As a long-time journalist, I have never participated on boards or commissions or even in civic organizations, activities that could have been conceived to be conflicts of interest. When I was approached to become town historian in my town, I thought it to be the most innocuous of positions, hardly likely to raise an editor’s eyebrows. History was, after all, history—the past—and I had no intention of making history in the future.
But history has a way of intruding on the present and now I am confronted by my first controversy. The history center of which I am director has received a grant to install interpretive signs about the town’s history at various locations in the village center and the text for those signs is stirring up some dust.
Canaan looks like a sleepy little town, its heyday as the business center for the region long past and its economic future yet to unfold. But it’s history—like many communities—is deep and complex and the town has been home to a variety of influential people who have left their mark on it, the state, and even the nation. Signs acknowledging those achievements have stirred differing opinions among the modern-day populace.
One local man with deep pro-life feelings has excoriated the concept of a sign honoring the legacy of the Roraback family. The building in which the history center is located was the law office of Connecticut Supreme Court judge A.T. Roraback, who built the structure in 1873. His long career was followed by that of his younger brother, John Henry Roraback, whose legal career was soon superseded by tenure as head of the Connecticut Republican Party in the first half of the 20th century and as a founder of CL&P. A.T. Roraback’s nephew, noted litigator Clinton Roraback, and finally his granddaughter, civil rights lawyer, Catherine Roraback, occupied the building. Catherine Roraback famously—infamously, in the minds of her critics—litigated the 1965 Supreme Court decision granting access to birth control for Connecticut women, laying the groundwork for Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Our correspondent, in the most virulent terms, described his disgust at the idea of a sign commemorating her. That was a surprise but my feeling was that it was not appropriate to censure the town’s history to accommodate one moral position or another.
The decisions became a little more difficult with the next attempted intervention. A descendent of one of the earliest families objected to a proposed text that recognized the existence of slavery during the Colonial and Early Republic eras. He contends that the issue is inflammatory and should not be mentioned because of this.
Slavery was common in Connecticut in the 18th century. Indeed, Connecticut was the largest slave-holding state in New England, with some 5,100 enslaved people in 1774, and was the last to officially relinquish the institution in 1848—only 12 years before South Carolina seceded. Slaves were typically owned by men of means, including early industrialists, large farmers, public officials, doctors and even Congregational ministers. Canaan, in fact, had the largest number of slaves in Northwest Connecticut with 62 enslaved men, women and children working for their masters.
Because the descendants of many of the prominent early families still are present in town, presumably some of them, like our correspondent, may not wish to acknowledge that their hallowed forebears once engaged in such a heinous activity.
So what to do? Slavery in Connecticut has been a fact too long ignored. It was never mentioned when I was growing up and was not openly discussed until a couple of decades ago. Like much of the history presented in my youth, it was heavily redacted. Heroes were heroic, America’s motives were pure. We were, in effect, that shining city on a hill that the Pilgrims had envisioned.
But there were always deep fissures in that façade. The political motivations, economic greed, racism and intolerance went on behind the scenes. I prefer to take my history straight, without apology for actions taken long before I was born. What would be truly embarrassing would be to deny the past, to refuse to recognize issues we wish had never existed or to ignore historical figures with whom we disagree.
The South is struggling to decide what to do about its past and is removing many memorials to its Confederate leaders—men who fought valiantly for a very bad cause. I am ambivalent about the removal of the statues of these historical figures, although I can understand the feelings of descendants of the slaves who see these men as oppressors. But we should remember that many of the men all Americans revere as the founders of the United States fought for their own liberty while enslaved people worked their lands—including in New England.
The Canaan slaves shared in the arduous task of creating a prosperous society out of the Connecticut wilderness. Most never tasted that prosperity, their only reward an unmarked grave. Falls Village Town Historian Elizabeth Clark observed in an essay, “Their silent, important contributions should be respected and gratefully acknowledged.” I believe they at least deserve mention on a sign.