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“King Of The Colored Race” Of New Haven Revealed

by Allan Appel | Feb 27, 2014 9:44 am

(10) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Arts & Culture, Black History, Wooster Square

Photo courtesy of New Haven Museum A black entrepreneur built Long Wharf and the walls of our part of the Farmington Canal.

He also had a crazy notion that whites and blacks both had dignity and could work and thrive together.

That was in 1820s New Haven.

Wednesday night it all came back to life for about 40 people gathered in the auditorium of the New Haven Museum to hear Peter Hinks’s lecture on a man whose detractors called him “the king of the colored race of our town.”

Historian Hinks told that story of William Lanson, a runaway slave, an innovative engineer, and successful land developer and the tumultuous early decades of the 19th Century, when New Haven began to transform into a factory town whose new barons occupied mansions in newly laid out Wooster Square.

The work crews who built those mansions and labored for Lanson in harbor and canal lived in housing he owned in a section of town adjacent to and north of the new square. It came to be known as New Guinea. (See map.) Irish laborers lived nearby in a section called Slineyville. Both white and black often associated in groceries, hotels, and stores owned by Lanson.

All that now is buried roughly beneath where Jet Cleaners stands today on State Street hard by the entryway to I-91 off State Street.

Wednesday night’s lecture was part of ongoing programming for the the museum’s blockbuster current exhibition, Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square, which has been extended through May.

Pinks called Lanson “an extraordinary person” whose life and achievements are significant not only for New Haven but for “the history of the antebellum Northeast.”

A man who came to New Haven with just the clothes he wore, Lanson schooled himself in engineering. He became the go-to guy when the task at hand was to extend a wharf into the harbor to increase New Haven’s commercial productivity. He devised a way to bring down scree from East Rock for a foundation that made the long docks sturdy despite the shifting mudflats; at three quarters of a mile, it was the longest pier in the country in 1810.

Photo courtesy of Joe Taylor White business partners, including many of New Haven’s mercantile elite, helped subsidize his land purchases in what became the New Guinea community. The community housed hundreds of African-Americans, including runaway slaves as well as free blacks, and some white laborers.

Enter Race

As the economy changed,the land on which New Guinea sat became desirable for carriage makers and other emerging workshops. Suddenly Lanson’s white partners had a change of heart about their New Guinea neighbors.

That was helped along as well by some out and out racists in town. People began to decry noise, crime, and drunkenness in New Guinea.

“Lanson’s community posed a problem for the new residents” of what was called “the beautiful and rapidly improving Wooster Square,” Hinks said. “Lurid sensationalizing of life in New Guinea had everything to do with preparing for its removal.”

Photo courtesy of Joe Taylor When they sought removal of the “disorder,” Lanson replied that his neighborhood was filled with “smart and industrious people of color” who had as much right to be there as anyone else.

Hinks said Lanson “respected whites who respected him, deplored blaming crime on blacks when whites were there too, and felt blacks possessed inherent dignity and did not deserve special reprobation.”

Pinks called Lanson a bulwark against the growing notion of a quality inherent in the black race—a wildness or some quality given to violence (sound familiar?)—that led many people, even the good evangelizing Christians, to think the only solution was deportation to Liberia in Africa. Many of the schools to “improve” Negroes set up at this time were just a stop gap, to provide a little “improvement.” All the effort was seen as simply a run-up to eventual colonizing back to Africa, said Hinks.

Lanson, on the other hand, never wavered in believing in “constructive black inclusion,” he said.

Hinks several times mentioned that race was one, but not the only or even dominant, component of the forces that uprooted New Guinea. The emerging captains of the new economy were getting their hands on convenient land and laborers for a new kinds of work that Lanson’s crews could no longer fulfill.

Eventually the new and powerful residents of Wooster Square prevailed. Lanson had to sell his property. He bought new lands on the Quinnipiac River, defending himself and his race all the way in published broadsides. He died in poverty in 1851.

“Because we have lost many of the physical places Lanson built, it would be great to have an important place in New Haven named for him,” wrote New Haven Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell, in an email about the lecture.

Telling the Lanson story gives the lie to a “false mythology” of how the city was built and evolved, said the city’s current chief economic development officer, Matthew Nemerson who attended the lecture.

“To have that not be part of our educational system is so sad. It shouldn’t be for just 30 people” attending the lecture, Nemerson added.

At least Destiny Robinson (pictured) was there. A freshman at the Engineering and Science University Magnet School (ESUMS), she found the lecture interesting, she said. She had not heard of Lanson before. She and four friends attended at the suggestion of their history teacher Toni Criscuolo.

She left with the Amistad Committee’s publication William Lanson: Triumph and Tragedy, by Katherine J. Harris. Destiney planned to report to her class Thursday on Lanson.

