This blogpost is dedicated to both my Lyon-Green-Merritt African-American ancestors who left the Byram and Sherwood’s Bridge (Glenville) sections of Greenwich to settle the neighborhood of Hangroot. It is also dedicated to all those African-Americans who made Hangroot their home for 100 years. I pray that this blogpost leads their descendants to discover their proud Black Greenwich roots. Lastly, I dedicate this blog to all my extended Lyon-Green-Merritt family who are following me on my journey to uncover the truth about all of our Greenwich family history.
I would like to thank the following people:
The following Greenwich historians and archivists who have helped me locate documents relevant to Hangroot. All of them have been more than generous with their time and no doubt share the same passion for Greenwich history as me: Anne Young, Christopher Shields, Nola Taylor, and Carl White.
Jeffrey Bingham Mead, as always, has been a great resource for me. I am grateful for his pioneer research on African-Americans in Greenwich, CT. I hope that I am telling the true stories he wanted to finally read about over the years.
I am particulary indebted to my 5th 2XR cousin and fellow family historian, Dennis Richmond, Jr. He gifted me with a photograph that shows Hangroot through the eyes of our ancestors. The photo below, which features, John Sherman Merritt, Dennis’s 2nd great-grandfather and my 3rd cousin 2XR as a young boy, is the visual sum of all our combined family history research on Hangroot. Much love and respect to him. I am looking forward to writing a blogpost where we discuss our five year relationship that ultimately brought us together today. I know, without a doubt, that our ancestors are now finally smiling down on us knowing that there is power in numbers. I can’t wait to read the stories he will be writing soon.
Finally a message to Cheryl Henson, Heather Henson and John Nelson: Going forth, I hope the image below contributes to the joy that you’ve always felt in the house that Allen Green built. How awesome it would be if my research on Hangroot leads to state and federal recognition of 30 Round Hill Road as an Underground Railroad site. I pray this will be true one day.
Defining Hangroot: A Colored Settlement
Hangroot is a geographically defined area in Greenwich, CT where formerly enslaved African-Americans sought to build a community of their own in the early 1800s.
The above 1887 Driving Road Chart indicates a “Colored Settlement” that shows the area that came to be known as the Hangroot of our ancestors. Hangroot, as a neighborhood, can be traced back to 1730 when the Town of Greenwich approved a bridge to be built over Horseneck Brook near Round Hill Road and, in 1757, when the Town also approved a sawmill to be built there as well (Mead:1857:122). As an FYI, the name “Hangroot” has been attributed to the fact that the homes there had root cellars where fruit/vegetables where hung from the ceilings to prevent rodents from reaching them. Well-off farmers, like the Husteds, were also known to have stocked their root cellars so that poorer farmers in the area could help themselves to produce in times of need. That being said, Hangroot was always connected to the area we still associate with being Hangroot today (i.e., the intersection of Round Hill Rd. and Horseneck Brook) but this area expanded over time to include the area we see in the 1887 map. There have been accounts that there were several Black rural settlements. I believe this is incorrect and that there was only one which is represented as this larger “Colored Settlement” area. Our Hangroot ancestors lived within all areas of the “Colored Settlement.”
Since no one has defined the actual boundaries of Hangroot previously, for the purpose of this blogpost, I am defining the boundaries of Hangroot as follows: the Eastern boundary is defined as being near Lake Avenue, the Western boundary near Pecksland Rd., the Northern boundary near Clapboard Ridge Rd., and the Southern boundary just north of Glenville Rd. These boundaries changed over time with the ebb and flow of the African-American population. By the late 1870s, Hangroot becomes restricted to the area around Round Hill Road and Horseneck Brook once again. It is important to note that Hangroot was never an all-Black area, but an area that had a higher concentration of African-Americans than other sections of Greenwich, CT. As someone who is also of Native American ancestry, I note that Hangroot was home to Native-Americans as well. That is a clear reminder that Native Americans were Connecticut’s first slaves. That fact must never be forgotten.
