Freedom Trail


    Length 1.5 Miles
    Type: Culture
    Difficulty Level: Strenuous


    The Norwich Freedom Trail is a part of the Walk Norwich Trail system and celebrates Norwich’s rich, diverse, and largely untold story of African-American heritage, highlighting notable people who played important roles in the movement to end slavery and advance civil rights before and after the United States Civil War. This courageous cast of individuals including men, women, and children, ranges from former slaves to progressive educators and humanitarians, elected officials, and civic leaders. All found ways—some quietly, others in the public forum—to fight for liberty and human dignity in an era of social and political upheaval. Among them is, David Ruggles, who became a nationally known African-American “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Later on others, like Sarah Harris and James L. Smith, both residents of the historically African-American community known as Jail Hill, made their own marks. As a young teenager, Sarah Harris broke a barrier as the first black (female) woman to enter one of Connecticut’s prestigious academies for privileged well-to-do young white women. An escaped slave from Virginia, Smith became a successful Norwich shoemaker, his journey to freedom embodies the struggle of those who escaped from slavery to make new lives in the North in the years before the Civil War.

    The trail also sheds light on Norwich’s connection to Abraham Lincoln, who spoke here in 1860 in support of the re-election of Connecticut Governor William A. Buckingham. Lincoln’s brilliant analysis of “the problem of slavery” the problem slavery presented to the nation was an important factor in his nomination as the Republican candidate for president later that year.  As Connecticut’s Civil War governor, William Buckingham led the state through the turmoil of the period, supported the Emancipation Proclamation, enlisted blacks into two regiments to fight for the Union, and advocated extending the right to vote to black men. Buckingham’s historic home still stands in downtown Norwich, and he is buried in the city’s Yantic Cemetery.

    The Norwich Freedom Trail focuses on sites that embody the struggle toward freedom and celebrates the accomplishments of Norwich’s African American community, and of others who helped the community at a time when anti-slavery efforts in Connecticut faced stiff, fierce and often violent opposition.

    Although this tour largely concentrates on the abolitionist movement, it also touches on more modern African-American history in Norwich, including the story of folk artist Ellis Walter Ruley, and the recent work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Norwich Branch NAACP.

    The trail, which involves includes a minimal amount of driving, concentrates on Jail Hill, a National Register Historic District adjacent to downtown Norwich, it then continues downtown and beyond, ending at Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park, Ruley’s former homestead near Route 2 East and the gravesite of Boston Trowtrow, one of three Norwich “black governors” elected from the city’s African-American community in the 1700s, located in the Norwichtown Colonial Burying Grounds. Many sites along the way are part of the Connecticut Freedom Trail, which recognizes sites significant to the state’s African-American history and culture. (For more information, go to log onto

    Please note: there are numerous free parking garages in Free parking can be found in several garages in downtown Norwich. Walkers take care: Jail Hill has very steep inclines in certain sections.

    Slavery in Colonial Connecticut

    In Connecticut, slavery became common as the result of the Pequot War of 1636–37. Native American captives were forced into slavery by the colonists and exchanged for African slaves in the West Indies. By the early to late 1700s, slavery was well established in the colony, especially in seaports such as Norwich and New London. In 1774, when the importation of slaves into the colony was banned, Norwich’s black population was 234 out of 7,327 inhabitants, the second largest in New London County. At the time of the Revolutionary War, Connecticut had the largest slave population in New England.

    The colonial legislature in Connecticut passed a series of acts restricting the rights of free and enslaved blacks. Although there was no specific legislation preventing free blacks from voting, nevertheless they were denied that right throughout the colonial period. Due to the revolutionary fervor period of 1775–83, many Northern slaveholders saw a contradiction between holding others in slavery bondage while fighting for their own liberty. As a result, some slave owners voluntarily freed their slaves through the legal process of manumission. Military service was another also provided a path to freedom. As a combined result, the free black population in Norwich and elsewhere in Connecticut rose substantially.

    During the Federal Period, some Northern states adopted “gradual emancipation” laws, providing that children born to slaves after a certain date be emancipated at age twenty-five. Gradual emancipation, enacted in Connecticut in 1784, only freed those born after passage of the act by the state legislature. The goal was to phase out slavery over an extended period of time. The process delayed the official end of slavery in Connecticut until 1848, long after the practice was abolished in many other northern states. By this time, thousands of escaped slaves would attain their freedom on the Underground Railroad. While little is known of the operation of the Underground Railroad in Norwich, it is likely that white and black members of the Second Congregational Church were involved. Edmund Perkins, a white attorney and member of the church, was mentioned as the leader of the Underground Railroad in Norwich in the 1850s by an informant of Wilber H. Siebert in the 1890s.

    STOP 1 - David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard

    This courtyard was dedicated in 2015 in honor of David Ruggles (1810–1849), an abolitionist born to free black parents in 1810 and raised in the Bean Hill section of town.

