About 1828, a handful of Middletown's black residents gathered to worship in the home of Asa Jeffrey, a sea man who lived on Cross Street almost opposite here. The group formed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Middletown's first black church, and in 1830 built its first house of worship just east of here, where Wesleyan's Science Center now stands. The congregation engaged as its first permanent minister the Reverend Jehiel Beman.
A native of Colchester, Connecticut, Jehiel Beman was the son of two former slaves; his father, Caesar Beman, had won his freedom by fighting in the Revolutionary War. When Jehiel and his family arrived in Middletown, they immediately began working to change their community - and the nation - for the better. In 1834, Reverend Beman and several others founded the Middletown Anti-Slavery Society, working to end slavery in the United States. Although he left Middletown in 1838 to lead a church in Boston, in 1854 Beman returned here where he and other A,M,E, Zion church members helped southern slaves escape to Canada. That year, he wrote to black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "The Underground Railroad, by the way, is in good repair, and our office is open for business... at all hours, either day or night..." Because of church members' dedication to abolition and
the Underground Railroad, Middletown's A. M E. Zion Church became known as the "Freedom Church."
Reverend Beman died in 1858 before his dream of freedom for people of color was realized. However, he left a community of others - black and white, male and female - to continue the fight.
By 1867 the church had erected larger quarters on its first site. In the 1920s the congregation moved its building west on Cross Street, and in the 1980s rebuilt its house of worship at the same location.
The Roots of Middletown's African-American Community
African Americans have lived in Middletown since the 1660s when a few slaves were forcibly brought here, either directly from Africa or from the West Indies. Over the next century, the city's black population increased; by 1756, African Americans made up 218 of Middletown's total population of 5,664. Connecticut passed legislation for gradual emancipation of slaves in 1784; a few years later, over a third of Middletown's black residents were free and by 1830, all were free.
Even through the vile period of slavery Middletown's African Americans were vital and active members of the community. A number of black men - both slave and free - risked their lives as Revolutionary War soldiers fighting for our country's liberty. And generations later, local African-American men
bravely fought in the Civil War.
During the 19th century, Middletown's black population declined drastically. Many families moved to larger cities where opportunities were greater. Nevertheless, those who remained overcame enormous odds to succeed, becoming teachers, chefs, firefighters, barbers, sailors, and business owners.
In the 1790s and early 1800s, Cuff Boston, a free African American, advertised his dyeing business in the local newspaper. At his death in 1823, Boston's homelot on Washington Street contained nearly 20 acres of land.
Middlesex Gazette, July 21, 1797
The Cross Street Neighborhood
This neighborhood around the A.M.E. Zion Church became the center of the black community in the mid-19th century. In 1847, Leverett Beman, son of the Reverend Jehiel Beman, purchase several plots of land in a swampy area across the street from here. In the triangle of land now bordered by Cross Street, Knowles Avenue, and Vine Street, Leverett Beman developed a planned neighborhood, dividing the land unto homelots which he sold to local African-American families.
For nearly eight decades it remained largely a community of free blacks who owned their small homes. Most men were laborers or seamen: several women were dressmakers or washerwomen. At least four of the neighborhood men served in the Civil War.
#9 and #11 Vine Street: Ebenezer DeForest, a seaman, built the home on the left about 1840, later selling it to John Cambridge, a laborer who probably descended from Kay Cambridge, one of several black Revolutionary War soldiers from Middletown. The house on the right, built in 1847-1848, became the home of Isaac and Eliza Truitt and their six children. In the Civil War, Isaac Truitt served as a sergeant in the 31st Regiment US Colored Troops and later worked as a chimney sweep at Wesleyan. He is buried in Washington Street Cemetery at the north end of Vine Street.
Reverend Jehiel Beman, first minister of Middletown's African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Courtesy the Cross Street A.Me. Zion Church