19th Century Residents of Hangroot: A Free Black Community For The Formerly Enslaved (1800-1900)
As a 7th+ generation descendant of pioneer African-Americans who settled Hangroot and gave rise to this community, I feel an urgent need to write this forgotten community back into existence. Many people are unaware of the early presence of African-Americans in the Town of Greenwich. My blog posts on TheByram African-American Cemetery detail the history of African-Americans in Greenwich going back to the 18th century. Though official records regarding African-Americans are not available for Greenwich because of slavery, it can be assumed that there were African-Americans in Greenwich going back to the 17th century as the earliest African slaves in Connecticut arrived at the same time as colonial white settlers. Our Black Greenwich ancestors were from Byram and Sherwood’s Bridge (Glenville) sections of Greenwich and they left those neighborhoods to make Hangroot their home for a little over 100 years.
I often ask myself the following questions: If a community isn’t documented, did it actually exist? Who gets to define a community and from what/whose perspective? In doing genealogy research, does one have an obligation to correct historical ommissions and the historical record itself, on behalf of their ancestors, when given the benefit of historical hindsight? Such questions motivate me to continue to always dig deeper and to provide a different view of Greenwich history that is an unapolegetically African-American one. It is the view of people who lived on the margins of recorded history whose lives were not remembered as they should have been. The more I learn, the more I want to make visible this Black Greenwich history. This blogpost is my attempt at defining the Hangroot community and a start at reclaiming it’s past. It is by no means perfect, but it is the foundation on which I will write future blogposts and a book. It is nothing less than a work in progess that focuses on an intrinsic part of 19th century Greenwich history that is Black Greenwich history.
The methodolgy I used to compile this list is based on 100 years of census records indicating the presence of African-Americans in the area known as Hangroot within the geographical boundaries specified above. I also cross-checked some of these names with emancipation records found in Jeffrey Bingham Mead’s book, Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipation in the Town of Greenwich, CT. Articles in various newspaper archives were also reviewed. Finally, I was able to secure documents regarding Hangroot from both the Greenwich Historical Society and the Greenwich Library.
Below are the names of African-Americans who owned homes in Hangroot from 1800-1900. I have also listed the approximate population of African-Americans who lived in Hangroot as this number also includes African-Americans who were living in white households at times as slaves and/or servants and farmhands/laborers.
NOTE: When I refer to “Black Greenwich,” I am specifically referring to only those African-American residents below who have the surnames listed and their descendants. They are people who either were born in Greenwich, CT or resided there before the Civil War. These African-Americans constitute the founding African-American population of Greenwich, CT.
Possible 1800-1809 Residents: Isaac Negro* (Carpenter), Ned Negro, Jeffrey Negro ** (Felmetta) York Negro (Mead), and Anthony Negro (Green)
*All African-Americans recorded in the first three census records for Greenwich, CT were given the surname “Negro.” I added the correct surnames of these individuals in parentheses when possible so that their descedants may one day be able to locate them. They are “Negro” no more.
** The surname Felmetta seems to be unique to Greenwich, CT. No connection to a white Felmetta has been uncovered yet. There is the possiblity that this surname was chosen by Jeffrey Felmetta himself. It was not unusual for former slaves to take on a surname of their own choosing as an act of self-determination. This name has many spelling variations and include Filmetta, Fellmote, Felmette, Felemetta, Fillmeter, Fillimetta, Felmestra, Felmetty, and others. I used the spelling Felmetta throughout this blogpost for consistency.
***Update: My cousin Dennis Richmond, Jr. on 8/19/17, found a 1947 obituary for Sarah Banks Green that indicated that the Felmettas were part Native American. Sarah’s father was William Banks, who is listed in the 1860 Greenwich census, and he was a Mohawk Indian. Her mother was Loretta Felmetta amd she was said to be part Native American (Mohawk)
In the 1800 census, 84 free African-Americans were recorded as living in Greenwich along with 39 enslaved people. The only free Black property owners listed were an Isaac Negro (Carpenter), Ned Negro and York (Mead). However, Jeffrey Negro (Felmetta) is not listed in the 1800 census, but we know via property records that he owned property as early as 1784 and he is listed in the 1790 census as being a free Black along with 8 other free Black heads of households. My 4th great-grandfather Anthony Negro (Green) and his wife Peg, who was freed in 1800, moved to Hangroot sometime before 1810.
