Celebrate Black History Month with a Visit to the Norwich Freedom Trail:
“The next day, Friday morning, Brother Simpson took me down to the steamboat and started me for New York, giving me a letter directed to David Ruggles, of New York.” From the Autobiography of James L. Smith, published in 1881 and reprinted by the Society of Founders of Norwich in 1976.
February is Black History Month, a month-long celebration of the achievements by African Americans and a time dedicated to recognizing their central role in U.S. history and the generations who struggled to achieve full citizenship. The celebration goes back to 1915, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, when historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
In 1926 the association established Black History Week to coincide with the Feb. 14 birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglas. In 1976 the week was expanded to include the entire month of February.
As part of its collection of excellent self-guided walks, the Norwich Historical Society has developed the Norwich Freedom Trail. The Norwich Freedom Trail “celebrates Norwich’s rich, diverse, and largely untold story of African-American heritage, highlighting notable people who played important roles in the movement to end slavery and advance civil rights before and after the United States Civil War.”
The trail features 16 stops focusing on the struggle towards freedom, while also celebrating the accomplishments of the city’s African American community. The inspiring stories on the trail include abolitionists as well as more contemporary citizens and are detailed in the Norwich Freedom Trail brochure.
Two stops of the Norwich Freedom Trail are particularly inspiring to me: the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard at 100 Broadway (adjacent to City Hall) and the James Lindsey Smith house at 59 School Street.
Ruggles was born to free black parents in Norwich in 1810. He would go on to become a well-known “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves to freedom in the north. He is credited with helping 600 people escape slavery, including Frederick Douglas and Smith.
The Ruggles Freedom Courtyard was dedicated in 2015 to honor Ruggles and the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed Jan. 1, 1863 by Abraham Lincoln. The courtyard is beautifully constructed with a large stone monument inscribed with the entire proclamation and a tall metal arch from which hangs the Norwich Freedom Bell.
Born a slave in Virginia, James Lindsey Smith escaped bondage in 1838 aided by several people along the Underground Railway. These included Norwich native son Ruggles who Smith was directed to locate after arriving in New York by ship from Philadelphia. Ruggles arranged for Smith to stay with a Congregational minister in Springfield, MA. He attended nearby Wilbraham Academy and, after marrying Emeline Minerva Platt, settled in Norwich.
Smith made his living as a shoemaker and was a founding member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church where he also served as minister. In 1881 he published his autobiography depicting the hardships of his life as a slave, his eventual escape to freedom and those who helped him along his way. I have the 1976 reprint of the book and the book is available for sale at the Leffingwell House Museum in Norwich.
You can pick up the Norwich Freedom Trail brochure at the outdoor information booth located at the Norwich Historical Society building at 69 E. Town Street in Norwich. You can also find it online at:
For more information about Black History Month there are several online resources you might want to check out. Here are several.
A number of sites on the Norwich Freedom Trail are also on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. The Connecticut Freedom Trail includes six towns with 10 sites in The Last Green Valley. More Information and a CT Freedom Trail brochure can be downloaded at:
The CTvisit.com website has excellent articles for Black History Month and lists programs happening this month throughout the state:
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Black History Month, I suggest you check out the History.com website at the following link:
I hope you’ll take time to learn more about the Norwich Freedom Trail and the interesting stories of the African American residents along the route. Our shared history is a uniting thread woven into the very fabric of our communities.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor – it’s like having a National Park in our own backyard. I hope you’ll join me as we care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Information for this column was gleaned from the Norwich Freedom Trail brochure, produced by the Norwich Historical Society in 2019, the Autobiography of James L. Smith and the websites listed in this column.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for 40 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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