Old Burying Ground, Norwich, CT. “In Memory of Boston Trowtrow Govener of ye Affrican Trib he Died May 28 1772 At 66.”
The election of governors by Connecticut’s black population emerged out of African political traditions and can be viewed as a form of political revolt and self-determination. Enslaved and free Africans used the election of governors to assert their humanity and to organize for the abolition of slavery.
Evidence of the tradition among African Americans of electing black governors or kings can be found in several New England colonies throughout the eighteenth century. The practice appears to have started in the mid 1750’s in Connecticut. It is thought that slaves, who accompanied their owners to Hartford for the yearly election of the colony’s governor, chose a person to become a leader of their community as well. The first black governor mentioned in historical sources is London, who was a slave of Captain Thomas Seymour. He was elected in Hartford in 1755.
As the black population in the colony grew and expanded to other towns, the journey to Hartford to cast votes became difficult. Whether actual ballots were cast in the neighboring towns and then sealed and brought to Hartford to be counted, or whether the African Americans in their respective towns reached an agreement as to who to support before sending a representative is not known, as no official statement of votes was tabulated. The position of governor very soon became localized as black residents began to elect a person who lived nearby to lead their communities. Elections are known to have occurred in the towns of Derby, Durham, Farmington, New Haven, New London, Norwich and Seymour, as well as in Hartford.
The elections themselves generally took place the second Saturday in May, a week after the election of the colony’s governor. A large parade and festive celebration for the newly elected official would follow. The person chosen was most often a strong, respected, and influential member of the African American community. In many cases, he was a servant to a wealthy and influential family. Such was the case of Boston Trowtrow, who was a black governor in the town of Norwich, the servant of Samuel Huntington, who was Governor of the state of Connecticut at that time. Boston Trowtrow served as governor in Norwich from 1770 to 1772. His gravesite, located at the rear of the cemetery in an area reserved for black residents, is one of very few remaining tangible resources that provides evidence of the existence of black Governors in Connecticut.
A black governor could be called on to perform important functions within his community, and the position commanded respect from both black and white residents. In many towns, the governor meted out punishments and upheld law and order among the African American inhabitants. He also acted as a mediator between the black and white communities. Black governors often appointed a lieutenant governor and deputies to help carry out these tasks.
Despite these functions, most of the men who were selected to be black governors were still enslaved. It is thought that many in Connecticut supported the elections because it was a way to further control the African American population by ensuring that they conformed to the colony’s rules and regulations. If a black governor was responsible for inflicting punishments on his fellow citizens, the threat to the colony’s authority was minimized. Nevertheless, the position allowed African Americans to have some voice within their community. For example, in New Haven, there is some evidence to suggest black leaders worked together with reformers in an effort to become more integrated into society.
Many black governors served multiple terms. For example, Cuff, who served as governor in Hartford before the American Revolution, held the office for ten years. The custom itself lasted about one hundred years although after 1830 it was most prevalent in New Haven County. The last black governor in Connecticut is considered to be Wilson Weston, who served as governor in the town of Seymour in 1856.