Author: Chris Menapace
From 1749 to 1855, Black communities around Connecticut elected leaders, named “Black Governors.” Little information is available on the men who held the title of Black Governor, but there is evidence of at least 27 individuals from 11 different towns, including Farmington. This position of leadership among free and enslaved black people was not unique to Connecticut. Black Governors, sometimes referred to as Black Kings, were elected in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire; yet Connecticut had the longest and most robust tradition lasting 106 years. How the position began is still a mystery; the office modeled white politics, but the election itself was a merger of both European and African traditions with grand parades and celebrations. On election nights, food and drinks would be provided for all those in attendance and the community would celebrate, often times well into the night. As Black Governor a black man had the power to dole out punishments, act as a mediator between white and black communities, and appoint lieutenant governors and deputies to carry out these duties.
Although there is no evidence of how and why the tradition of Black Governors was created, whites attempted to use the position to control the black population. By having black individuals carry out the punishments on their own communities, whites hoped to diminish the appeal of resistance to the slave institution. A similar method was used by southern plantation owners when they employed slaves as overseers, known as drivers. Most Black Governors elected in the eighteenth-century were enslaved by prominent men such as John Anderson’s owner, Philip Skene, who was a wealthy British officer. Although the institution of the Black Governors was used by whites as a method of controlling the black population, the black community was able to use the tradition to organize and give a voice for black people in Connecticut especially during the 1776 election of John Anderson.
On May 8th, 1776, white men in Connecticut elected Jonathan Trumbull as governor, and soon after, black men recognized John Anderson as their governor. The installation of John Anderson became a controversial subject for two reasons, one of which was the fact that no election had been held. A passage from the journal of Major French, a prominent Connecticut man, dated May 11, showed that Cuff had resigned as governor and appointed John Anderson, therefore subverting the election process. This discovery upset the black population because the office of the Black Governor commanded respect in the community. Black people had been denied a right to vote for their representatives in the state and colony of Connecticut, and now, in 1776, they had been denied the opportunity to select their own community leader. The white population of Connecticut had attempted to use the Black Governor tradition to control the black population, but in 1776 the choice of the governor had caused considerable turmoil. Whites around the colonies had always been fearful of black revolts, especially during the Revolutionary War. The British government had used the threat of arming the enslave population in the colonies to keep control of the colonists. Once the Revolutionary War began, the British acted upon this threat, freeing and arming thousands of enslaved people throughout the colonies. With the controversy of the election for Black Governor, whites in Connecticut became afraid of violence from the angered communities. Yet the subversion of the election was only the first layer to this controversy.
When John Anderson took over the Black Governorship, there were concerns among both the white and black populations because John Anderson’s owner, Philip Skene, had previously been imprisoned for suspicion of being a Tory. The people of Hartford were alarmed, thinking that Skene had designs to use John Anderson’s position as the Black Governor to bring the black population of the state to the British cause. The white governor and council of the colony appointed a committee to investigate the matter. Through their enquiry they determined that Skene had attempted to bribe people to elect John Anderson, but there were a number of blacks who refused to vote for a Tory as governor; they assumed that if John Anderson’s owner was a Tory that he would be one as well. Since the black population would not vote for John Anderson, Cuff decided to appoint him. Skene was able to convince the committee that he did this for sport and had no malevolent intentions. Fear of the power of black communities and the Black Governor had created fear among the whites in Connecticut, and had launched an intensive investigation from the government. The Black Governors were used to oppress the black population, but the tradition had evolved into a more complex system that gave black communities symbolic power that whites did not take for granted.
Greene, Lorenzo J. The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.
Harris, Katherine. “In Remembrance of Their Kings of Guinea: The Black Governors and the Negro Election, 1749 to 1800.” In African American Connecticut Explored, edited by Elizabeth J. Normen, 35-44. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013.
Piascik, Andy. “Connecticut’s Black Governors.” Connecticut History.org, accessed October 3, 2017. https://connecticuthistory.org/connecticuts-black-governors/.