Hidden History: Connecticut Freedom Trail

(WTNH) — For slaves seeking freedom, it was a race against time.

“Canada ended slavery in 1833 so Canada was kind of like the promised land for a fugitive,” said Todd Levine, the Connecticut Freedom Trail.

The home of Uriel Tuttle in Torrington was a welcome safe haven on that journey of the Underground Railroad. The house was built around 1800. Tuttle opened his doors to escaped slaves and was dedicated to the abolitionist cause. At that time, helping slaves was illegal.

“It became very dangerous for a family to become an underground railroad station,” said Levine.

You could face up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 fine, which was a fortune back then. Hiding away runaway slaves wasn’t always as covert and secretive as many people may think.

“Another misconception is things like hidden tunnels, secret compartments…they do exist in some places, but generally the way the traveling slaves got to safe houses was traveling by night– either by foot, wagon, horse or boat,” said Levine.

They would likely walk right through the front door and then hide in the attic during the day.

“Fugitive slaves were generally young men alone, not families. Generally, one single guy trying to make his way,” said Levine.

Some slaves fought for their freedom in a different way– hand to hand combat. Slaves on the ship, Amistad, used this technique.

“South Africans were kidnapped and taken from their home and sold into slavery. They were on their way to a Cuban plantation when they rose up and took control of their vessel and tried to make their way back home,” said Levine.

The ship ended up in New London, but the trial made it all the way to the Supreme Court, with many heroes stepping up along the way.

“John Quincy Adams, former president, who came out of retirement to argue successfully that all men are created equal,” said Levine.

Other heroes like Samuel and Catherine Deming who lived in Farmington in a house that is now part of Miss Porter’s School, were a beacon of hope for the Mendis and all slaves seeking freedom.

“For the Underground Railroad, Farmington became Grand Central Station,” said Levine.

After the Mendi slaves won their freedom, the Demings provided a place to stay.

“What Deming did was building dormitories for them on his land in one of his buildings so that the Mendis could have a place to stay and learn,” said Levine.

Other residents of Farmington rose up in support as well.

“The whole town of Farmington came together including the municipality, in order to send these guys back home,” said Levine.

Along the Freedom Trail to Norwich was the birthplace of David Ruggles. He was a free black man who is said to have helped over 600 slaves.

“We do know a little bit about some of the folks he helped to rescue from slavery. One of them was Frederick Douglass,” said Dale Plummer, City of Norwich Historian.

What we have learned is that folks in this community and others across the state really took a stand. Doing so back then was considered controversial.

“Some very powerful people in the anti-slavery movement came from Connecticut,” said Plummer.

They took courageous action toward protecting freedom and human dignity.

“These are the stories of the freedom trail. These are the stories of overcoming impossible odds to gain their freedom,” said Levine.

Click here for information on the number of Underground Railroad sites all around the state.

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