Wednesday, May 05, 2021

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Essex Historical Society Presents Virtual Lecture Series on Early African Americans

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Living history interpreter Tammy Denease will present “Clo Pratt: A Free Woman of Color During the Revolution” on Sunday, April 18 as part of the Essex Historical Society seventh annual lecture series. Photo courtesy of the Essex Historical Society

Living history interpreter Tammy Denease will present “Clo Pratt: A Free Woman of Color During the Revolution” on Sunday, April 18 as part of the Essex Historical Society seventh annual lecture series. (Photo courtesy of the Essex Historical Society )

The Essex Historical Society (EHS) has adapted its seventh annual lecture series to a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, featuring multiple experts in history to discuss race and slavery in the lower Connecticut River Valley.

A three-part lecture series named “A Shared Past: Early African Americans in the Lower Connecticut River Valley,” the upcoming talks include one planned for Sunday, April 18 at 3 p.m. and another planned for Sunday, May 16 at 3 p.m. Both are free to the public, but registration is required.

The topic for the 2021 series was chosen based on an increased number of inquiries from the community.

“The public is very interested in learning about our past, especially from people who have been underrepresented in the history narrative up until now,” said EHS Director Melissa Josefiak.

On April 18, living history interpreter Tammy Denease is scheduled to present “Clo Pratt: A Free Woman of Color During the Revolution.”

A performing artist, storyteller, actress, and playwright, Denease will tell the story of Pratt and discuss slavery in Colonial Connecticut.

On May 16, Dr. Jesse Nasta, a visiting assistant professor of African American studies at Wesleyan University, is scheduled to present “Sailors and Freedom Fighters: African Americans in the Connecticut River Valley, 1765–1865.”

Nasta specializes in the social and legal histories of slavery, emancipation, and African American mobility prior to the Civil War.

The first lecture, held on March 28, is still available on the EHS YouTube channel. This talk featured Don Perreault, who presented “Forgotten Voices: A History of Slavery in Saybrook.”

Perreault’s talk focused on the research he had conducted on the history of slavery in the lower Connecticut River Valley for a master’s thesis at Wesleyan University.

“Back in 1995-’96, no one said that there were any slaves other than the occasional house servant,” said Perreault.

Colonial statistics showed New London County, of which Saybrook (then consisting of Westbrook, Old Saybrook, Chester, Deep River, and Essex) was a part, had one of the highest populations of slaves in New England, according to Perreault.

He set out to find these individuals, using period documents, maritime ledgers and vital statistics.

“I uncovered…118 African Americans. The majority of these people were slaves in Saybrook and they were involved in all kinds of professions,” said Perreault.

“What it eventually showed was that due to a labor shortage in the 18th century, the West Indies trade, which was so important to the development of the lower Connecticut River Valley, was being fueled by this slave labor,” he continued.

Perreault completed his thesis 25 years ago, when the findings were generally not recognized with the importance that they are today.

“Unfortunately, back in the ’90s…it still wasn’t of any interest to the larger community,” said Perreault. “What is really wonderful, is that [although] it has taken 20-plus years, and a lot of it is a result of a larger discussion we’re having throughout the United States on issues of race and our history, that now people want to hear about it.”

Perreault is working with the Old Saybrook Historical Society to publish his research, with new material on the enslavement of people during the Pequot War and the West Indies Trade.

He is also interested in sharing his findings as chair of the history department at Valley Regional High School (VRHS), where he has taught for the past 30 years. Perreault grew up in Chester and graduated from VRHS.

“I think that is an important piece because this history is my history,” said Perreault. “My family has been in these towns for a few generations, and I grew up never knowing these slaves even existed.”

The presenting sponsor of the EHS lecture series is the Connecticut League of History Organizations. More information and links to register for the upcoming lectures are available at www.essexhistory.org/events.


Elizabeth Reinhart covers news for Chester, Deep River, and Essex for Zip06. Email Elizabeth at e.reinhart@shorepublishing.com.

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