Since the Society’s two historic houses have been closed for the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the staff has taken this opportunity to reinterpret the Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee House to more deeply reflect Windsor’s diverse history alongside a more inclusive interpretation of the home’s first residents.
The first step was to empty out the North Parlor and Dining Room to create space for changing exhibitions that illuminate the region’s Black experience. First up in this space is Dr. Fiona Vernal’s A Home Away from Home: Greater Hartford’s West Indian Diaspora, which opened June 23, 2021 and will remain on view until summer 2022.
In the rest of the Chaffee House, the period rooms will remain intact, reinterpreted through the new prototype exhibition Bound Together: Complexities of Black-White Relations in Early Windsor. The new exhibition explores themes such as work, privacy, family, and religion, and illustrates the complex network of relationships between Dr. Chaffee, his white family members, and the enslaved Africans who served them.
Panel from annual meeting and reinterpreted Chaffee House exhibits.
As slave owners, the Chaffees were typical of Windsor’s elites. By 1776, about half of Connecticut’s doctors, lawyers, and professional people owned slaves. Therefore, the reinterpretation is set against the context of evolving notions of enslavement, gradual emancipation, and abolition throughout Windsor and Connecticut as a whole.
We know that during Dr. Chaffee’s lifetime, Jack Japhet Pell, Elizabeth “Betty” Stevenson, and Sarah were people of color who lived with and were enslaved by the white members of the Chaffee family. They worked alongside Nancy Toney, who was enslaved by the family of Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee, Jr. in the red house next door to his father’s.
The enslaved women who worked for the Chaffee families were likely household servants, performing tasks such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and childcare under the supervision of the Chaffee women. Jack Pell probably worked as a farm laborer, but his 1790 baptism record suggests he may have also served as a bodyguard and physician’s assistant on Dr. Chaffee’s house calls, as Windsor’s first black doctor Primus Manumit had done when he was enslaved by Dr. Alexander Wolcott.
New Englanders’ attitudes toward slave ownership shifted gradually during Dr. Chaffee’s lifetime. By 1776, Connecticut residents owned 6,464 slaves, the largest number of slaves of any state in New England. In 1784, our state passed the Gradual Abolition Act, which stated that any child born into slavery after March 1, 1784 would become free at age 25. The law was later updated, and any enslaved person born after 1797 became free at age 21.
The result of gradual abolition was that by 1800, there were only 951 enslaved people listed in Connecticut’s census. And in the 1840 census, Connecticut counted only 54 slaves. As for the Chaffee family, it appears that by Chaffee Sr.’s death in 1819, all of the families’ slaves had been freed except for Nancy Toney, whom Chaffee Jr. willed to his daughter Abigail at the time of his own death in 1821. Nancy remained in the Loomis household until her death in 1857, listed as a free woman in the 1850 census. Connecticut abolished slavery in 1848, and the practice was outlawed throughout the U.S. in 1865.
By Kristen Wands, curator, 2021