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Friday, September 20, 2013

Almost 200 Years Later, Slave Gets Proper Burial

About 60 people gathered at the Connecticut State Capitol to pay respects to an 18th-century Connecticut slave known as Mr. Fortune. (Chion Wolf/WNPR)

About 60 people gathered at the Connecticut State Capitol to pay respects to an 18th-century Connecticut slave known as Mr. Fortune. (Chion Wolf/WNPR)

Slavery is an accepted part of the history of the American South. But it was also practiced throughout the North.

Around the time of the American Revolution, Connecticut had more than 6,000 slaves, the most in New England.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Diane Orson of WNPR brings us the story of an 18th century Connecticut slave whose remains were recently laid to rest, more than 200 years after his death.

Reporter

  • Diane Orson, reporter and producer for WNPR, part of the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network. She tweets @dorson1.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Now to some history. Slavery is, of course, an accepted part of the history of the American South. But it was also practiced throughout the North. Around the time of the American Revolution, Connecticut had more than 6,000 slaves, the most in the region. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WNPR's Diane Orson brings us the story of an 18th century Connecticut slave whose remains have recently been laid to rest more than 200 years after his death.

NORA MULLINS: (Singing) Glory, glory, hallelujah.

DIANE ORSON, BYLINE: Nine-year-old Nora Mullins sings to a crowd gathered in the rotunda of the state capitol in Hartford. It's a vigil for a slave named Fortune, who died in 1798. In this building with its marble floors and ornate statues, a man once bound in servitude lies in state where governors and military leaders have been honored in the past.

REVEREND LAURA J. AHRENS: Gracious God, we give thanks for the life of Mr. Fortune, who we celebrate and remember on this day.

ORSON: The Right Reverend Laura Ahrens calls on those gathered to work for justice, while the Honorable Steven Mullins of the Union of Black Episcopalians reminds them never to forget.

HONORABLE STEVEN R. MULLINS: What happened to Mr. Fortune should not happen to any human being in the world.

ORSON: Fortune was an African American enslaved to a Waterbury, Connecticut bone surgeon named Dr. Preserved Porter. Porter also owned Fortune's wife Dinah and their four children. Waterbury's Mattatuck Museum exhibits the art and history of Connecticut. The museum's Marie Galbraith says it's not clear how Fortune died, but there's no doubt what happened after his death.

MARIE GALBRAITH: Dr. Porter then basically flayed Fortune's body and removed the flesh from his bones, and used his bones to study human anatomy.

ORSON: Galbraith says the practice of using skeletons to teach medical students in the 18th century was controversial. But Dr. Porter opened a school for anatomy so doctors could learn from Fortune's bones.

GALBRAITH: And because Fortune did not have the right to his own personhood, Dr. Porter was allowed, if you will, to take advantage of his enslavement to study human anatomy.

AL WALTON AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY PROJECT: And that, to me, is almost the horror, true horror of the story.

ORSON: Al Walton is a member of the museum's African American History Project.

PROJECT: Fortune was worked during his lifetime, and then after he died, the doctor is still working in using him, so to speak. Fortune never got a moment's rest.

ORSON: The skeleton stayed with the Porter family for many years. In the 1930s, a descendant donated the bones to the Mattatuck Museum. By that time the slave's name had been forgotten. Museum officials put the bones on display, and the skeleton, which now had the name Larry written across its skull, hung at the museum. Walton remembers seeing Larry the skeleton during school fieldtrips.

PROJECT: And I myself thought it was a fake set of bones. Many people didn't realize he was a former slave, or he was in fact a real skeleton.

ORSON: The exhibit was taken down in the 1970s. About 20 years later, museum officials and local residents set out to uncover the history of the bones. Walton says that process led the Waterbury community to come face to face with its past. And now, he says, it's time for the slave Fortune to rest in peace.

PROJECT: For me, I've always, in my mind, looked at Fortune as somebody who could be one of my descendants. I see him as somebody of my family that is going to be buried, and I want to make sure he gets sent off in a grand, dignified, honorable style.

ORSON: Back at the capital, a state police escort prepares to carry Fortune's bones to St. John's Episcopal Church for a long overdue funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ORSON: Fortune's remains now rest at Riverside Cemetery in Waterbury, alongside many of the Connecticut aristocrats that he might once have served. Now, when people visit the Mattatuck Museum, they can learn about slavery in Connecticut. And in schools throughout the state, Fortune's story is taught to children. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Diane Orson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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