‘We must tell their stories:’ CT’s Black governors celebrated at New Haven event

The New Haven Museum is celebrating Black History Month in February with a virtual program about one of Connecticut’s most well-known Black governors, William Lanson

The lecture is called “An Upside-Down World: The Reign of Black Governors in Connecticut.” 

Black governors, also called “African Kings,” were leaders of the Black community in early American history elected by the African American community, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Lanson was elected Black governor of New Haven in 1825 and was responsible for major infrastructure initiatives that still exist today. He helped build an addition to the Long Wharf and  build the stone walls of the New Haven section of the Farmington Canal, according to Professor Kerima Lewis of Emerson College and Massasoit Community College.

In 2020, the City of New Haven issued a post-humous apology to Lanson for the "'humiliations, discrimination, and false accusations' against the freed slave who helped lay the foundation for economic success in 19th century New Haven." The same day the city also unveiled a bronze statue of Lanson which sits along the Farmington Canal. 

The New Haven Museum invited Dr. Lewis to speak about Lanson’s life and legacy.

“He bought property and ran businesses in the Black communities of New Haven where he employed hundreds of African Americans who were relegated to menial low paying jobs during that time,” Lewis said via email. “Having been enslaved himself, he helped runaways to find freedom along the Underground Railroad.  There is so much that is admirable about the life of the esteemed African Governor William Lanson. Although his success made him a target of racist whites, he [persevered].”

Museum Director Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky said Lewis’s presentation is part of the museum’s effort to tell the diverse stories of early New Haven.

“In particular, topics that have historically been underrepresented, we'd like to bring those to the forefront and make that ever-evolving history relevant to all people,” Tockarshewsky said. “I just think that the topic of Black governors is something that the public doesn't really know very much about.”

Dr. Lewis agrees with Tockarshewsky. While the topic of Black governors is lesser known to the general public, she hopes that expanding topic of education from as early as elementary school could make these parts of history known to a wider audience. 

“When we discover these long-lost heroes and heroines, we must tell their stories whether it is in schools, churches, in the community, and to our families,” Lewis said via email. “African American history needs to be a required social studies course for all children.”

In her presentation, Lewis will discuss the election of Black governors in New Haven, Norwich and Hartford. She’ll also present an overview of Black coronation ceremonies, which included feasts, drumming and dancing.

“The elections of Black governors were not imitations of white elections but a cultural tradition that combined the African tradition of celebrating kings and chiefs with a European-influenced electoral process already in place in New England,” Lewis said in a news release. 

Enslaved Africans in New England celebrated the election of their own rulers the same way they would have celebrated them in West Africa, according to Lewis.

The biggest reason to attend this presentation and learn about Lanson is simple, according to Lewis. It’s a story of resilience, hope and the evolution of the human spirit.

“Come hear about this formerly enslaved man elected the African Governor of New Haven in 1825 who after securing his freedom used that freedom to build a commercial and construction dynasty to benefit his people,” Lewis said via email.

“An Upside-Down World: The Reign of Black Governors in Connecticut” takes place at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10. Registration is free on Eventbrite.com. For more information, visit newhavenmuseum.org.