Celebrating Black New Haven & Dixwell Congregational UCC History

October 17, 2022

Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ members and Beinecke Library staff gather at the gravesite of Bias and Margaret Stanley in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery, in tribute to founding pillars of the church. Photo: Ernest Oppong Obobisa.

New Haven’s Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ, established in 1820, is the oldest formally recognized African American congregational church in the world and among the first Black churches in Connecticut. Read more about the church and its vibrant history on their website. Beinecke Library joined with the church to mark their bicentennial (plus two) in a showcase of materials related to the church and Black New Haven history on Saturday, September 17, 2022.

Some of the materials and collections showcased at the bicentennial event included:

The Reverend Amos G. Beman

The Reverend Amos Gerry Beman (1812–1872), a Black minister in New Haven, was a national leader during the mid-nineteenth century. He was a proponent of abolition, suffrage, temperance, education, and moral reform. From 1837 to 1857, the Reverend Beman served as pastor of the Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ (Dixwell Church), the oldest formally recognized African American Congregational Church in the world. The Reverend Beman was pastor during the Amistad Case, during which he and church members crusaded for liberation and the fight against slavery.

The Reverend Beman grew up in Colchester and later Middletown where his father, the Reverend Jehiel Beman, was appointed pastor to the first African American church in Connecticut. The Reverend Beman’s father worked tirelessly for emancipation and civil rights. His grandfather, Caesar Beman, was manumitted after serving in the Revolutionary War.

Sources: Kurt Schmoke,“The Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, 1829-1896.” (1971)  - contact the Beinecke Library for document assistance, Amos Beman Scrapbooks.

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Other resources:

Amos Germon Beman and Jehiel C. Beman, 1937-1992

Charles Beman Army discharge papers, 1865

Bias and Margaret Stanley

Bias Stanley was a major figure of the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church community. He was a founding member of the African United Ecclesiastical Society and served as first deacon of the Temple Street Church of Colored People, the preceding entity to the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church. He proposed the Society to prevent slander, and his writings document the rise of race consciousness among Black leaders in New Haven in the 1830s. Bias Stanley died in 1845, the same year the congregation celebrated the opening of a newly renovated building.

Margaret Stanley continued the work of her husband’s charities in service to New Haven’s Black Christian community. She was equally involved in supporting Black women of the Church. Bias and Margaret Stanley are buried at New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery. Upon their deaths, their entire life savings were donated to the Church, with Margaret’s share specifically allocated for the benefit of women.

Read more about the Stanleys in this YaleNews story, “Archive illuminates New Haven’s Bias Stanley, a 19th-century civil rights advocate.”

The Beinecke’s collection includes documents from Bias and Margaret Stanley recording their business status and dealings with white New Haven landowners including the President of Yale, Timothy Dwight. 

Source: Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church.

Other resource:

Connecticut legal documents collection relating to Bias Stanley (Box 3)

Jacob Oson

In 1817, Jacob Oson, a Connecticut minister, schoolteacher, and self-described “descendant of Africa,” addressed the free Black population of New Haven and, later that year, New York City. He denounced the objects and aims of the recently formed American Colonization Society – a group organized for the explicit purpose of sending free Blacks to Africa – shortly after an eventful meeting of Philadelphia’s Black community at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. His address, A Search for Truth; Or, An Inquiry for the Origin of the African Nation, assessed the place of Africa and Black Americans in the rise of western civilization.

Rev. Oson’s A Search for Truth addressed many of the central components of Black historical understanding in the early nineteenth century. His speech centered on answering key questions regarding Black descent, identity, and intellectual capacity. The issue of Black origins, hotly contested in this period, figured prominently in Rev. Oson’s account. Racial theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries looked to the Bible to explain race and justify the treatment accorded to Black people.

Rev. Oson’s discussion focused on the relative position of contemporary descendants of Africa in relation to the distant past. By offering a point of comparison, he argued the American Black population was prevented from achieving their greatest potential by being subjugated and marginalized. 

Source: Stephen G. Hall, “A Search for Truth: Jacob Oson and the Beginnings of African American Historiography.” (2007).

