January 24, 2022

US: Exhibit explores slavery’s ties to middletown commerce in 1700s, 1800s

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hrt-hc-vanishing-port-1-hc0041025866-20160822 hrt-hc-vanishing-port-1-hc0041025829-20160822 hrt-hc-vanishing-port-1-hc0041025847-20160822 hrt-hc-vanishing-port-1-hc0041025808-20160822By Shawn R. Beals From hartford Courant

Connecticut’s complicated history as a Northern state that advocated freedom yet made excessive profits off slave labor is the subject of a new exhibit at the Middlesex County Historical Society.

“A Vanished Port: Middletown & the Caribbean, 1750-1824” comprises more than 70 items, including decorative arts, information on the sea captains, pewter tableware, furniture, maritime artifacts, logbooks, shipbuilding and navigation tools and artwork. The exhibit opens Sept. 10.

As an inland shipping port on the Connecticut River, Middletown was one of early Connecticut’s most populous and prosperous cities.

“There was great wealth in Middletown because the sea captains were trading with the sugar companies in the West Indies, the traders were amassing great fortunes, too, and they were amassing these fortunes on the backs of the slaves in the Caribbean,” said Deborah Shapiro, executive director of the historical society.

Exhibit pieces will be spread over four rooms, each with a different theme and showing a different scene. For the first time, the historical society will use sound sticks and digital information displays to guide guests through the collection.

Much of the exhibit’s information comes from the work of Anne Farrow, a former Courant reporter who has researched public documents that show how sea captains in the North developed businesses supplying the goods needed to keep slave-labor plantations operating.

Farrow, who now lives in Maine, worked at The Courant from 1988 to 2006. She is the co-author, with former Courant reporters Joel Lang and Jenifer Frank, of “Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery,” published by Ballantine Books in 2005, and wrote a special “Beyond Complicity” supplement for The Courant. Her book “The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory” was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2014.

Middletown was once one of the the largest ports in New England. The sugar cane plantations imported provisions from Connecticut, including salted shad, onions, horses and lumber.

“Connecticut was very involved in provisions with wood and lumber and livestock, and it created for the colony significant wealth,” Farrow said. “You can go to a lot of places in New England and see maritime exhibits, and I thought what would be interesting to do would be to show the other side of the maritime prosperity.”

She said she has tried to make her work free from judgment or accusations, instead focusing on building a complete history of early America.

“In New England and Connecticut, we tend to think about slavery very narrowly, how many captive people were here, but it always seemed to me that there was a commercial connection: How did we support slavery elsewhere and profit from it?” Farrow said. “The goal is not to make accusations but to say how do we make the record whole, and I think it’s by putting the two sides of the story on the same page.”

Much of Farrow’s research centered on the New London-based ships, but the records she has reviewed include Middletown captains William Van Deursen, John Easton, Richard Alsop, Arthur Magill and Philip Mortimer as prominent among those trading in the Caribbean.

Shapiro said the society hopes the exhibit fosters conversations about racial injustice.

“We hope [that with] an exhibit like this, and people finding out slavery wasn’t just in the South, wasn’t just in the islands, but that people here profited from slavery, maybe they’ll sit up and take notice and think about how they feel about race,” Shapiro said.

Other research and exhibit work was done by Erik Hesselberg, Pat Tully, Lee McQuillan, Brenda Milkofsky and Dave Wolfram.

Funding and borrowed items for the exhibit were given by Connecticut Humanities, Wesleyan University, the Hoffman Foundation, the Middlefield Historical Society, the Connecticut River Museum, Mystic Seaport, the Connecticut State Library, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Yale Center for British Art, Richard and Alexandra Adelstein, Jane Bradbury and Deborah Shapiro.

IMAGES:

Deborah Shapiro, Executive Director of the Middlesex County Historical Society, (left) and intern Charlotte Scott place pewter items in a case while preparing the exhibit, “A Vanished Port: Middletown & the Caribbean, 1750-1824” which opens September 10. The exhibit examines Connecticut’s complex history profiting off the slave trade in the Caribbean and includes more than 70 artifacts and pieces from the historical society’s collection and on loan from other museums.

Brenda Milkofsky, of Essex, exhibit manager and designer of the Middlesex County Historical Society’s new exhibit, “A Vanished Port: Middletown & the Caribbean, 1750-1824,” prepares to hang a placard at the Society’s museum in Middletown. The exhibit, which opens September 10, examines Connecticut’s complex history profiting off the slave trade in the Caribbean, and includes more than 70 artifacts and pieces from the historical society’s collection and on loan from other museums.

Needlework created in 1753 by Mary Wright Alsop is one of the artifacts that will be included in the Middlesex County Historical Society’s new exhibit, “A Vanished Port: Middletown & the Caribbean, 1750-1824” that opens September 10. The exhibit examines Connecticut’s complex history profiting off the slave trade in the Caribbean and includes more than 70 artifacts and pieces from the historical society’s collection and on loan from other museums.

Deborah Shapiro, Executive Director of the Middlesex County Historical Society, (right) and intern Charlotte Scott hang an embroidered vest in a case while preparing the exhibit, “A Vanished Port: Middletown & the Caribbean, 1750-1824” which opens September 10. The exhibit examines Connecticut’s complex history profiting off the slave trade in the Caribbean and includes more than 70 artifacts and pieces from the historical society’s collection and on loan from other museums.

For more on this story go to: http://www.courant.com/community/middletown/hc-middletown-slave-trade-exhibit-0901-20160903-story.html

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