Archaeologists Research Derby’s ‘Black Governors’

If you lived in Derby during the 1800s, chances are your opinion of Quosh and Roswell Freeman depended, like many other things, on the color of your skin.

The men — father and son — were two of Derby’s “black governors,” elected by African-American communities of the time to perform social and political duties.

The two men held the role in 19th-century Derby. But aside from bare details about their lives, very little about them is known.

So far.

Archaeologist Gerald Sawyer and colleagues from Central Connecticut State University — Warren Perry and Janet Woodruff — are trying to change that.

For weeks, they excavated the site where the Freeman home once stood, along with several students — Alex Schade, Charlene Lewis, Thomas Wilson, Heather Gullberg, Eric Potrikus, and Emily Samborski.

The team recently gave about 50 people, including some descendants of the two men, a look into what they’ve learned from the site so far — and what they hope to learn in the future — during a presentation at the Kellogg Environmental Center on Hawthorne Avenue.

Black Governors

The role meant different things to different people.

“The whites looked at is as being a parody of their form of government, as if it was a joke, a minstrel show,” said Sawyer at the Derby site where the Freeman house is believed to have stood. “To the Africans, it was really important, very much like men’s societies and women’s societies in Africa.”

The contrast is exemplified by the historical research available about the “black governors.”

Their precise role is murky. Click here to check out a page about the title from the Hartford Black History Project. The Electronic Valley also has some information — and the photo of Nancy Freeman shown above — at this page.

In many cases, Sawyer said, whites only went to the black governors when problems came up.

“Whenever anything seemed to go wrong in a black society, the whites would go to the black governor and say ‘Straighten them out,’” Sawyer added.

The position had more meaning to Africans, he suggested.

“The African people, they chose somebody who they felt would be a good leader for them, and represent them well to the white power structure,” he said.

The Truth Is In The Ground

So the team hopes to dig up more information about the daily lives of Derby’s “black governors.”

PHOTO: Ethan FryThe researchers hope to have a website with a video of the presentation and pictures of some of their discoveries available sometime in August.

The group has found thousands of artifacts on the property, from glass medicine bottles and window glass to buttons, part of a pocket watch, and a signet ring, to name a few examples.

Now, they will spend another five weeks doing lab work studying what they’ve found and seeing if they can draw any conclusions about the property or the people who lived there.

At the site last month, the students were covering holes they had already dug with tarps and covering the tarps with dirt to make it easier to resume the dig in the future.

As Perry and one of the students, Eric Potrikus, were guiding some visitors around the site, they found a fresh artifact — a piece of glass that Potrikus suggested might have been the base of a lamp.

He took it over to Sawyer, who promptly put on his glasses for a closer look.

PHOTO: Ethan Fry“It’s definitely hand-blown,” he said, pointing out striations in the glass before asking Potrikus to “bag it” for later study.

Sawyer said the team isn’t looking to find anything specific at the site, just things that will teach them more about how the families lived.

“We want to know what it was like for them every day,” Sawyer said. “We’re not looking for evidence of one of them being a black governor, or evidence of prejudice or whatever. We’re looking to see their story. And that story will take us in whatever direction it does.”

The stories of such African-American communities are important to tell, because it has been “horribly misconstrued and largely ignored by white elites throughout history,” as one of the students, Emily Samborski, put it.

“In America the history of those oppressed has been created by their oppressors,” she said. “This false history creates a need for archaeology, which finds its truth in the ground.”

An example of that oppression: Though those who lived at the site were prominent members of their community, the community itself was so marginalized that very little is known about the governors even now.

The Freemans

PHOTO: Ethan FryThe archaeologists think Quosh might have farmed on the land, because it was bequeathed to him by his former owner in 1800 along with a yoke, oxen, cow, and farming utensils.

The property is on wooded land off Silver Hill Road — one could walk through it and not know an archaeological dig was going on there but for the flags used by the team to mark the ground.

Even for those honored by the title of “black governor,” getting by still wasn’t easy.

“It was a meager life,” Sawyer said at the dig site Wednesday. “Look around at this land. It’s lousy land for farming. But they were farming. They were trying to make a living out here.”

Evidence gathered so far suggests Roswell supported his family as a fox hunter.

The property is out of the way today — so imagine how secluded it was 200 years ago.

“We’re in the hinterlands here, we’re on the outskirts of town,” Sawyer said. “We know that it was an outlying area, we know that people that lived out here were thought of as being of ‘strange’ or ‘others.’”

Perry said that when the team did research on secret societies in Africa, they found that “they did the same kinds of things the black governors were doing, only they were doing it in Africa.”

He suggested that shows the black governors were more subversive than whites had thought.

“Africans are creating their own structure because they couldn’t do otherwise for fear of persecution,” he said. “They’re running their own community and they’re running it by a tradition that has been formed hundreds of years ago in western Africa.”


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