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Antient New London

The history at Ye Towne’s Antientest Burial Ground may be buried and frequently forgotten, but it is not gone.

I’d read about the (no, Ye) Towne’s before I saw it. Without knowing exactly where or even what it was, I thought it sounded exotic, or at least intriguing. Just the spelling of “antient,” plus the designation as a “burial ground” instead of a mundane “cemetery” or even an old-fashioned but common “graveyard,” suggested this site would be something unusual.

The Burial Ground (or Buriall Place, per the sign) was where I first saw table tombs, those strange stone slabs on legs amidst the headstones. I have since seen them in other Connecticut cemeteries. I’m not one of those people who hangs out in graveyards for fun, but now when I drive past a collection of tombstones I scan it for tables, and approve of it when I see them. I recall the odd sense I got that first time, an image of relatives bringing silverware and wine glasses to the cemetery for a solemn picnic amongst the dead.

There, too, I first noticed soul effigies, those cartoon-ish faces with wings, like children’s drawings, carved on headstones. They looked so foreign, primitive almost, and they made me reassess the people I thought I “knew” in New England’s past. You think you understand what Ancient Greeks are about until you learn that all those pure white buildings and statues used to be painted in bright colors; in the same way, the Antient Connecticutians were less rational, less familiar but more recognizable to me after seeing those little faces.

Then there was the grand weeping tree (some kind of beech, maybe, but not knowing about trees made it all the more impressive), shading the green grass from the heat of the sun. (I first visited in spring.) And the view of the city from the hill, where Benedict Arnold is said to have stood to watch the Battle of Fort Griswold across the river.

But it turns out there was something even more extraordinary in that place, something I missed at first. One of the graves in the Antientist Burial Ground - a small one, not a table - belongs to Flora Hercules, who died in 1749. She was the “wife of Hercules, Governor of the Negroes.”

The nice thing about being a person who’s read too many books, as opposed to an actual historian, is that you have license to make up in enthusiasm what you lack in expertise. Finding out that African Americans in Connecticut in the 18th century had their own governors did make me feel a bit like I’d been living under a rock, but luckily I could just read on in amazement instead of being embarrassed I had never known.

Elections are known to date from the 1750s when slaves accompanying their masters to the election of the Colony’s governor in Hartford chose a parallel leader of their own. Historically, leaders had been selected in a similar manner in parts of Africa. In Connecticut, the tradition continued for about a century. There is evidence of black governors or kings (!) in other New England states as well.

It sounds at first like a sort of secret society, yet there was nothing hidden about it at the time. The black governors functioned as community leaders and representatives. The elections, held each May, were followed by parades, and the officials chosen were usually respected men, servants of prominent white residents. They appointed deputies and meted out punishments, yet often they were simultaneously governor and slave.

This history is not hidden. The grave of Flora Hercules, for instance, is a stop on the Connecticut Freedom Trail, and the practice has been written about in, among other places, the Hartford Courant. Yet it is obscure; it seems unlikely to be discovered by people who aren’t looking for it.

The names of the white governors of the colony were preserved in books and street names, while those of their African American counterparts were obviously not. But luckily some memories of them were recorded, and luckily some of this evidence remains, carved in stone in the resting place overlooking the city, under the cascading tree.

Maurene Kennedy February 26, 2011 at 06:45 PM
It is an extraordinary place! New London has a very rich history. I was amazed to find out recently, after living in New London County most of my life, that some of my early ancestors are buried in the Antientist Burial Ground.

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