    STOP 2 - Norwich City Hall

    Designed by the local firm of Burdick and Arnold, Norwich City Hall has served as the seat of municipal government since its completion in 1873.

    STOP 3 - Lottie B. Scott House

    Lottie B. Scott (b. 1937) has made substantial contributions to Norwich civic affairs. Born and raised on a farm in Longtown, South Carolina, she moved to Norwich in 1957.

    Stop 4 - Guy and Sarah Drock House

    In 1742, Guy Drock, a “servant boy” of Captain Benajah Bushnell, was baptized in the First Congregational Church in Norwich. His origins are obscure, but it is known that he was trained as a blacksmith.

    STOP 5 - La Famille De L Eglise Dieu

    Norwich’s Second Congregational Church, founded in 1760, played a key role in providing educational opportunities for local African Americans.

    STOP 6 - James Lindsey Smith House

    James Lindsey Smith was born into bondage in Heathsville, Virginia. Trained as a shoemaker, he escaped from slavery with two friends in 1838.

    STOP 7 - Jail Hill

    Jail Hill is a historically working-class neighborhood, perched on a steep incline overlooking the downtown and the harbor.

    STOP 8 - Elisha Williams House

    This vernacular Greek Revival style house was owned by Elisha Williams, an African American who made his living as a cook.

    STOP 9 - Charles H. Harris House

    This is the former home of Charles Harris, a subscription agent for The Liberator, a radical abolitionist newspaper founded in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831.

    Stop 10 - Sites of former New London County Jail and Courthouse/City Hall

    This spot was the site of the circa 1833 New London County jail, the long-vanished namesake of Jail Hill. With separate accommodations for female and male prisoners, this facility, modern of for its day, had its own kitchen, laundry, work area, and chapel.

    STOP 11 - Former Norwich Female Academy

    Founded in 1828 with 90 students, the Norwich Female Academy closed shortly after the county jail was built. Currently, the building houses apartments.

    STOP 12 - The Wauregan (Former Wauregan House)

    In 1860, presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln was in Connecticut to support William A. Buckingham’s re-election as governor. On March 9, he spoke at the old Norwich City Hall Stop 10).

    STOP 13 - Buckingham Memorial

    During the tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War, William A. Buckingham (1804–1875)—one-time Norwich mayor, Connecticut governor, and U.S. senator—supported the Union, opposed the expansion of slavery, and declared that compromise with the South was impossible.

    STOP 14 - John F. and Marianna Slater House

    Philanthropist and industrialist John Fox Slater (1815–1884) was known not only for his manufacturing achievements, but also for his groundbreaking support of emancipated slaves.

    STOP 15 - Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park

    Located on the grounds of his former homestead, this park honors the legacy of Norwich native Ellis Walter Ruley (1882–1959), a self-taught African-American folk artist.

    Stop 16: Boston Trowtrow Gravesite

    The gravesite of Boston Trowtrow is one of very few remaining tangible resources of the “Black Governors” of Connecticut. Evidence of the tradition of African Americans electing black governors, or kings, during the eighteenth century can be found in many New England colonies.

    The Norwich NAACP

    In the early 1960’s, Linwood Bland, New London Branch NAACP President, and Amanda Braboy of Norwich, gathered memberships to form the Norwich Branch NAACP after receiving discrimination complaints from Norwich citizens. Among the complaints received from Blacks was that an eatery on West Main Street would require Blacks to pay in advance for their meals and then would break the glasses they used in their presence.

    On October 14, 1963, the Norwich Branch NAACP received its charter from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with a total of 111 chartered members. Reverend Joseph Schneider, Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church was the first President and meetings were held at the Evans Memorial AME Zion Church in Norwich. 

    The Norwich Branch NAACP has had nine presidents since its inception, most notably Jacqueline D. Owens, the longest serving Branch President with a term of 30 years.

    The Norwich Branch NAACP over the past 55 years has advocated and worked tirelessly to address discrimination and inequities in the areas of housing, education, jobs, voting, healthcare and criminal justice. Their annual community celebrations like the Martin Luther King Jr. Luncheon, the Sweet Potato Festival and their Juneteenth Celebration bring members of the community together while celebrating unique aspects of African-American history, culture, and life in Norwich.

    The Norwich Branch NAACP has partnered with the Norwich Historical Society, Norwich Area Clergy Association, the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce, Norwich Public Schools, Norwich Free Academy and United Community and Family Services to provide quality programs and services to the residents of the Greater Norwich Area.

    Since 2007, the Norwich Branch NAACP has received seven First Place National NAACP Thalheimer Awards, the highest award an NAACP Branch can receive for its yearlong accomplishments.



    Text written and researched by Rachel Carley and Regan Miner. Special thanks to City historian, Dale Plummer, Todd Levine and Marena Wisniewski from the State Historic Preservation Office for editing the text. Thank you to members of the Norwich NAACP Chapter, Dianne Daniels and Shiela Hayes, for contributing to the text.

    The trail was produced by the Norwich Historical Society in 2019.