Population: Approx 80 individuals
1810 Residents: Isaac Negro (Carpenter), Henry Negro (Seymour), Horace Negro (Watson), Jeffrey Negro (Felmetta), George Negro (Moore), Ned Negro, Obid Negro (Davenport), Anthony Negro (Green), Cull Negro (Bush), and Frank Negro (Husted).
Population: Approx. 126 individuals
1820 Residents: Harry Brown, John Indian*, Anthony Green, Isaac Carpenter, Jeremiah Mitchell, Frank Husted, Charles Negro (Merritt), Cuff Brown, Jeffrey Felmetta, Henry Seymour, Henry Santes, Allah African**, York Mead, Aaron Felmetta, Sarah More, Catherine Felmetta, and John Ellis.
*A Hardy Indian, who may be a possible descendant of the John Indian, is recorded on the 1850 census as being “mulatto” and working as a farmhand. It is important to note that the category “mulatto” actually erases Native-Americans in the historical record by conflating them with other people of color. We also see the surname “Indian” being given to people of Native American descent. Hardy Indian is considered to be one of the last Native Americans in Greenwich and is buried west of Round Hill Road in an unmarked grave.
**Allah African is the only African-American whom I found whose place of birth is listed as “Africa.” Given his first name, it can be assumed that he was born a Muslim somewhere in Africa. He was also the wealthiest African-American in Greenwich during the 1800s.
Population: Approx. 147 individuals
1830 Residents:Anthony Green, Sr., Anthony Green, Jr., Henry Green, Charles Merritt, James Mills, Sarah More, Ichabod Purdy*, John Ellis, Jeffrey Felmetta, Sam Carpenter, Robert Treadwell, Morris Mead, Henry Seymour, John Indian, York Mead, Wdw. Rose Felmetta, Thomas Carpenter, George Barker, Harry Bounds, Allah African, and Edmund Thompson.
*When Ichabad Purdy died in 1878 in Hangroot, at the age of 96 years and 8 months, he was considered to be one of the oldest residents. In various census records, his surname is listed as being Lars, St. Lair, Lair, and Lan for reasons unknown. The variations in these spellings may be a result of a mistake on the part of the census taker.
Population: Approx. 174 individuals
1840 Residents: Allen Green, Solomon Green, Henry Green, Charles Merritt, Isaac Carpenter, Floyd Mills, Henry Merritt*, Robert Merritt*, George Watson, Horace Watson, Henry Felmetta, Allah African, Henry Belcher, Joseph Brown, Horace Mead, James Felmetta, Emmeline Brown, Ichabod Purdy, John Lyon, Edmund Thompson, Charles Porter, and Joseph Davenport.
*Please note that Robert and his son Henry Merritt are not related to our Merritt line. They are the descendants of Whitman Merritt who was born around 1720. Whitman’s son Robert Merritt was born in 1737. This is the oldest African-American Merritt line from Greenwich that we know of at this time.
Population: Approx.182 individuals
1850 Residents: Allen Green, Solomon Green, Henry Green, Charles Merritt, Anthony Green, Henry Belcher, Ichabod Purdy, Edmund Thompson, Floyd Mills, Charles Brown, Isaac Merritt, Henry Felmetta, Horace Watson, George Watson, William Peterson, Henry Merritt, Allah African, Robert Merritt, and George Peck.
