaper advertisements detailing their flights often revealed rare personal information about the escapees, such as the fact that Bristo was a good fiddler (despite the loss of a finger on each hand), and could read well.
The fates of both Bristo and Francis are unknown.