UNFORGOTTEN: Connecticut’s Hidden History of Slavery

Written By: Jim Myslik, St. John’s Essex

During  Morning Edition this week (March 18th, 2024), Connecticut Public is airing a five-part series entitled: “Unforgotten: Connecticut’s Hidden History of Slavery.” The series co-producer, Diane Orson, was inspired to tell these stories through her involvement in St. John’s Witness Stone dedication for Violet, a formerly enslaved parishioner.

Anyone who has spent time researching their genealogy using an online system like Ancestry knows that the algorithms used to digitize hand-written documents can produce some pretty strange results. In the spring of 2022, I was attempting to place Violet’s life into context by determining the extent of the Black community in Essex during the decades of 1790 and 1800. The 1800 US Census recorded no enslaved individuals (which wasn’t accurate) and three “free other” families, to be understood as free Black families. These families were headed by men named Caesar, Christopher, and Saxon. Saxon? The computer couldn’t have been more ironic if it tried. Checking the original revealed that his name was in fact Sawn. This was our first encounter with Sawney Freeman, one of the people highlighted in “Unforgotten.”

St. John’s Essex has been exploring our history regarding race and racism as directed by Resolution 7 of ECCT’s 2020 Convention. Led by the Reverend Deacon Geof Smith, our deacon at the time, and our rector, the Reverend Kate Wesch, we formed a partnership with the Witness Stones Project, the Essex Historical Society, and the Local History course at Valley Regional High School. Witness Stones’ stated mission is to “restore the history and honor the humanity of enslaved individuals who helped build our communities.” The genius behind this approach is that it humanizes a fundamentally dehumanizing system by naming enslaved people and presenting their biographies, to the extent that they can be reconstructed from historical evidence–like Violet, a member of St. John’s who was enslaved by a founder of our church and who escaped in 1802; like Sawney Freeman, who was enslaved in Lyme, emancipated in 1793, and lived in Essex for the rest of his life. He, his wife Clarissa and son James are at rest in Riverview Cemetery.

Having found Mr. Freeman, a search of the GenealogyBank newspaper archive resulted in the following ad in the October 7, 1801 issue of the Connecticut Journal, New Haven’s main newspaper.

Figure 1: Connecticut Journal, October 10, 1801, p. 1.

What?! A published Black composer in 1801? Wow, that’s an early date! Deacon Geof optimistically wondered if any of this music survived 221 years. I confess that I thought that probability was really small. Deacon Geof persevered. By a minor miracle, he found a copybook in the Trinity College Library that contained tunes attributed to Sawney Freeman. Shown below is an image of the “New Death March” and “Washington’s Farewell” from this book.

Figure 2: Trumbull, Gurdon, “Gurdon Trumbull Music Copybook, 1817.” Watkinson Rare Books 3, Trinity College (Hartford, CT).

We knew at once that Sawney Freeman’s music would be perfect to accompany Violet’s Witness Stone Dedication and a service that our Rector, the Rev. Kate Wesch, was planning for All Saints 2022. Anthony Pandolfe, St. John’s Director of Music, took on the challenge of modernizing the musical notation and assembled a group of musicians to perform Sawney’s music, likely for the first time in 200 years. Sawney’s voice came back to life and spoke to the gathered community in a way that no other medium could. The lead violinist for this performance was Diane Orson, the former host of WNPR’s Morning Edition. Diane was inspired to co-produce “Unforgotten” through her experience with this music.

This February, as “Unforgotten” was in production, a collective of musicians, well versed in the musical stylings of the era, gathered at The Waveny House in New Canaan to interpret and record all of Sawney Freeman’s music. The ensemble, in collaboration with Anthony Pandolfe, was assembled by Ilmar Gavilán, the principal violinist of the Harlem Quartet and a distinguished faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music. Together, these musicians, through their diverse expertise, ensured a vibrant and authentic rendition of Freeman’s work. The recording was co-funded by CT Public and St. John’s, Essex, through a Regional Entrepreneurial Grant from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. Thursday’s episode of “Unforgotten” will focus on Sawney Freeman’s music and what it meant to the musicians who performed it. It is our hope that through radio story-telling accompanied by Sawney Freeman’s music, a state-wide audience will learn about the reality of slavery in Connecticut.

Figure 3: L-R Ilmar Gavilan, Jonathan Frelix, Briana Almonte, Paul Vanderwal, and Jessica Valiente at the Waveny House recording session. Image by Anthony Pandolfe.

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