Ahead of Time

Ahead of Time

He was born in 1799. He made civil rights history. And he tried to make more.

Most antebellum New Haveners prided themselves on pursuing their fortunes without resorting to the use of slave labor. But for the abolitionist Simeon Jocelyn, mere non-participation wasn’t enough, and his efforts to pull New Haven forward would reveal that the city wasn’t nearly as progressive as he’d thought.

In the family tradition, Jocelyn grew up an artist. His brother Nathaniel became well-known as a painter, supplying many works of art to Yale’s early collections. Simeon himself was an engraver, a crucial role in pre-industrial printing.

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But his truer passion was ministry, which he studied at Yale, and by the age of 25 he had become the leader of a church of free black people: Temple Street Congregational Church, the progenitor of today’s Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church and, according to a placard at Fair Haven’s Jocelyn Square Park, the first of its kind in the world.

It was in 1831 that Jocelyn and a committee of like-minded abolitionists, both black and white, upped the ante. They laid out a plan for a college-level trade school for black students, purchasing 20 acres of land near Yale. More money was being raised, and if the plan had succeeded, the result would’ve been America’s first institute of higher learning for black people.

But the response from whites was swift and condemning. In an essay published 70 years later by The Connecticut Magazine—not to be confused with the contemporary Connecticut Magazine—the reaction to the proposal was described as “one of those waves of unreasoning fury which sometimes overwhelm the good sense of a mass of voters.”

A town hall meeting was called by the city on September 10, 1831, and a measure to allow the school was defeated by an almost impossibly lopsided vote: 700 to four. Among those decrying the proposed school were some of New Haven’s most prominent citizens, including former senator, ex-city mayor and Yale Law School co-proprietor David Daggett, as well as Ralph Isaacs Ingersoll, a former speaker of the state assembly and ex-congressman who’d just finished a mayoral term himself.

In the September 19 edition of the Hartford Courant, an excerpt from a New Haven paper described the event in overwrought prose. Titled “Negro College,” the article profusely apologizes for any confusion given by its own headline, saying that they “surely must wonder what we mean by a ‘Negro College.’ We will inform them that we mean, without any jesting, that there has been an attempt, a serious attempt, to get up an institution in this place for colored men.” Such a plan, the writer thundered, would “ruin the prosperity of the city” by casting a shadow over its other schools, namely Yale.

The article includes a statement released by Daggett, Ingersoll and other opponents. Slavery was already rare in Connecticut, they said, and any more concessions made to the cause of racial equality would only be asking for trouble, especially at the federal level, where southern politicians could be expected to mete out retribution. A college for blacks, they argued, would be “an unwarrantable and dangerous interference with the internal concerns of other states, and ought to be discouraged,” even though it had nothing to do with the internal affairs of those other states.

No matter; the abolitionists lost the battle anyway. Despite such a violent opposition—and the opposition was literally violent; after the college vote, New Haven’s black neighborhoods were plagued with attacks by white townspeople, and, even several years later, in 1837, Jocelyn’s house was besieged by a mob—Jocelyn fought on. He joined the Amistad Committee in 1839, dedicated to the defense of the West African captives whose famous slave ship mutiny had brought them to a jail cell in New Haven. His brother, Nathaniel, would paint the most famous portrait of the lead mutineer, Sengbe “Cinqué” Pieh, providing a powerful image of resistance just as abolitionism was gaining serious steam both locally and nationally. Simeon, meanwhile, would found the Spireworth School, a day school for black children. But the plan for the college was never revived.

The Connecticut Magazine, living amid the progress made in the intervening 70 years, summed up the result of the struggle thusly: “They were defeated then. Let us hope that from another world, they can look down on college halls in which men of all colors and conditions freely study by the side of white men.”

Of course, even that sentiment was exclusionary, to women, and incomplete, since not even all men had—or, to this day, have—equal access to education. Like the Simeon Jocelyns of the world, it was imperfect; unlike the Simeon Jocelyns of the world, it was in step with its time, and not ahead of it.

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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