2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the first Africans arriving on America's English-claimed shores as enslaved people with the first such Africans recorded as being in Middletown in the 1660s.
The Middletown Middle Passage Ceremony and Port Marker Project Committee held a ceremony to unveil a plaque of remembrance on the riverfront in Harbor Park in Middletown.
Middletown has been designated as a Site of Memory by UNESCO as part of the international project, "The Slave Route: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage."
Two ships, the Martha & Jane and the Speedwell are documented as having arrived from Africa to Middletown's harbor with their human cargo that survived the treacherous transatlantic trade voyage that was the Middle Passage.
Leonard Epps participated in the ceremony and brought his 15-year old daughter.
“I think it’s an opportunity for us to really be honest and open and to recognize the impact that slavery has had on this nation but in particularly in New England,” said Epps. ““I want my daughter to understand that in terms of this country being a part of our tradition that we helped build this country as well.”
The event featured an African Drumming and Libation ceremony by Ron Edens and Nia Art, Native American permission by Wangunk tribal elder, Gary O'Neil; prayer by Rev. Dr. Kim Cotten, speakers Dr. Demetrius Eudell and Mardi Loman; and welcome by Mayor Daniel Drew. Nation-calling and ancestor-calling will be incorporated into the ceremony, which will end with the unveiling of the port marker plaque and a floral tribute.
In 1619, the first Africans stepped ashore in Jamestown, Virginia as enslaved people. Four hundred years later, the legacy of slavery is still felt throughout the country. Many Americans believe that slavery existed only in the South, but some of the most notorious slave traders were from New England.
Middletown sea captains, merchants, and farmers amassed their fortunes trading Connecticut River Valley agricultural products with the West Indies sugar barons. Ships returned with sugar, molasses, rum, and slaves. Enslaved people helped build Middletown and this ceremony is being held to honor their contributions and the thousands who perished on the Middle Passage.
Deborah Shapiro is the chairperson of Middletown’s Middle Passage Ceremony.
“It’s very important to have this ceremony and bring people of different cultures together,” said Shapiro. “An event like today will hopefully start a dialogue going between various people.”
The plaque will sit in the heart of the Harbor Park informing visitors of the Marth and Jane Ships which are documented as arriving from Africa to Connecticut.