Perhaps no story in the annals of the American slave trade is as captivating as that of Venture Smith, in part because unlike many early African American slaves, there’s a record of Smith’s travails.
Kidnapped as a small child from his African homeland and sold into slavery in Connecticut in the early-1700s, Smith not only worked tirelessly to win his freedom, but was able to also buy the freedom of his wife and children.
In his later years Smith, who was illiterate, dictated his story to a schoolteacher and scholars today are still working to unravel the details of his incredible life.
His burial site in East Haddam has become part of the Connecticut Freedom Trail, a collection of sites across the state that celebrate the accomplishments of the state's African American community and seeks to promote tourism. The trail officially opened in September of 1996, and as of today has grown to some 130 sites in more than 50 towns.
The organization recently launched its website, www.ctfreedomtrail.org, and the state on Thursday recognized that achievement with a party that drew dignitaries, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The sites on the trail cover a gamut of places where Connecticut’s African American community has left its mark, from ancient burial grounds, to sites along the Underground Railroad and to churches where abolitionist pastors in the 1800s gave fiery sermons against the evils of slavery.
Some of the sites include:
Benjamin Douglas House, 11 South Main St.
Benjamin Douglas (1816-1894) was a prominent abolitionist in Middletown. Given his sentiments, his home is believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. In 1839, he was one of 11 members of the Middletown Anti-Slavery Society and was mayor of Middletown from 1850. The building is privately owned and not open to the public.
Cross Street A.M.E. Zion Church, 160 Cross St.
The church was founded in 1823 and the church building was erected in 1830. The church became known as the Freedom Church for its abolitionist activity. Women of the church, under the leadership of Clarissa Beman, created one of the first women's abolitionist societies, the Colored Female Anti-Slavery Society of Middletown. Its goal was to end slavery and improve the condition of freed slaves.
Leverett Beman Historic District, Cross and Vine Streets
The 5-acre triangle of land was laid out by Leverett C. Beman in 1847 and became the first known residential subdivision in the state to have been laid out by a free black man for black homeowners. There are 16 historic homes there today, with more than half constructed between 1840 and 1890.
West Burying Ground (Washington Street Cemetery), Washington and Vine Streets.
The graves of local African Americans, including Fanny Beman, the mother of Reverend Amos Beman, one of Connecticut's best-known African American abolitionist leaders of the 19th century, are located here at the rear of the cemetery. There are also graves of men who fought in the Connecticut 29th Regiment and other African American units of the Civil War.
George Jeffrey House, 66 Hillside Ave.
George Jeffrey (1830-1906) was a leading activist on the state and national level for civil, economic and political rights and equality for African Americans. He was president of The Lincoln Colored People's Association of Meriden from 1878 to 1886. This home is privately owned and not open to the public.
Martha Minerva Franklin Gravesite, Walnut Grove Cemetery, 817 Old Colony Road
Martha Minerva Franklin (1870-1968) was born in New Haven and attended high school in Meriden. She was the only woman of color in her graduating class and went on to nursing school in Philadelphia because schools here did women of color. She went on to found the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in New York City, because black nurses then were not accepted into the American Nursing Association. Her grave is located in C-West of the cemetery, lot 298.
Venture Smith Gravesite, First Church Cemetery, 489 Town St.
The cemetery is located next to the First Church and contains the graves of Smith (1729-1805) and several members of his family. Smith worked while being a slave and was able to save enough money to buy his freedom, and later, the freedom of his wife and children. One of his sons served in the American Revolution. His wife is buried next to him, and nearby is the grave of another son, Solomon, who served in the War of 1812. Venture's granddaughter, who died in 1902, is buried here as well. Their stones are located near the wall close to the church.