Most of the Museum’s temporary exhibits are staged in the Bev York Room, named for former Executive Director and Educational Director Beverly L. York.
Here All Along: African Americans in Northeastern Connecticut Before the Great Migration
Opens Fri., Feb. 10. Closes Sun., July 16.
This special exhibit explores the African American experience in northeastern Connecticut (with an emphasis on Windham and Willimantic, but also including some surrounding towns) from 1688 to 1910, with an additional section relating to the 20th century. Learn the stories of Jo Ginne, Eliza, Job and Jesse Leason, Lyman and Clarissa Jackson, Caesar and Julia Hall, and others who experienced northeastern Connecticut, its mill towns, and the meaning of freedom in very different ways than their white neighbors did. Although Connecticut’s African American population surged with the Great Migration from the South in the early 20th century, it is important to remember that Black people lived in Connecticut from its seventeenth-century beginnings as an English colony — that, indeed, African Americans have been “here all along.” Curated by Dr. Jamie Eves, Windham, CT’s co-Town Historian.
I conceived of the idea of the “Here All Along” exhibit in 2020, when the Mill Museum was closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and when my classes at Eastern Connecticut State University and the University of Connecticut shifted to meeting online. I was then the Executive Director of the Mill Museum, but the Museum wasn’t open for in-person tours or programs. Wanting to “keep history alive” and continue to provide the public with access to their history, I and the rest of the Mill Museum staff pivoted to doing what I was doing with my university classes — teach history online. I turned to research projects that I had long kept on the back burner, projects that I now threw myself into with gusto, and for which I planned to create “virtual exhibits.” Among these projects was the history of African Americans in northeastern Connecticut, especially in Windham, Willimantic, and adjacent communities. This project picked up several threads that I had been thinking about off-and-on for more than a decade. Now was the time to take them up.
The first thread was the widespread public perception that African Americans had not been an important part of Connecticut history until recently. A few years earlier, I had been teaching a course in African American History at Saint Joseph College (now the University of Saint Joseph) in East Hartford, CT, and in one class we were discussing the fact that, until the 1960s, African American characters rarely appeared in movies, on television, on radio, or in comics except as domestic servants or comic relief — that otherwise, they were invisible in most of American popular culture. One student, an older African American woman, laughed and commented, “Don’t you know that there were no Black people in America until 1960?” The general (white) audience in Connecticut tends to think of Black History in the United States as follows: Black people came to America as slaves, where they had no power or culture of their own, and quickly assimilated to Anglo-American ways. Because it was too cold to grow cotton in New England, almost all of the slaves lived in the South. Then President Abraham Lincoln (and the Civil War) freed the slaves. Then, sometime in the early 20th century, a lot of Southern Blacks moved to Northern cities like Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport. Then Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King began the civil rights movement, which was supposed to achieve legal equality, but only sort of did that, which is why we now have Black Lives Matter. I wanted my local history museum to tell the full story of African Americans’ experiences here, in northeastern Connecticut, beginning not with the Great Migration of the early 20th century, but from the middle of the 1600s on.
The second thread was the recent decision by the Connecticut General Assembly to include African American History in the State’s High School curriculum as an elective. The State has done a good job collecting materials for teachers to use, but teachers in Windham were telling me that they also wanted local primary sources — meaning at the town level, not just the state level. The story of Venture Smith is a good story, they told me, but they wondered if there were stories in Windham that they could incorporate into their lesson plans.
A third thread was the story of the naming of Jackson Street in Willimantic, near where I live. Local lore had it that Jackson Street was named for Lyman Jackson, and early-19th-century African American resident. Who was Lyman Jackson, I wondered, and why did his neighbors name one of the Thread City’s main streets after him?
A fourth thread was the Mill Museum’s collection of historical photographs of the American Thread Company, including scores of images showing textile mill employees at work. Not one worker in the photos is Black — all are white. Did Connecticut industry — and the textile industry in particular — refuse to hire African American workers as late as the 1960s?
A fifth thread was a gravestone in one of the local cemeteries marking the resting place of Corporal Caesar Hall of the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, a Civil War regiment. I knew that the 29th was a “Colored” regiment composed of Black soldiers with white officers. Who was Caesar Hall, and what had his experiences been like? What motivated him — a married man in his thirties with children — to volunteer for duty in the Civil War? What happened to him when the War ended? Were other African American soldiers interred in Windham’s cemeteries?
A sixth thread was a story about white allies. Following the events at Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, I joined residents of Windham and Willimantic in a vigil on the corner of Jackson and Main Streets in Willimantic. Several speakers posed the question that was in all of our minds: what would we do if bands of violent, racist thugs marched through our city? Would we stand up to them? Would we fight back? A story I had been researching off and on for years provided a historical answer. In 1837 a violent anti-abolition mob marched on Willimantic’s Methodist Church, determined to prevent an abolitionist speaker from addressing the congregation. In what I have come to call the Methodist Melee on Main Street, the Methodists fought back, battling the mob in a spirited fistfight that spilled out of the Church and onto Main Street. What had led those Willimantic Methodists — who were probably all white people — to stand up to the racist mob?
These and other stories I wove together into a larger narrative, a history of African Americans — and their white neighbors, who sometimes were allies and sometime were not — in the part of Connecticut where I live, from 1688 up to the beginning of the Great Migration in 1910. I stopped at the Great Migration because, as the historian Stacey Close has pointed out, the Great Migration transformed not just the history of African Americans in Connecticut, but the history of all of Connecticut, making it a logical breaking point. The core of the exhibit is made up of individual stories, the stories of local people and their experiences. My goal was to demonstrate that Black people were here in northeastern Connecticut — in its mill towns and farm towns — in Windham, Willimantic, and neighboring communities — all along, from the 1600s on, and that their experiences and impact on local communities were important and needed to be told. This is the kind of thing that I think municipal historians and local museums are supposed to do.
–Jamie Eves, Senior Curator, Mill Museum / Windham Co-Town Historian