James Mars

A Story of Enslavement in CT

On April 1 at 7:15 pm, scores of guests gathered via Zoom to hear the remarkable story of James Mars, a Black American born into slavery in Canaan, CT.  Salisbury history teacher Rhonan Mokriski and his students have spent the last year excavating the buried stories of Black Americans in CT whose lives have been hidden from history for centuries. As Mokriski explained, “We believe that efforts like this will help refute the impression that American history is inherently white.”

James Mars was born into slavery in 1790, owned by the town of Canaan, Connecticut’s Congregational Minister Reverend Thompson. Following his family’s escape and eventual capture in Norfolk, CT, a deal was negotiated between Norfolk’s Congregational Minister and the Reverend Thompson to re-enslave nine-year-old James and his brother in return for their parents’ manumission.

James spent an additional decade in slavery until he was able to buy his freedom for $90 at the age of 21. After living elsewhere for many years, an aging James Mars returned to Norfolk. By 1870, he was impoverished and increasingly frail, but determined to write his autobiography because “[s]ome told me that they did not know that slavery was ever allowed in Connecticut, and some affirm that it never did exist in the State.”* In the mid-1880s his memoir was published and stands as one of the most important accounts of the cruelties and uncertainties of life for the enslaved in New England.

Eager to make Mars’s story more widely known, Mokriski, partnering with the Norfolk Historical Society and UCC Norfolk, successfully applied for a $2,500 grant from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to organize a day of civic pride to celebrate the life and work of James Mars on May 1, 2021. To view the event please use this link.

* https://connecticuthistory.org; James Mars’ Words Illuminate the Cruelty of Slavery in New England by Peter Hincks, 2/28/15

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