Population: Aprox. 113 individuals
1860 Residents: Allen Green, Solomon Green, Henry Green, Charles Merritt, Henry Brown, William Purdy, Ichabod Purdy, James Purdy, Joseph Carpenter, Charles Brown, Abraham Merritt, Samuel H. Merritt, Allah African, Henry Merritt, Robert Merritt, Caleb Webb, Delilah Bush, Theodore Anderson, William Peterson, Grace Belcher, Polly Merritt, George Felmetta, Charles Meyers, Robert Felmetta, Susan Green, Henry Felmetta, William Banks (Native American), William Mead, and Amos Carpenter.
Population: Approx. 134 individuals
1870 Residents: Allen Green, Samuel H. Merritt, Tempy Green, Theodore Mills, William Carpenter, Charles Brown, William Belcher, William Purdy, William Brown, William Peterson, Solomon Green, Samuel Merritt, Henry Husted, Abraham Merritt, Samuel Green, Isaac Merritt, Henry Merritt, Horace Treadwell, Charles Meyer, George Peck, Allah African, Henry Felmetta, Robert Anderson, Charles Banks, and Robert Peterson.
Population: Approx. 125 individuals
1880 Residents:Solomon Green, Henry Felmetta, Joseph Purdy, Maria Purdy, Joseph Carpenter, Charles Banks, Samuel H. Merritt, Theordore Mills, Charles Green, Isaac Merritt, Thomas Green, Harry Merritt, William Peterson, Joseph Purdy. Charles Merritt, and Robert Peterson.
Population: Approx. 53 indivduals
1900 Residents: Thomas Green, Joseph Merritt, James Banks, Samuel H. Merritt, Edward Merritt, Willis Merritt, Victoria Peterson, Charles Merritt, Alonzo Merritt, Adeline Merritt, Cornelius Purdy, Aaron Felmetta, and Maria Merritt.
Population: Approx. 58 individuals
Our Lyon-Green-Merritt Hangroot Connection
My 4th great-grandfather, Anthony Green, Sr., only 4 years after he was legally emancipated by the widow of Captain John Green, was included in an 1820 $5,000 land deal that was signed on April 17,1820. He went in as an equal partner along with Thomas Green (the nephew/son-in-law of John Green, Anthony’s former slave owner), Samuel Lyon (a Lyon relative of Anthony’s wife Peg who was emancipated by Benjamin Woolsey Lyon, her uncle), Zophar Mead, Isaac Mead, Jabez Mead, William Robbins, Carr Robbins, Samuel Pine, and Elisha Belcher. All of these men were neighbors either in Sherwood’s Bridge (Glenville) or in Rye, NY. This land deal included several pieces of land which included Anthony’s land in Hangroot near Round Hill Rd. and Horseneck Brook as well as his land near the Green family which was at the westernmost border of Hangroot near today’s Pecksland Rd. As previously stated in another post, Anthony and Peg were both mulattos and were slave descedants of both the Green and Lyon families and their interactions and those of their children and grandchildren are indicative of close kin ties. As will be seen, at no point in the 1800s did our Lyon-Green-Merritt ancestors NOT live near or interact with their former slave owners and their descendants.
The 1858 Clark mapbelow indicates where my 4th great-grandparents, Anthony and Peg Green, were living in 1810 which was right beside Anthony’s former Green slave owners. They owned their own property. Although Anthony wasn’t formerly emancipated until 1816, he was living with Peg and their three youngest sons (Allen, Solomon and Henry) probably earlier than 1810 as Peg was emancipated in 1800. It is a matter of pride to learn that, through their hard work, they were able to accumulate enough money to buy even more land of their own — land that they were able to then passed on to their descendants.
The 1820 census was enumerated on August 7th, 1820 which means that Anthony and Peg moved to their new home in Hangroot at the intersection of Round Hill Rd. and Horseneck Brook soon after he obtained his share of the land deal. In other woods, in true Jeffersonian fashion, they moved on up to “the East side (i.e., Round Hill)” and got a piece of the pie”—- initially speaking. Looking at the 1820 census, we see that they were living next to the Husted family which included Amos, Caleb, and Aaron as well as their father, Peter. As you will see, various members of the Husted family, who intermarried with our Lyon ancestors, lived alongside of Anthony and Peg and their descendants for decades.