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William Grimes

William Grimes (1784-1865) was an enslaved servant on a Virginia plantation. He escaped slavery in 1814 by stowing away on a New York-bound ship. Grimes eventually settled in New Haven where he established himself as a barber. He married Clarissa Caesar in 1817. His former master learned of Grimes’ whereabouts and threatened to return him to slavery unless he could pay for his freedom. He was able to do so but at the expense of his entire financial livelihood. To rebuild his income, Grimes wrote and self-published The Life of William Grimes in 1825. He published a second edition in 1855. The Life of William Grimes is unique as an early first-hand account unmediated by white abolishment sponsorship and political aim, increasingly common among the period’s emerging antebellum slave narrative genre.

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Scipio Augustus

Scipio Augustus (1817-1854) was an early Black leader in New Haven and early committee member for the Temple Street Church, the 1824 meeting space for the nascent Congregational Church. With other leaders of the abolition movement, Augustus advocated for the development of a college for Black students in New Haven in 1831. The Beinecke library houses documents related to the college as well as Scipio Augustus’ legal and personal records.

The African United Ecclesiastical Society was founded in 1820 by white lay-leader Simeon S. Jocelyn and twenty-four formerly enslaved Black residents. With donations from the Society, the congregation rented a small frame church on Temple Street in 1824, and in 1829 became formally recognized as the Congregational Church. Other documents within this collection of Connecticut legal documents, dating from 1744–1866, include land records in the form of deeds, leases, and quit claims executed by residents of New Haven and New London counties in Connecticut, in particular families in the towns of Branford, New Haven, and Norwich.

Other resource:

Connecticut legal documents collection relating to Scipio Augustus (Box 1)

1831 College

In 1830, free Black leaders throughout the antebellum North gathered in Philadelphia to conduct the first Colored People’s Convention, an empowering space to develop Black political plans and community-building projects.

With the help of a white New Haven minister, Simeon Jocelyn, the idea of establishing the nation’s first Black college to “properly educate the colored youth” was presented. Essential Black names took part in the discussion of location, costs, and construction.

Although the plan was subsequently rejected at a town meeting in New Haven on September 10, 1831, the proposed 1831 College remains a direct precursor to the nation’s current Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) tradition.


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Other resources:

First Annual Convention of the Free People of Colour, 1831 (Beinecke Library)

First Annual Convention of the Free People of Colour, 1831 (Colored Conventions Project)

The Reverend James W. C. Pennington

The Reverend James W. C. Pennington (1807–1870) was an African American writer, abolitionist, and pastor of the Dixwell Congregational Church. The Reverend Pennington was born into slavery in 1807 in Maryland. When he was 19, he escaped on foot to Pennsylvania where he learned to read and write from a Quaker family. Developing an interest in Christianity, the Reverend Pennington sought enrollment at Yale Divinity School in 1834. Barred from formal entry into the school due to state restrictions on the education of free Blacks, the Reverend Pennington silently audited courses, making him the first African American to study at Yale. In 1837, the Reverend Pennington became the first African American to serve as an ordained minister of the Dixwell Congregational Church.

The Reverend Pennington was an essential early Black leader in New Haven, fundraising support for the Amistad captives and for abolition on tours abroad. A prolific writer, the Reverend Pennington published an autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith, in 1859, and one of the first histories about the African American experience, A Textbook of the Origin and History of the Colored People. In 1848, the Reverend Pennington received an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg University in Germany. The legacy of the Reverend James W. C. Pennington lives on at Yale Divinity School, where a classroom, scholarship, and bi-annual conference have been named in his honor.

Other resource:

Building Community: Black New Haven 

29th Colored Regiment

Standing in New Haven’s Criscuolo Park within the city’s Fair Haven neighborhood is a memorial to the 29th Connecticut Colored Infantry Regiment, the state’s first Black regiment. The land on which the park currently sits was an 1863 training ground for more than 900 Black recruits called into service by the state governor who initially opposed enlisting Black troops; however, as the war wore on, it became difficult to meet enlistment demands. The 29th endured racism and discrimination, receiving lower pay than white troops and often ordered to the back of the regiment’s formation.