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posted by: Colin M. Caplan on February 27, 2014  10:12am

This is a great article about an important and often missed character of New Haven’s past. It is also good to see researchers paying more attention to Lanson’s legacy. One correction: The photo that shows New Guinea is not the correct location: see that the map delineates New Guinea as being in the area of Chapel, Wooster, Franklin and Hamilton Streets.

[Ed: Thanks for the correction. Made.]

posted by: robn on February 27, 2014  10:28am

Super cool map!

Slaughter Woods?!?

New Guinea….Wooster Square….anyone?

State Street was called “Negro Lane”?!?

Put away the hair dryer…my mind is officially blown.

posted by: Threefifths on February 27, 2014  11:46am

How come no talk about how Connecticut had sun down towns which forbid African Americans from living in them.


“Sundown Towns,”
by James W. Loewen November/December 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

http://www.prrac.org/full_text.php?text_id=1055&item_id=9653&newsletter_id=84&header=November/December 2005 Newsletter

posted by: robn on February 27, 2014  12:02pm

3/5,

Because the article is about the history of an African American in New Haven in the early 1800s (decades before sundown towns existed). The article is not about a Jewish person trying to live in Darien CT in the early-to-mid 1900s (what your link references).

posted by: Threefifths on February 27, 2014  1:22pm

posted by: robn on February 27, 2014 11:02am

3/5,

Because the article is about the history of an African American in New Haven in the early 1800s (decades before sundown towns existed). The article is not about a Jewish person trying to live in Darien CT in the early-to-mid 1900s (what your link references).

No blacks allowed, especially after dark. This was the unwritten rule in a “sundown” town. In his trademark revelatory style, bestselling author James W. Loewen explores one of America’s best-kept secrets as he unearths the making of sundown towns and discloses the fact that many white neighborhoods and suburbs are the result of years of racism and segregation. Anna, Illinois; Darien, Connecticut; and Cedar Key, Florida, are just a few examples of the thousands of all-white towns established between 1890 and 1968, many of which still exist today. White residents of these towns used any means possible—including the law, harassment, race riots, and even murder—to keep African Americans and other minority groups out.

posted by: HewNaven on February 27, 2014  3:16pm

Great story about Lanson. I first heard about him a few months back when Colin Caplan wrote about him for the Daily Nutmeg. So I wasn’t as completely shocked by the historical cover-up now as I was then. This man deserves much more recognition in New Haven. Naming things after him is a good start, but I’d much rather see that he is officially added to the NHPS curriculum in some way. Kids, especially black kids, need to know the name William Lanson.

posted by: Anstress Farwell on February 27, 2014  4:26pm

When I first moved to New Haven, a few of the “Negro Lane” houses still stood on State Street near the Olive Street Triangle. See Elizabeth Mills Brown, “New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design” page 31 for a photo of one of these, and a description of the community which flourished there.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on February 28, 2014  7:00am

Much of New Haven’s black history is not well-known. Here are a couple of resources: http://www.yaleslavery.org/ and http://www.yale.edu/glc/index.htm
It’s interesting to note that the area of the Hill called Trowbridge Square originally was a utopian community called Spireworth, founded by abolitionist Simeon Jocelyn, where blacks & whites would live together. It included a beach resort along that section of Cedar Street: remarkably, the harbor once extended that far inland. Thus, that entire section of what we now call The Hill, south of Columbus Ave. down to South Water Street, was known as the Oyster Point Quarter. Jocelyn’s social experiment soon failed, and the area was redeveloped, in part, by Thomas Trowbridge; hence it’s current name. The area then was occupied almost exclusively by whites until the Federally-subsidized, post World War II “white-flight” to the suburbs.

posted by: Josiah Brown on March 2, 2014  4:22pm

Two New Haven Public School teachers, Lula Mae White and Alice Mick, developed a curriculum unit, “Italians and Blacks in New Haven: The Establishment of Two Ethnic Communities,” that included discussion of William Lanson:
http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1978/2/78.02.06.x.html

L. White and A. Mick prepared this unit as Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellows in a 1978 seminar led by the late Prof. Charles T. Davis:
http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1978/2/

Lula White herself was a subject of NHI articles:
http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/freedom_riders_redux/

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/freedoms_heroes_ride_again/

In addition, Gary Highsmith developed a 1997 unit, “William Lanson: New Haven’s African King”:
http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1997/4/97.04.04.x.html

posted by: HewNaven on March 2, 2014  6:21pm

Josiah Brown,

Thank you for sharing those links and the info!! Do you know if these units are officially part of NHPS curriculum or are they merely supplemental resources for teachers? I’m in favor of REQUIRING public education about Lanson rather than making it optional for teachers and students.

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