Thursday, July 25, 2024
African American Heritage, Featured Article, Neighborhoods

A Look Back at the Little Liberia Community via the Historical African American Press

By Sharon Bunyan

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the Golden Hill Paugussett Nation’s ancestral land, which is the geographical area where the Little Liberia community was established. This land, rich in history and culture, is the location for the news articles I will discuss.

The Charles Brilvitch article entitled The Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses provides the historical context for the articles written in historically African American newspapers that shed light on the Little Liberia Community, a testament to the resilience and determination of a community of ‘free people of color.’ This community began to coalesce around the lower reaches of Bridgeport Harbor the same year (1821) that Bridgeport itself came into being.


Comprised of freed blacks born in Connecticut, runaway enslaved persons from southern states, and remnants of Indian tribes from Connecticut and New York State, this village became known as ‘Ethiope’ (‘land of men with burned faces’ from the classical Greek).  Located one-half mile to the south of Bridgeport proper, its evolution paralleled that of the larger ‘white’ town:  A church organized in 1835 (with a second in 1843), a school for the community’s children in 1841, and a free lending library in 1849.  ‘Ethiopis’—as the inhabitants were known—also established a Masonic lodge and several other fraternal organizations.  By 1853, the village’s success was such that a leading African American businessman from New York constructed a four-story hotel with wrap-around verandas and a rooftop belvedere to overlook the harbor and Long Island Sound. Evidence points to Ethiope’s having been a major depot on the Underground Railroad, with Shinnecock Indians from Long Island ferrying those fleeing from slavery across the Sound under cover of darkness to the village’s sequestered landing place in a tidal creek.  By 1850, the community became known as ‘Liberia,’ reflecting the pride its residents felt in helping their brethren on the road to freedom.

William J Wilson, known by his pen name Ethiop, was not only a principal of Colored School Number One in Weeksville Brooklyn but also an educator and correspondent for the Frederick Douglas paper from December 1851 to December 1855. His submission on September 1, 1854, titled ‘”Communicated from Our Brooklyn Correspondent,” provides a unique and personal insight into his experience when he visited the Little Liberia community, where “blacks reign.” In his article, we learn about Duncan House, seaside views, the community’s people with meaningful employment, a school taught by Mr. Baker, an educator from New York, and a moving sermon by Rev. Leonard Collins of the AME church. William J Wilson’s ( Ethiop) perspective and other Historical African American Newspaper articles offer a window into the Little Liberia community and its people. For instance, the National Anti-Slavery Standard( New York, New York), on April 28, 1855, page three, vividly describes the sights that greeted travelers a mile before entering Bridgeport. “Seeing the Elephant'” was a unique experience, with passengers getting a glimpse of PT Barnum’s farm. “On that plain view from the railroad, an elephant may be seen, every pleasant day attached to a giant plow, and doing up the subsoil in first-rate style. His attendant rides him, and a colored man guides the plow.”

The National Anti-Slavery Standard New York-NY 1840-1870 was not just a weekly newspaper published by the American Anti-Slavery Society but a powerful tool in the fight for equality. The June 9, 1855, article focused on PT Barnum’s elephant plus laborers and stated, “American men and elephant labor are alike a sacrifice.” This quote, published in a newspaper dedicated to the abolitionist cause, underscores the societal injustices of the time and the pivotal role of African American newspapers in bringing them to light and empowering the community.

In the Weekly Anglo-African New York, January 7, 1860, a Dear Editor’s Letter discusses a lecture held at the AME church on the “Elevation of our People.” In addition to a debating society consisting of young men, the letter suggests that the ladies will organize their society because they are interested in literary matters, too.” “The Weekly Anglo-African was published by Thomas Hamilton, who welcomed contributions from African Americans and Afro-Diaspora writers and offered a safe space where concerns /opinions can be shared,” according to Oxford Bibliographies.

Advertisements in African American Newspapers also showed a glimpse at the Little Liberia community. The Ram’s Horn, published on November 5, 1847, had an ad for Alexander Duncan’s services connected to the Citizens Cemetery. Judith Wellman’s “Brooklyn Promise Land, The Free Community of Weeksville,” New York, NY, references the Citizens Union Cemetery, where Alexander Duncan founded the Citizen Union Cemetery Cooperation. He and his partners began a cemetery for African Americans in Weeksville, New York, given America’s movement for rural cemeteries in 1851. The cemetery was advertised as “a burial place for the colored.” Impoverished people were buried for free with a charge for opening and closing services. Alexander Duncan and his investor partners also purchased land for building lots in Weeksville. Alexander Duncan’s house was a two-story home with wings on a hill east of the cemetery, stained glass gothic windows, and a view of Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on Hunterfly Road in Weeksville. In addition, in the Brooklyn Eagle article, according to Judith Williams “Brooklyn’s Promise Land,” the house stood for 30 years.

On August 3, 1855, the Frederick Douglass’ Paper (Rochester, New York) published an advertisement for a newly renovated Duncan House purchased by John Douglass. The house included new furniture and hundreds of yards of “splendid bay opening on Long Island.” The ad continued to mention the “convenience of fishing, shooting, or sailing” while staying at the hotel. In the Weekly Anglo-African (published as The Weekly Anglo African) New York August 1859. We again have a firsthand look at Douglass House (formerly Duncan House) and the owner, John Douglass, given in an article entitled Watering Places written by Bennetti, who describes “John Douglass and lady as agreeable hosts,”… “a two minutes walk from the house or a long walk and one can experience excellent sea bathing.” As for the meals served at Douglass House, Bennetti describes them as ” careful to supply well their table with the good things of the season both from land and sea.”

The historical African American Press provided a firsthand view of the Little Liberia Community. These newspapers were not just a medium of communication for the African American community but also gave future generations a glimpse of our community’s rich history.

Sources

PT Barnum Elephant

William J Wilson’s ( Ethiope) letter to Frederick Douglass’ Paper about Little Liberia

Watering Places

Zion Church

Book-Brooklyn’s Promised Land-The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York by Judith Wellman-Her discusses William J Wilson (Ethiop) and Alexander Duncan.

Sharon Bunyan
Sharon Bunyan is a high school teacher with the City of Bridgeport, a National Writing Project( Fairfield University) alum, a former New York Times Teaching Project participant (2021-2022 cohort), and a prior Teacher Ranger Teacher at Weir Farm, Wilton Connecticut.