After duty in Maryland and South Carolina, the regiment engaged in siege operations against Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. After the occupation of Richmond in April 1865, the regiment guarded prisoners of war at Point Lookout, Maryland. In June of 1865, the 29th was sent to Texas, arriving at Brazos Santiago on July 3. The regiment marched to Brownsville, Texas, where they were stationed until October, returning to Connecticut for discharge in November via a route through New Orleans.

Dedicated in 2008, the monument at Criscuolo Park commemorates the soldiers of the Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment C.V. Infantry. The memorial was designed by sculptor Ed Hamilton, who also created the Amistad Memorial in downtown New Haven.

Other resources:

U.S. Army Connecticut 29th Infantry Regiment Quartermaster Records, 1865

29th Colored Regiment Monument (Connecticut Freedom Trail)

29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers Fought More than One War (Connecticut History)

Constitution of the African Improvement Society of New-Haven

The African Improvement Society of New Haven was founded in about 1826 and likely when the Society first gathered. An annual report was published for the occasion. Later reports refer to an “Annual Meeting” citing a third anniversary dated August 25, 1829. The Society called for improving “the moral, intellectual, and religious condition of the African population” in New Haven. The 1829 report included the Society’s constitution, articles, and “Facts” describing the “condition of some of the Colored People in New Haven” such as housing and associated costs. The Society’s Constitution indicates board leadership to be “composed of white and colored members” as managers. The 1829 report also references funds for a school and church as well as New-Township where some members of the “African population” reportedly lived. A funding appeal was signed by N. Whiting and A. Townsend.

Other resource: 

Constitution of the African Improvement Society of New Haven, 1826

Connecticut State Convention of Colored Men, 1849

Proceedings of the Connecticut State Convention of Colored Men was held in New Haven, on the September 12th and 13th, 1849. The meeting location was the Temple Street Church (precursor to the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church). The meeting was called to order by the Reverend Amos Beman. His father, the Reverend Jehiel Beman, and brother, the Reverend Leverett Beman, were also in attendance. The Convention proceedings include a spirited discourse resulting in motions, rules, and resolutions addressing the wrongs committed under state authority – with the liberative call “to seek a redress of our grievances.”

Other resources:

Proceedings of the Connecticut State Convention of Colored Men, New Haven, 1849 (Beinecke Library)

Proceedings of the Connecticut State Convention of Coloured Men, New Haven, 1849 (Colored Conventions Project)

Goffe Street Special School for Colored Children

The Goffe School, or The Goffe Street Special School for Colored Children, opened in 1865 at 106 Goffe Street in New Haven, Connecticut. The Goffe School served as an evening school from 1866 to 1871, when few educational institutions were available to Black students in the city. Mary Lucas Hillhouse, daughter of James Hillhouse, purchased the land for the building of the school. A circular soliciting contribution to offset debt remaining from construction of a school building on Goffe Street, circa 1865, is part of the Beinecke collection.

In 1869, the school had a total enrollment of 215 students, serving as a center for the education of Black children until its closure in 1874. The building was subsequently used for community organizing and as a place of worship for Prince Hall Masons. The building was inaugurated into the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Other resource:

Wyllys Warner: Circular - Goffe Street Special School, 1865

Simpson Collection Photographs, 1870-1900

The Randolph Linsly Simpson African American Collection consists chiefly of photographs dating from circa 1850 to 1970, but also includes printed illustrations, original artwork, documents, and ephemera that provide a record of Black history in the United States for the period circa 1770 to 1970. The focus is on African American subjects, but the collection also includes the work of Black photographers, as well as images of white men and women, many of whom were associated with the abolitionist movement.

Collected with a broad scope, the photographs represent the work of professional photographers in various regions of the United States and some European countries, and the formats present reflect the development of photographic processes, beginning with Daguerreotypes and extending through mid-twentieth century formats.

The collection contains images of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Sojourner Truth, Louis Armstrong, and Joe Louis, as well as of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, among other highly recognized figures. It also includes a large number of photographic portraits of lesser-known African American subjects, including politicians, bankers, athletes, entertainers, domestic servants, formerly enslaved people, and soldiers.