According to the 1830 census record, Anthony, Jr. is living in the home that his father used to live in the 1810s. Our Green ancestors are still living next to their Green kin. Meanwhile, Anthony, Sr. is now living next to his sons Henry and Charles Merritt in a different section of Hangroot. His sons, Allan and Solomon, both moved to Hangroot’s Round Hill location in the late 1830s.
In 1837, one year after Anthony, Sr. died, his 5 sons (Charles, Allen, Henry, Solomon and Plato) sold part of his land to Henry Merritt, another African-American man. From the 1840s until the early 1900s, our African-American ancestors made Hangroot their home. They intermarried with the Watsons, Mills, Pecks, Petersons, Felmettas, Purdys, Banks, and other Hangroot families. They went to the same churches and socialized together. Throughout the 1800s, one can see how people in Hangroot took care of each other by taking in relatives and neighbors when required. Although our ancestors were farmers, stone masons, laborers, coachmen, and servants, they were part of old Greenwich from the beginning. As to not rehash what I have previously written, a more detailed account of our family history in Hangroot from 1850 onward can be found here.
The decline of our Hangroot community was the direct result of several factors. First, immigration starting in the early 1840s resulted in the Irish, Scottish, and other white immigrants moving to Greenwich and taking the jobs held previously by African-Americans — jobs like farmhands, laborers and servants. Second, industrialization brought the railroad and woolen mills (e.g., Hawthorne Woolen Mill and American Felt Company) to Greenwich in the mid-1800s. The jobs in those industries went to the English, Irish, Scottish, Polish, and other Eastern European immigrants. Perhaps the biggesr reason though had to do with the arrival of the Rockefellers to Hangroot which dramatically changed Greenwich by ushering in the NYC leisure class who then started to build massive country estates.
In regards to Hangroot, William Avery Rockefeller, brother of John D. Rockefeller and co-founder of Standard Oil, started purchasing property in the area in 1870 and his descedants continued doing so up until the early 1900s. As indicated in the 1887 map above, one sees how the Rockefellers had a dramatic impact on Hangroot that had been a home to our ancestors for decades. When the Rockefellers moved next door to them, it was hard for our ancestors to continue to exist as they had in the decades prior. I am also certain that other low and middle-class white farmers were equally displaced by the Rockefellers. According to its very definition gentrification is a process of renewal that occurs when there is an influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. In the case of Hangroot, it resulted in a loss of of an historic African-American community and the erasure of its history.
The Green-Twachtman House: The House That Allen Green Built in 1845
My 3rd great-grandfather, Allen Green, lived in Rye, NY, in 1830. As you can see from the 1830 Rye, NY census record, he was living near Samuel Lyon and Samuel Pine, two of the people who went in on the 1820 land deal with his father Anthony in 1820.
Allen purchased property at 30 Round Hill Road from Walter Avery on April 8, 1839. It was Allen who built his house in 1845 — a house that is now affiliated more with John H. Twachtman. Walter Avery had lived in Hangroot as early as 1810 and resided in the same area as the Husteds. However, it was in the 1830s when he bought this particular property.
In 1990, Nils Kerschus, an architectural researcher at the Greenwich Historical Society, compiled the deed title search for the Green-Twachtman House. As Allen’s descedant, I quickly noticed what a genealogical goldmine this document was in terms of our own family history. Allen bought the property in 1839 and owned the property up until his death in 1878. A year later his estate sold his 3 acres of land with buildings to a Franz Stuba.
It was sold for $860. The Port Chester Journal on March 27, 1879 documented the sale as can be seen below.
