Born in Struggle, 1819-1860:
Formation of Black community

In the Colonial past, one's intrinsic qualities, such as skin color, had less to do with a person's social condition than relationships with others. It was Blacks' relation of personal dependency, whether in the form of slavery or domestic service, that slowed the formation of community - a more certain basis for Black social development than striving to join the white bourgeoisie. Only a few Blacks suceeded, and to an extent a condition of their doing so was to distance themselves from their social roots.

For most Blacks, it should have been quite evident not only that their successful rise into the bourgeosie was improbable, but the new political order was establishing barriers to make it nearly impossible. The bourgeoisie had give reason to a broader segment of the people to support their revolution, but when it came time to write the state constitutions, that promise was betrayed.

Constitution Here is the sixth article of the Connecticut State Constitution of 1818 that defines voting qualifications (photocopy of original in the Connecticut Historical Society Library). Section one was a grandfather clause that protects the voting rights of all persons who are freemen prior to the Constitution's ratification. However, section 2 specifies a list of hurdles that a person must jump in order to vote: he must be white, male, twenty one, a town resident six months, and own real estate of a certain minimum value or have performed military service, or paid property taxes to the state, etc. Women and Blacks were therefore excluded from having political power, and so too were those not owning significant property. For most Black people, then, the only way to achieve dignity and some influence over the course of affairs would be to organize outside the political system. This could only take place on the basis of Black community.

There are indications that Black community formation was taking place in spite of forces working in the opposite direction. One indicator would be the proximity of Black homes. Unlike today, when "property" means anything having intrinsic cash value, around the time of the American Revolution it specifically referred to income-producing property. That is, property was not just a thing in itself, as in its present meaning, but also implied an economic relation to others in the community, your customers and employees. Therefore mere home ownership did not represent an ownership of "property," and therefore it did not carry with it the civic rights associated with property ownership.

map of Windosor Street, Hartford. 1825 Nevertheless, owning a home did mean some degree of economic independence from the old paternalistic ties, and so opened the way for the formation of social bonds within the Black population.

Shown here is an 1825 map of the area just to the North of Hartford, along the "Road to Windsor" (from Gordon W. Russel, "Up Neck" in 1825.)

At the bottom, running northwest, is the road "To Albany." If modern Windsor Street was created later as an industrial shortcut, then this road to Windsor would be modern North Main Street. The first street north of the road to Albany was Belden's Lane (now Belden Street). In 1825 it marked the northern extent of the incorporated city of Hartford. In other words, this map is of suburbs, although there were already commercial properties scattered among the homes of many of the city elite, safely above the North Meadow flood plain to the road's east. At the top of this map is the home of Josiah Capen, which marks what is now Capen Street.

Today, between Belden and Capen Streets lie two important streets that also run west: Mather Street and Mahl Avenue. Mahl Avenue is in effect an extension of Greenfield Street, and indeed, on the map is shown the home of Archibald Greenfield. From that point, running West in 1825, was "Nigger Lane" supposedly because there were some Black-owned homes there. It is said that this street was later renamed Pine Street before becoming Mather Street, but more likely it was today's Mahl Avenue.

It seems that by this time there were neighborhoods in which Black homes were concentrated. An early one was apparently a group of homes on the banks of the Park River between what is now the Bushnell Park pond and the old stone bridge that allowed Main Street to pass over the river. This was once the longest stone span in the New World, but has lost that honor and today serves only to separate the cars on the highway below from the books stored above (in main branch of the Hartford Public Library). The community's subsequent destruction to build the Country's first urban Park may be the earliest example of the use of "Urban Renewal" in the US to destroy undesirable communities.

There is reason to suspect that the beginning of the North End Black community may be found in this Nigger Lane just north of the 1825 city limits, but these speculations about early Black communities need considerably more research such as an archaeological dig under the northwest corner of Bushnell Park. In any case, with a Black community in place, struggle for change could begin to take place.

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