Among the few documents in the collection is a ship manifest noting enslaved people aboard the “Telegraph,” out of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1811. The collection also includes three-dimensional artifacts such as commemorative spoons, lapel buttons, and a plaster bust of Booker T. Washington.

Source: Beinecke Library Collection Overview

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The Women’s Twentieth Century Club

The Women’s Twentieth Century Club was formed in 1900 by a group of Black women responding to the hostile social conditions they continued to face living in New Haven. Like many Black women across the nation during the late nineteenth century, New Haven community members joined the Black women’s club movement to provide charitable service to those suffering under the oppression of Jim Crow discrimination and intense racial marginalization.

The Women’s Twentieth Century Club also established a literary program in which they read works related to Black history and life, primarily by Black authors. The women read to gain an understanding of the history of Black people in Connecticut, to better understand the historical context of racial oppression in the United States, and, as one member was quoted, to learn about “our people in the South.”

Source: adapted from Lisa Monroe, Making the American Syllabus.

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Yale College “Sweeps”

The Yale college “sweeps” were a small group of Black men tending to the care and cleaning of campus buildings. Duties included daily dusting and sweeping, cleaning out chimneys, and cleaning student rooms during academic recess. One of the oldest recorded mentions of a college sweep was in a memorial poem anonymously published in an October 1750 edition of the New York Evening Post.

By the 1860s, college informational publications began to list the names of the employees that tended to the official custodial needs of the campus buildings. Each campus building had an assigned sweep to see to its cleaning. While the work was physically demanding, and certainly considered a service job, the regular employment and steady income would have made the job “decent” to the Black population of the time who faced widespread discrimination and unemployment in New Haven. Moreover, the prestige of Yale, and the daily, intimate contact with the elite students and personnel, bestowed notoriety and prominence on the small contingent of sweeps.

Outside of Yale, many were distinguished in the community. The men who worked as sweeps owned property and were active in the social and civic life of Black New Haven. For example, William Bouchet came to New Haven from Charleston, South Carolina as the enslaved valet of Yale student, John B. Robertson. After receiving his emancipation, Bouchet and his wife worked to support the abolition of slavery, through their participation and membership at New Haven’s oldest Black institution, the Temple Street Congregational Church. Perhaps his greatest role was as a father to Dr. Edward Alexander Bouchet, Yale College’s first Black graduate. Other prominent members of the Yale College sweeps were Luke Lathrop, Carter Wright, George T. Livingston, and Richard Muse.

The Yale college sweeps were an integral part of campus life and became a part of the college’s legends, lore, and traditions.

Photographic records include custodial staff members identified as S. and F. Allston, Jackson, Livingstone, Smith, Baty, William Cummings, and Andrew.

Source: adapted from Charles E. Warner, Jr., The Yale & Slavery Research Project.

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The Amistad case was extraordinary for its defense of 53 Black persons abducted in 1839 by Portuguese slave hunters from their Sierra Leone homeland. The purchased human cargo was transported on the Cuban schooner La Amistad to Havana. Lead by Cinque (also known as Joseph Cinqué and Sengbe Pieh), the captives successfully revolted during transfer from Havana to Port-au-Prince. The ship’s captain and cook met their demise in the conflict. The captured Amistad eventually made its way north until it was intercepted by the U.S. Navy off the coast of Long Island. Ship and cargo were then taken to New London to begin proceedings with the Federal District Court in Connecticut.

The Amistad event occurred during an increasingly spirited antebellum debate on the legality and moral trespass of slavery. The case was ultimately decided in the captives’ favor by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thirty-five of the captives returned to Sierra Leone in 1842, the others perished at sea or during imprisonment.

New Haven resident William H. Townsend made pencil sketches of the Amistad captives while they were awaiting trial. Twenty-two of these drawings were given to Yale in 1934 by Asa G. Dickerman, whose grandmother was the artist’s cousin. Townsend, who was about 18 years old when he made the drawings between 1839 and 1840, is buried in the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven.

Source: National Archives, The Amistad Case.

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