Governors Briefing

Governors Briefing

Connecticut has yet to elect a Black governor. But at least 22 “Negro Governors,” as they were commonly known at the time, were elected between the 1750s and 1850s by enslaved and free Black men statewide, including at least three in New Haven—a tradition that tapped into enslaved peoples’ African roots and gave them a measure of self-governance. Historian and college professor Kerima Lewis will give a free online talk for the New Haven Museum, “An Upside-Down World: The Reign of Black Governors in Connecticut,” on February 10 at 6 p.m., detailing the practice in New Haven, Norwich and Hartford and discussing the influence of African culture on the political process in New England.

The tradition of electing Black governors—sometimes also known as kings—originated somewhere in the region. Sources vary on the exact location, but they agree the first documented Black governor of Connecticut was a man named London, enslaved to Captain Thomas Seymour of Hartford and elected in 1755. Elections of Black governors generally took place a week after the governor of the colony was elected and were followed by a parade, often including a Black lieutenant governor and sheriffs, and a celebratory meal. The white slave owner of the newly elected Black governor would often loan his horse and clothing and pay for the festivities. These events gave enslaved and free Black men the opportunity to mock their white counterparts’ “stiffness and pretensions,” according to the New England Historical Society—though it’s unclear whether most white men recognized the caricature.

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“The person chosen was most often a strong, respected, and influential member of the African American community. He was also, in many cases, a servant to a wealthy and influential family,” the Museum of Connecticut History in Hartford writes. “A black governor could be called on to perform important functions within his community, and the position commanded respect from both black and white residents.” Many were literally the sons of African royalty, Lewis adds.

The position brought with it a grim underside: the task of disciplining slaves and others who stepped out of line. The Hartford Black History Project sees the election of Black governors as a tool of the ruling class, who it says “began to realize that individual relations of dominance were insufficient, and there was need of some way to control Black communities as a whole,” accomplished “by coopting individuals from the Black communities to act as mediators.”

Still, historian Lewis sees a measure of self-direction in the tradition. “Yes, there was this working across the aisle, so to speak,” she says. But the tradition emerged “from the impetus of these African people that wanted to control something in their lives.” White men supported the institution of Black governors because, Lewis says, “slavery was a system of negotiation. You want me to work all day on your farm?… You’re going to give me something. You’re not going to free me, we understand that, but you’re going to give me something.” It’s a testament to the ingenuity of enslaved people, Lewis says, that they understood what they could negotiate for and created a system that lasted a century, until just before the Civil War and emancipation.

New Haven was home to three Black governors. Little is known about Thomas Johnson, who served in that role from 1833 to 1837. His predecessor, Quash Piere, elected in 1832, was a member of the Akan ethnic group from Ghana, Lewis says. He was enslaved to Captain William Piere of the West Indies, according to the publication William Lanson: Triumph and Tragedy (2010) by Katherine J. Harris.

Lanson was the Elm City’s first Black governor and also its best-known. Elected to the role in 1825, he was a successful entrepreneur. The owner of a quarry business, he had the boats needed to ferry stone into the Long Island Sound to build the wharf that still gives Long Wharf its name. Lanson also built the retaining wall for a basin at the harbor end of the Farmington Canal. A resident of New Township, the area that is now Wooster Square, Lanson owned a livery stable and 12 houses, according to Harris, and he helped settle many Black residents there. He opened the Liberian Hotel, where he reportedly housed sick tenants of both races without pay, and helped runaway slaves. He was also an active volunteer in the larger community.

Nevertheless, local power brokers had their eye on Lanson’s prime property as the city expanded. “Looking for excuses to foreclose on his properties and convert them into a mix of industry and white worker housing, bankers and businessmen banded together to trip Lanson up and cast him as a man of low character,” we wrote in a 2020 profile of Lanson. By his own count, he spent 450 days over a six-year period jailed on trumped-up violations.

“It is possible,” Harris writes, “that the attacks on Lanson may have been designed to stifle the activism of the African American community and their progressive allies.” Lanson himself had agitated against paying taxes because, as a Black man, he did not have the right to vote—a battle he lost in the state’s General Assembly. He died, impoverished, in 1851 at about the age of 75, in the New Haven almshouse, located on what is now a corner of Edgewood Park, at Edgewood Avenue and Ella T. Grasso Boulevard. His place of burial is unknown. But a statue by sculptor Dana King, erected in 2020 in his honor along the Farmington Canal Trail on Lock Street, celebrates his contributions to the city.

Because the Black governors’ jurisdictions were local, it may be more accurate to equate them to mayors. In that regard, Lanson, Piere and Johnson are arguably the ancestors to New Haven’s first Black mayor, John C. Daniels, who was elected in 1989, 164 years after Lanson. Unlike those predecessors, of course, Daniels was elected to lead us all.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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