One of the takeaways from the “Finding Freeman|s” exhibit at the Cornwall Historical Society is how difficult it is to illuminate one of the country’s darkest eras.
The main reason? The scarcity of records that can inform later generations about what happened. For instance, there exist only a few examples like Life of James Mars: A Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut, a memoir published in 1866 by the last slave of neighboring Norfolk. Born in North Canaan in 1790, Mars was owned by a Congregational minister who sold him up the Blackberry River when he and his family moved to Virginia.
The enslavement of African people in Connecticut began in the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, slaves accounted for about 3% of the state’s population. Although some prominent Connecticut individuals called for a rapid and total abolition of slavery, the process of emancipation took time and was slowed down by a gradual end to bondage.
The Mars memoir describes efforts to escape and the support of local whites who hid the family for a while. James and his brother had to remain with their respective new owners until they reached the age of 25, while his parents and a sister were able to secure their manumission immediately.
Recently, Mars’ autobiography became the foundation of a mesmerizing show created by New Haven-based Puppetsweat Theater, founded by Robert Bresnick and Leslie Weinberg. Using a tabletop stage, paper puppets, projected images and the reading of excerpts by Jill Cutler, the performance presents a lively rendering of the history of slavery in the Northwest corner of Connecticut.
There will be two showings on August 20. Admission is free, but advance registration is required because of a limited seating capacity in the Historical Society building on Pine Street in Cornwall Village. As of Wednesday, August 17, both showings are full.
You can learn more about the event and story behind it on the Historical Society’s website and in a video produced by Cornwall Chronicle contributor Juergen Kalwa.