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This is the second article in a series looking at historic artifacts that are in the care of the town historian.
Residents may be unaware, but in the 1700s and 1800s slavery was prevalent in the north, as well as the south. Newtown Town Historian Dan Cruson has researched a number of documents pertaining to slavery in town, including the unusual sale of a young black girl named Genny, who was just 3 years old.
Mr Cruson discovered the actual bill of sale for Genny when a group of deeds from the Bennett family were brought to the Newtown Historical Society. The slave manuscript was mixed in with about 30 to 35 other donated documents. According to Mr Cruson, most of the papers were standard deeds that they have copies of at the town clerk’s office, and offered no critical knowledge of Newtown, besides people’s original signatures.
However, he said, “I had just glanced at [the slave document] when it was time for dinner. And throughout most of dinner it bothered me, because the wording sounded strange. I thought it couldn’t have been a 3-year-old girl. As soon as I was finished, I went back down to take a look at it and found out that’s exactly what it was.”
Before coming across that paper, Mr Cruson had never seen the sale of a slave so young in Newtown.
The document states that on October 30, 1813, the original slave owner, Abel Bennett, sold Genny to his friend Philo Curtis. Mr Bennett lived by the Housatonic River and was neighbors with Mr Curtis. In addition, Mr Curtis was an affluent member in town, who owned a fairly large farm on Riverside Road and was even the first selectman.
Mr Cruson believes that Genny was most likely sold because her mother, Sucky, who was a slave owned by Mr Bennett, may have died or was no longer capable of taking care of her.
Another suspicion he has is that since Mr Curtis had several children who were toddlers around Genny’s age at the time, the sale was done as a favor in order to help raise Genny.
This theory is supported because Mr Bennett released all claim he had on Genny and passed ownership to Mr Curtis for a mere 25 cents. During that time period, a slave girl would normally have sold for $15 to $20.
Mr Cruson said, “[Philo Curtis] agreed to take her and raise her, but he didn’t want to be in a position when she became a teenager and became more valuable, when she would be worth $25 or $30, for Bennett to come back and say ‘I want her back.’”
Like many slave owners in the north, Mr Curtis appeared to have taken a paternal role in Genny’s life. He seemed to look out for Genny’s spiritual well-being, as there is a baptismal record for her with Trinity Episcopal Church.
In Mr Cruson’s book The Slaves of Central Fairfield County, he wrote, “The low number of slaves per household meant that the relationship that existed between the slave and his owner in the North was different from his Southern counterpart.” With only one or two slaves per household in the north, it greatly differed from the southern slave owners who could own 50 to 500 slaves on a plantation. Mr Cruson explained, northern slaves were seen as more of a “family servant” or “hired hand,” rather than part of a “labor gang.”
The slave bill also stated that when Genny reached 21 years old, which would be on April 22, 1831, she would automatically become free. Unfortunately, there are no documents indicating if that ever came to fruition.
“The only other reference we have of her was when Philo Curtis’s father died,” Mr Cruson explained. “In his probate was a provision that she be paid a dollar for the work that she had done.”
His thoughts were that Philo Curtis’s father must have felt indebted to Genny and put her in his will.
Beyond that information, there is no concrete evidence of what happened to her. Mr Cruson suspects Genny may have been freed and married with different last name. Or there is the possibility she may not have even lived to reach the age of 21 years old, as there are no manumission (emancipation) papers for her.
“It’s sad, because we have this one glimpse of her life,” said Mr Cruson.