Franz Stuba in turn sold the property to Lawrence Green who then sold it to David S. Husted. It is interesting to note that both men have kin ties to our Lyon-Green-Merritt line. Lawrence Green was a descendant of my 4th great-grandfather’s former slave owner, John Green. His grandfather, Benjamin Green, was the nephew of John Green, whom Anthony lived next to in 1810. David S. Husted was the great-grandson of Benjamin Woolsey Lyon who emancipated my 4th great-grandmother in 1800. David’s grandfather was William H. Husted whose wife, Mary Lyon, was the daughter of Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. Moreover, William’s brother Drake Husted, along with his wife, Nancy Marvin Lyon, were the couple, who raised my 4th great-uncle Jack Husted, Peg and Anthony’s son — the only son who never lived in Hangroot though it is clear he visited family there. The administrator of Allen’s estate, Joseph B. Husted was the son of Drake and Nancy Husted.
In this 1868 Town of Greenwich map, we observe that Mrs. Husted, David S. Husted’s mother, owned the property adjacent to Allen’s. In the 1887 Road map at the beginning of this blogpost, one sees that David S. Husted now owns Allen’s property having bought it in 1884. He sold Allen’s house to John H. Twachtman in 1890.
By 1890, the year John H. Twachtman arrived in the Hangroot that was our hood, it was already in decline. Twatchman was an artist looking to purchase land that he could afford. I don’t for one minute buy into the myth, propogated by Goodwin, that he just happened upon my 3rd great-grandfather’s property while following the bends of Horseneck Brook, was touched by the natural environment, and just had to live there. I simply see his arrival in Hangroot as part of the larger process of gentrification begun by the Rockefellers.
Twachtman was fully aware that, if he purchased property there, it would be cheaper because it was considered an area where poor Black farmers lived, an area that was filled with “Connecticut potatoes (i.e., stones),” and very difficult to farm. Moreover, Twachtman knew that the property would eventually increase in value given the nearby presence of the Rockefellers. In addition, since he wasn’t a farmer, he recognized that he could further increase the value of his property by using his creative and artistic skills to make improvements that would highlight the natural landscape. Twachtman did what every struggling artist-gentrifier has done throughout the ages when moving into an up and coming area. I don’t begrudge him for doing that and I am grateful to be able to look at his art and know that some of his inspiration came from Hangroot. But, let’s not deny the historical fact that he went to Hangroot because that’s where he could only afford to buy land at the time.
This gentrification of Hangroot continued. For example, in 1884, David S. Husted sold some of his land to William Rockefeller to satisfy a judgement against him as a result of a court case between him and Alexander Mead. Before he died, he sold the rest of his property to him as well. As noted below, he had to remove his family cemetery from the premises before he did. The Rockefellers would go on to buy more and more property so that, at one point, they owned about 400 acres of land. Later generations of Rockerfellers would go on to break up their large estates and sell off the smaller parcels of land. There was no way that our Hangroots ancestors could ever compete with this level of gentrification. No way at all.
Over one hundred years later, the Green-Twachtman House still stands for all to see. I was excited to learn about Sesame Street and The Muppets creator Jim Hensons’s ties to the Green-Twachtman House. As a child, who was born in the late 1960’s, and who grew up watching Sesame Street on PBS, I could not be happier. The affiliation with Sesame Street, I believe, was meant to be. Sesame Street always represented a world to me where everyone was accepted, diversity was celebrated, lessons were learned, and everyone was happy in the end. I have met members of the Henson family and I am looking forward to a guided tour of the house with the current owner, John Nelson, very soon. I look forward to having the Hensons and the Nelsons accompany our family on this journey of discovery that ultimately connects us all to the same house. I am blessed indeed.
Hangroot Heroes: Members of the 29th Infantry United States Colored Troops
Please note that information for this section comes from the National Archives (Fold3). Previous accounts of the Greenwich men who fought in the 29th Infantry of the United States Colored Troops included men who enlisted from neighboring communities in Westchester County, NY. The list below is accurate.
