Tucked away between high rise buildings in downtown New Haven is Grove Street Cemetery, a stop on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.
“Today we have over 140 sites across the state of Connecticut,” said Todd Levine, a historian with Connecticut’s Historic Preservation Office.
Levine and Charles Warner Jr. gave a tour of the site, pointing out those buried here whose work laid the foundation for New Haven.
Levine explained locations across the state focus on four areas of black history.
“The story of the Amistad, the underground railroad, concepts of freedom and the civil rights movement, and 20th century contributions.
Grove Street Cemetery is one of the stops on the trail, and people laid to rest made advancements in each category.
There’s the Jocelyn family section. Simeon Jocelyn founded the Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ in 1820. The church is the oldest African American Congregational UCC in the world.
“Those Jocelyn brothers were special men, brave men who were a part of a group of abolitionists here in the city but also throughout the country,” said Warner, a member of the Connecticut Freedom Trail committee and Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ.
Also in Grove Street Cemetery is William Grimes. He escaped slavery by stowing away in a ship in Georgia, eventually landing at Long Warf in New Haven.
“The people on the ship left an empty space, I believe in a bale of cotton for him,” said Warner.
Grimes was the first enslaved person to write an autobiography of his escape. He eventually became a well-known barber in New Haven with clients from Yale University.
According to Warner, his slave master found him in New Haven and Grimes was forced to sell all his property to buy his freedom.
“This is someone who was determined not only to change the course of their own life, but change the course of destiny for them and their family,” said Warner.
Others include Ebenezer Bassett, who was the first black to graduate from what became Central Connecticut State University. A Hall is now named in his honor. Bassett later became the first back diplomat in the U.S.
“No one had done this councilor, diplomatic work on behalf of the government,” explained Warner. “This is a black man representing the United States government in Haiti.”
Sylvia Boone became the first black tenured professor at Yale and is a 20th century person of honor by the Freedom Trail.
The Amistad may be a more well-known event in Connecticut’s black history. A marker at Grove Street pays tribute to those who died and are laid to rest there. Warner says it’s a reminder of an international fight for freedom that was right here in New Haven.
“People from all over gave money told the story, formed organizations to support their freedom and eventual return.”
You can find more information on the Connecticut Freedom Trail here.