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.
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.
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.”
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.