CCSU student group working hands-on to discover more about African-American slavery in Connecticut

Published on Tuesday, 17 August 2021 09:25
Written by Erica Drzewiecki


There was a time when African-Americans were enslaved in Connecticut, and local students are working to discover more about some of those held captive.

Central Connecticut State University’s African Diaspora Archaeology program brought its Field School to the Chaffee House in Windsor this summer session. A small group of students and several CCSU faculty members spent about a month digging in and around the house and will be examining their discoveries in the school’s laboratory this fall.

Anthropology Professor Dr. Anthony Martin and Lab Coordinator Janet Woodruff worked with the Windsor Historical Society to provide the class this unique opportunity. The WHS leases the property in the Hayden Station area of town, where a small African-American community was rooted in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“This is the first time we were able to get out and dig since 2019,” Martin said. “Field season started July 6 and we were plagued with rain almost every day that first week.”

Wet weather is not necessarily conducive to archaeological work, but the class was able to take that time to tour the house and learn history that has been documented there already. This wasn’t the first archaeological dig at the Chaffee House, a Georgian mansion built around 1766 and named after the doctor who worked there in the 19th century.

“Three to four African women had been enslaved there; some of them had gained emancipation,” Martin said. “We wanted to get better resolution on areas outside where they might have done laundry, sewing and other activities.”

The class found modifications that had been made to the structure over the years and uncovered never-before-seen areas of the property, including evidence of walkways and a large fireplace and oven in the basement.

The digging process was conducted under scientific parameters, with strict measurements and specimen collection.

The class plotted their survey area along the house’s northwest side and created a grid of one square-meter units from which to work.

“They bagged up everything and it will get cleaned, catalogued and dated this fall,” Martin said.

Among the treasures uncovered were the remnants of hand-painted ceramics, porcelain, glassware, nails, clay pipe stems and bowls, tools, a wooden game piece, buttons and more.

“Collectively these items are all important because they help us build a greater picture of the lives of those who lived here,” student Philip Goulet said.

A senior Italian language major, Goulet was one of the six students who took part in the project.

“One of the main reasons we came to the Chaffee house was because of its history with slavery,” he said. “The Chaffee family held several captive Africans whose lives we know very little about, and so the material we found hopefully will allow us to shine a better light on what their lives were like. The history of slavery in Connecticut is not a well-known one, so therefore some assume there wasn’t any. That’s why as archaeologists it’s imperative we make the effort to dig through the dirt and the archives to gather enough information to tell these stories.”

His classmate, Jessica Vining, didn’t know what to expect when she signed up for this hands-on learning experience.

“I learned more about African-American history in New England in a new and informative way than what I was taught in public school growing up,” Vining said. “It was very personal being on site rather than reading about it online…The opportunity allowed for us to ask questions and try to learn more about the life of the Chaffee family and the relationships they had with African-Americans at that time.”

The CCSU Center for Africana Studies was the first of its kind in the U.S. to develop an archaeology program, under the direction of retired faculty member Dr. Warren Perry. Ongoing research projects include the New York City African Burial Ground Project, the New Salem Plantation Archaeological Project and the CT Minkisi Project.

Past summers brought CCSU’s archaeology field school to Salem, Derby and Simsbury.

Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at

Posted in The Bristol Press, General News on Tuesday, 17 August 2021 09:25. Updated: Tuesday, 17 August 2021 09:28.