Finding Freeman|s: Wisdom for Contemporary Cornwall

from its 19th Century Black + Indigenous Neighbors

Finding Freemans

In the spring of 2013 citizen researchers Ann Schillinger and Ryan Bachman began archaeological research on the property of Cornwall’s last enslaved African American. Naomi Freeman, one of Cornwall’s earliest, free Black residents, purchased the property for her family in 1828. By studying the land where the house once stood, Ryan and Ann would find evidence of the hope-filled life that Naomi and her husband, a formerly enslaved Black man who called himself Obadiah, created for their daughter Sarah in Federal era Cornwall. With the archaeological dig as the project’s center, Ryan and Ann added context from tax records, shop ledgers, probate files, census documents, veterans’ pension lists, property maps, church histories, and online databases.  Together they outlined a community of African American and Indigenous Cornwall residents whose names, stories, relationships, and impact are not reflected in contemporary histories. As farmers, laborers, land-owners, nurturers, soldiers, preachers, cultural stewards, neighbors, partners, friends, subjects, and, finally, citizens, Cornwall’s Black and Indigenous residents left centuries of history to inform and to instruct. The Freemans—along with their friends, cultural allies, and even the family that enslaved—power this multi-generational narrative of ascent. Though it begins with barbarity there is also generosity, redemption, and grace. Finding Freeman|s celebrates those early residents and reflects their impact for life today.

This exhibition is guest curated by Dr. Frank Mitchell, Curatorial Advisor, Toni N. and Wendell C. Harp Historical Museum and is made possible by a generous grant from the Connecticut Humanities.