Evidence of the tradition among African Americans of electing black governors or kings can be found in several New England colonies throughout the eighteenth century. In Connecticut, the practice appears to have started in the mid 1750s. It is thought that slaves, who accompanied their owners to Hartford for the yearly election of the colony’s governor, chose a person to become a leader of their community as well. The first black governor mentioned in historical sources is London, who was a slave of Captain Thomas Seymour. He was elected in Hartford in 1755.
As the black population in the colony grew and expanded to other towns, the journey to Hartford to cast votes became difficult. Whether actual ballots were cast in the neighboring towns and then sealed and brought to Hartford to be counted, or whether the African Americans in their respective towns reached an agreement as to who to support before sending a representative is not known, as no official statement of votes was tabulated. The position of governor very soon became localized as black residents began to elect a person who lived nearby to lead their communities. Elections are known to have occurred in the towns of Derby, Durham, Farmington, New Haven, New London, Norwich and Seymour, as well as in Hartford.
The elections themselves generally took place the second Saturday in May, a week after the election of the colony’s governor. A large parade and festive celebration for the newly elected official would follow. 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. Sam Huntington, who was a black governor in the town of Norwich, was a servant of Samuel Huntington, who was Governor of the state of Connecticut at the same time.
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. In many towns, the governor meted out punishments and upheld law and order among the African American inhabitants. He also acted as a mediator between the black and white communities. Black governors often appointed a lieutenant governor and deputies to help carry out these tasks.
Despite these functions, most of the men who were selected to be black governors were still enslaved. It is thought that many in Connecticut supported the elections because it was a way to further control the African American population by ensuring that they conformed to the colony’s rules and regulations. If a black governor was responsible for inflicting punishments on his fellow citizens, the threat to the colony’s authority was minimized. Nevertheless, the position allowed African Americans to have some voice within their community. For example, in New Haven, there is some evidence to suggest black leaders worked together with reformers in an effort to become more integrated into society.
Many black governors served multiple terms. For example, Cuff, who served as governor in Hartford before the American Revolution, held the office for ten years. The custom itself lasted about one hundred years although after 1830 it was most prevalent in New Haven County. The last black governor in Connecticut is considered to be Wilson Weston, who served as governor in the town of Seymour in 1856.
A list of known Black Governors can be found on The Hartford Black History Project website.
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Beeching, Barbara J. African Americans and Native Americans in Hartford 1636-1800: Antecedents of Hartford’s Nineteenth Century Black Community. Photocopy. Hartford: Connecticut State Library, 1993 [CSL call number F 104 .H39 A24 1993z].
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Neyer, Constance. “Black Governors Among Many to be Honored by Monument.” Hartford Courant July 4, 1998, p. B5.
Neyer, Constance. “Black Governors in Connecticut? There were many, but they are buried in history”. Hartford Courant February 1, 1998, p. A1.
Norton, Frederick Calvin. “Negro Slavery in Connecticut” The Connecticut Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly. vol. 5, no. 6. (June 1899), pp. 320-328. Hartford: The Connecticut Magazine Co., 1899 [CSL call number F 91 .C625 v.5 1899].
Osterweis, Rollin G. Three Centuries of New Haven, 1638-1938. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953 [CSL call number F 104 .N657 O83 1953].
Platt, Orville Hitchcock. “Negro Governors.” Papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society. vol. 6 (1900), pp. 315-335. New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse and Taylor Co. Printers, 1900 [CSL call number F 98 .N49 v. 6].
Stuart, Isaac William. Hartford in the Olden Time: Its First Thirty Years. Hartford: F.A. Brown, 1853 [CSL call number Cage F104.H357 S88 1853].
Trumbull, James Hammond. Memorial History of Hartford County, Connecticut, 1633-1884. vol. 1. Boston: E.L. Osgood, 1886 [CSL call number F 102 .H3 T8 1888].
Warner, Robert A. New Haven Negroes, A Social History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940 [CSL call number F 104 .N69 N4 1940].
Prepared by the History and Genealogy Unit, Connecticut State Library, Feb. 2005. © 2005