Author: Lisa Johnson
Richard Negro was a captive Black man who lived and worked in Farmington during the early years of the 18th century. Richard may have been typical of many enslaved people who resisted their captivities and actively worked for their own emancipation.
Richard, also known as Dick, was owned by Thomas Hart and his son Josiah, both residents of the village of Farmington. His birth date and origin are unknown. The first record of him in 1714 describes him as a “man” working in the Harts’ corn mill on the Farmington River.
He was not alone. As Connecticut’s largest town (225 square miles) and one of its wealthiest, the number of captive people in Farmington likely reflected the colony’s growing reliance on captive labor. The Farmington Slavery Research Project has documented 28 captive people in Farmington in the year 1714, out of a population of 750 residents.
Richard worked in the Hart mill, in the fields, purchased goods as an agent of the Harts, and did other tasks and manual labor. As was the practice, he was probably rented to others to gain his owners a profit and to pay off their debts with manual labor. He lived and worked in an environment that tightly controlled what he could and could not do. Connecticut Colony’s Black Code, passed between 1690-1730 formalized slavery in the colony and made it illegal for blacks to travel, purchase, sell or act independently of their owners.
His owners, Thomas Hart Senior and his son Josiah, were wealthy men, with hundreds of acres of land, and several businesses that tapped into Connecticut’s lucrative merchant trade. Thomas Hart’s probate inventory hints at his businesses and assets: reed-making equipment for looms; cows and sheep; a corn mill; gardens and farm fields; and woodworking and farming equipment. His homestead sat on land that stretched to the Farmington River and his dwelling house stood across from the meetinghouse, of which he was a member.
On February 27, 1714, Josiah Hart recorded an agreement with Richard Negro that outlined the conditions under which Richard would be emancipated. “Dick Negro…being very deirouse that I would give him his time or release him from my servis, whereupon that if he provs himsef faithfull…and duly obeys & faithfuly all my Lewfull Commands…” begins the document, which goes on to outline his pledge to free Dick after twenty years beginning from July 22, 1713. Hart also required Dick to give “Sufficient Security to me & my Succossors from any charg for your maintenance” after he was freed. If Richard failed to live up to these conditions, “this freedome or Release is voide & of no effect tho entoxicating ye words.”
Two years later, on November 20, 1716, Thomas Hart and Thomas Lee filed a statement with the town recounting and re-affirming the pledge made on February 27, 1714. The statement ends with Richard’s stated agreement: “The abovsd Hart sayd that ye twenty years shold begin whon the Negros time began with him, said Negro gat up and bowed and said thank yo Masstor.”
It is unclear why the Harts felt the need to record and file a document that restated the agreement and recorded Richard’s response. Nevertheless, the Hart’s commitment and Richard’s agreement was now legally recorded.
Richard emerges in 1718-1722 in the account books of Ebenezer Steele, purchasing items on credit and paying off debts. Richard’s purchases show a working and trusting relationship with the Harts, one in which he appeared to be on course with their agreement. During those years, he made three purchases of rum, presumably with the Harts’ permission; arranged for Steele “to goin to hatfor(d) for you”; and bought “2 lode stones for youer chimdy & cartin said stones.” He paid these debts with money and with “fanning grain” for Steele. (7)
On May 13, 1719, Richard married Rebeckah Negro, daughter of Sampson Negro, who had gained his and his family’s emancipation by farming a plot of land and earning money to buy their freedom. Richard’s new wife was free so their children, under law, would be free as well.
Richard had a powerful model in Sampson, his father in law. His purchase from Steele in 1722 of stones for “youer chimdy & cartin said stones” may indicate that he was building a house for his family, in anticipation of earning money to free himself and become self-sufficient after his emancipation. Following the practice of other owners, it is likely that the Harts provided Richard with land to build a house. In doing so, they were setting up a system under which Richard and his family could be self-sufficient and, therefore, not dependent upon them after emancipation.
The Hart family’s plan for Richard becomes clear in Thomas Hart Senior’s will, filed after this death in 1726. His will gave Josiah, his son, Thomas’ “right or part” in Richard (Negro servant) and:
“…15 acres of land at the west end of my lott in the West Division and westernmost range or tier of lottes…unto Richard…to be his own free and clear after he has finished his service according to the wrighting my son gave him…for his encouragement if he tarry in the town and improve it; but if he shall, after his time is out according unto his agreement with my son Josiah Hart, leave the Town, then to return to my sons.”
Richard’s path to freedom and self-sufficiency was laid before him, with his release from captivity set for July 1733. Did he reach his goal? It is not certain. No records have been discovered to date that show that Richard was emancipated. This is not unusual, as emancipation documents were typically held privately and not in public records. However, no public records prove that Richard or Rebekah owned property, had children, were members of a church or died in Farmington. They may have left Farmington, died elsewhere, or run away. Or Richard may have been sold to someone else.
We do know that Josiah Hart, at his death in 1758, did not own Richard. He owned another captive person named Ambo, who, according to Hart’s will, was to be freed upon his death.
Richard Negro may well reveal the details of the rest of his life in another document that surfaces in the future. For now, placing him back in the historical record roots him in the life of the Farmington of his time. He is as much a part of what this town was as his owners were. Wherever he went, he left his mark here and he was – and remains- one of us.
Farmington in Connecticut, Christopher P. Bickford. Canaan, New Hampshire: Phoenix Publishing, Farmington Historical Society. 1982
Farmington Slavery Research Project, Stanley-Whitman House, 2018.
Will of Hart, Thomas, Sen. July 24, 1721. Manwaring, Vol 2, pp. 520-1; transcribed from original Hartford Probate Court records Vol. XII, pp. 79-81.
Agreement to grantee Dick Negro from grantor Josiah Hart, dated February 27, 1714, recorded December 17, 1714. Farmington Land Records, Vol. 3, p. 200.
Richard Negro Agreement from grantors Thomas Hart and Thomas Lee, recorded December 3, 1716. Farmington Land Records, Vol. 3, p. 83.
Account book of Ebenezer Steele and Thomas Smith. Transcription in the collection of Stanley-Whitman House, pp 1177 R & L. Original in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society.
Farmington Land Records, Vol. 2, p. 100.
Speaking for Ourselves: African American Life in Farmington, Connecticut. Barbara Donahue, Farmington Historical Society, 1998.
Genealogical History of Deacon Stephen Hart and His Descendants, Alfred Andrews, 1875. Printed from Google Books online. Josiah Hart is no. 1685, p. 370.
Probate Packet, Josiah Hart. Probate inventory, May 4, 1762. Connecticut State Library Archives, Hartford Probate Records (Microfilm: Hartford 1641-1880. Harris, Henry-Hartford Tool. #531).
Probate Packet, Josiah Hart. Will 1753. Connecticut State Library Archives, Hartford Probate Records (Microfilm: Hartford 1641-1880. Harris, Henry-Hartford Tool. #531).