Connecticut Democrats recently removed the names of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their annual dinner, in part because both men held slaves. This is a good thing for many reasons, not least of which is that this is one of a number of small ways in which white America is starting to come to terms with the past.
History, especially the sort of history that is deeply disturbing or uncomfortable, is easily spun into myth, excuses, or even nothingness. This is the sort of thinking that allows white Americans to see Jefferson and Jackson only as heroes, or the South’s rebellion as a high-minded fight over states’ rights and big government.
But the reality of the past is all around us, if we care to see it. I remember walking through a graveyard and finding, situated far away from the grander monuments of the town’s most famous citizens, the simple headstones of slaves from the 1700s. In fact, enslaved or indentured Africans have been in Connecticut for almost as long as Europeans.
New London was one of the hubs of the slave trade in New England. In 1717 New London passed a law forbidding free blacks from living anywhere in the town. Soon, the rest of the colony followed suit. The only black or mixed-race people allowed to live in Connecticut, then, were the colony’s population of slaves.
This attitude relaxed during the Revolution, but even some of the great figures of that time still owned slaves. Samuel Huntington, signer of the Declaration of Independence, first President of the United States in Congress Assembled, and governor of Connecticut, had at least one slave named Sam. Sam Huntington also was one of many “black governors” of the state elected by the black population, almost all of whom were current or former slaves.
Connecticut didn’t bother to actually abolish slavery until 1848, only 13 years before soldiers from Hartford and New Haven and Meriden and your town marched against the slaveholding Confederacy.
Slavery left a mark on this state, and we can still see that mark in how our cities and towns are segregated, in how our police treat our citizens, in who gets to lead, in who goes to which schools. We see it in zoning laws, in mandatory minimums, in the racial makeup of our prisons. We live with the legacy of centuries of white supremacy and racist thinking. It surrounds us everywhere, and for hundreds of years it has oppressed a community that is far older than most other communities that live here.
This injustice is not just an anomaly of the past. It’s part of the bedrock on which everything else stands. The truly sad part of this is that white Americans are only just now starting to wake up to it.
This isn’t always an easy truth to deal with. But we must stare it in the face and come to grips with it.
Thomas Jefferson was a slaveowner who was cruel to the people he owned, and who fathered children with one of them but did not free her. Jackson owned slaves and was responsible for much of the genocide we perpetrated against Native Americans.
Both also did great things. So did Samuel Huntington, and so did our Revolutionary War-era governor Jonathan Trumbull. But we can’t see only a genius who wrote about liberty, a strong and canny populist, a devoted civil servant, or a resolute leader — we have to see the other side of them as well.
This is why changing the name of the former Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey Dinner is a good idea. It’s not forgetting our history or sweeping it under a rug for Democrats to do this. Instead, it shows that we are engaging with the past and trying to actually understand it rather than believing in the simple myths that surround both Jefferson and Jackson. It also sends a message to Democrats of color, especially African-American Democrats, that they are not just welcome but respected and heard.
This is the easy part, of course — there’s still much work to do to erase centuries of discrimination and oppression. White people will have to do this work, and it will start with listening to what people of color are trying to tell us. But this kind of engagement with history is a necessary step.
So what about future dinners, then? Democrats have yet to settle on a name. My suggestion: the Ella Grasso Dinner.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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