Connecticut State Library
"The Road To Freedom"
"Greetings! My name is Jordan Freeman. I was born in 1732 to Oxford and Temperance, who were the servants of Richard Lord of Old Lyme. As time passed and I became a man, in 1755 I married Lilly, the servant of Mary Prentice of New London. Later, I became the servant of John Ledyard and the body servant of Colonel William Ledyard. Many have wondered if Blacks participated in the Revolution. I was summoned here to tell you about our story in Connecticut."
February is Black History Month, but while Kevin Johnson, a member History and Genealogy Unit, will be busy taking the story of that struggle for freedom on the road through performances at libraries, schools, historical societies, church groups, and other non-profit organizations across the state, he is eager to point out that, "Black history is something that should be remembered every day, not just one month a year." "Black history," says Johnson, "is part of American history. It tells the story of people of African heritage in America and the gains they made on the road to freedom."
Johnson's presentation as Jordan Freeman pays tribute to the more than 5,000 African Americans who served in the Revolutionary War, including nearly 300 from Connecticut. But in addition to portraying Jordan Freeman, Johnson has been presenting as William Webb, a soldier in the Civil War, since 1998 and has given more than 275 presentations.
Sharing stories of the life and times of Freeman and Webb is important to Johnson. "African Americans were part of this country's story from the beginning," he notes, "and it's important to rediscover Jordan Freeman, William Webb, and others who where active participants in making our state and country what it is today. Jordan lived near the beginning of our country's struggle for freedom from England, and to have a black die in a great cause really says what freedom is all about."
The significance of Jordan Freeman to Johnson is that he was "not an enlisted soldier but was willing to sacrifice, to give his life for a cause." Those blacks held as property in Jordan Freeman's time were seeking personal freedom. Some enlisted in the Revolutionary War because they were offered their freedom in return for satisfactory completion of a set period of service others because they felt it was their duty. In Johnson's mind, William Webb lived the other half of the story. By the time of the Civil War, slavery was over in Connecticut and "black men were given the opportunity to fight for their country and to fight for the freedom of all."
Johnson notes that reconstructing the lives of slaves in colonial times and Civil War soldiers is not easy, as slavery tore families apart while leaving only scattered records containing genealogical information. "Slaves weren't given the opportunity to read or write," he says. But he stresses that, "The history is there; it just needs to be found."
Johnson adds that knowing that one's ancestors had to endure the abuses of slavery can be disturbing. "But," he contents, "its important to discover the clues, to put the information out there, to let the truth speak for itself. It's important to recognize the importance of history and to share it in all its aspects." And ultimately, through the struggles of people like Jordan Freeman, William Webb, and many others, slaves in Connecticut and throughout the country did gain their freedom.
"Freedom," reflects Johnson. "Freedom. As William Webb would say, 'Sounds good, sounds nice. Got to be free.' All of us living today are living out that struggle for freedom. What Jordan Freeman was hoping for, William Webb was living out. The freedom William Webb was hoping for is what we should be living out today." But Johnson adds that, "Sometimes it seems that today, as a country, we've lost a sense of what freedom means. It's important to reconnect to the meaning of freedom, to rediscover those freedoms laid out in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the amendments to the Constitution that followed the Civil War by discovering what freedom meant to people in the past." Johnson feels strongly that the State Library plays an important role in helping people regain that connection to the past "through the wealth of materials on our rich history and people that can be found here."
To help others rediscover forgotten aspects of Black History in the state, CSL staff members have developed a number of online exhibits, research guides, and living history presentations tied to the theme of "Slavery and the Road to Freedom." They currently include:
A Research Guide to the "Amistad Affair"
A biographical sketch of Roger Sherman Baldwin, who defended the Mendi in the Amistad trial and who later became a governor of Connecticut
An online exhibit of the Connecticut Freedom Trail Quilts from the Museum of Connecticut History
An introduction to tradition among Connecticut's early African American community of electing "Black Governors"
A Research Guide to Materials Relating to Slavery in Connecticut at the Connecticut State Library
An online exhibit of a Log Book of Slave Traders Between New London and Africa, 1757-8 in the State Archives
Research Guide to African-American Genealogical Resources at the Connecticut State Library
In addition, an online exhibit tied to the life and times of William Webb is currently being developed by staff of the History and Genealogy Unit. A Connecticut history research resources page at: http://www.cslib.org/history.htm contains finding aids pertaining to various time periods in Connecticut's history, links to information about Connecticut's history, boundaries, nicknames, and governors, and links to Connecticut historical societies and museums.
Richard C. Roberts, History and Genealogy Unit
Picture of Kevin Johnson portraying Jordon Freeman