The following are the names of the 18 Hangroot African-American men who fought for the 29th Infantry of the Connecticut Colored Troops during the Civil War. These men volunteered to fight in a war that ultimately led to the freedom of their enslaved countrymen. They were John Banks, Amos T. Carpenter, Silas M. Carpenter, Charles E. Green (my 3rd great-uncle) George E. Green (my 1st cousin 4XR) James H. Green (my 3rd great-uncle), William Green (my 1st cousin 4XR), William H. Hicks, William Meade, Isaac Merritt (my 1st cousin 4XR), Whitman Merritt, Floyd T. Mills, William O. Mills, Charles Moore, Robert Peterson (brother of Emily Peterson, wife of my 3rd great-uncle Thomas Green), George Porter, Charles E. Treadwell, and Horace Watson (father of Annice Watson who married William Green). Out of 18 men from Hangroot, 7 (a 39% death rate) paid the ultimate sacrifice. They were John Banks, William Mead, Floyd T. Mills, Charles Moore, George T. Porter, Charles E. Treadwell, and Horace Watson. May God bless them, and all the other Greenwich men, for their service to this country. They were all on the right side of history.
Charles E. Green, George E. Green, William Green, Isaac Merritt, and Robert Peterson are buried in Union Cemetery in Greenwich. Silas M. Carpenter is buried in the Gethsamene (African-American) Cemetery, in Little Ferry, NJ. Floyd T. Mills died at Lovell General Hospital in Portsmouth Grove, RI and is buried in Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY. During the Civil War, Horace Watson, William Mead, and Charles E. Treadwell died in Beaufort, SC, John Banks and George Porter died in Fort Monroe, VA, and Charles Moore died in Brownsville, TX. The burial places of Amos T. Carpenter, Whitman Merritt, William H. Hicks, and William O. Mills are unknown. As for my 3rd great-uncle, James H. Green, the only Sergeant 1st Class from Greenwich in the 29th Infantry, it can be assumed that he died and is buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere in NYC. I look forward to the day when I will write a blogpost just on these 18 Hangroot heroes because they were our own.
The Problem With The Perspective Of Outsiders: A Hangroot Descendant’s View
Last week, I was directed to a photo taken behind the house that my 3rd great-grandfather built. I was made aware of three African-American people in the background looking down at the photographer taken this photo. According to Nils Kerschus, a former researcher at the Greenwich Historical Society who researched Hangroot between 1889-1902 before and after Twachtman arrived, the only ancestors we had left in Hangroot were: Samuel H. Merritt (my 1st cousin 4XR), his wife Catherine, sons Frank and Herbert (my 2nd cousins 3XR), and his granddaughter Sorelia (my 2nd cousin 4XR) in a house they owned; James Banks, his wife Josephine (Samuel’s daughter and my 2nd cousin 3XR), her brother Mandeville Merritt (my 2nd cousin 3XR) were in a 2nd house they owned, and Edward Merritt (Samuel’s son and my 2nd cousin 3XR), his wife Laura Green Merritt (my 2nd great-aunt) and their son Samuel (my 3rd cousin 2XR due to a cousin marriage) were in a 3rd house which they were renting. I should note that, in 1905, Samuel H. Merritt’s and James Banks’ properties were demolished by Frederic Maples, a real estate developer.
No one knows who the photographer was who took this 1890 photo. In any case, I can only imagine how our ancestors felt on that day. Our Hangroot community experienced an almost 50% decline in population from 1870 to 1900. When I saw the photo, I felt a sense of loss. I will never know who exactly those three individuals were just that they were our own. They are forever seared in my mind as three haunting spirits who were bearing witness to the loss of their land. However, I am glad to have this very poignant photo because it is a historic reminder of the displacement that our ancestors experienced. Between 1905 and 1910, our Hangroot community disappears as people have to relocate elsewhere as they become priced out of their neighborhood and work becomes hard to find. Hangroot then becomes the Hangroot of today and it’s history as an African-American commutity is erased. It is now a place more associated with the Rockefellers, Twachtman, and other individuals who came later. The “Allen Green” part of the “Green-Twachtman House” for all intensive purposes has been forgotten and is only mentioned in a footnote in the title deed history of the house and mentioned in a newspaper when it was sold in 1879.
In his often cited Country Life in America 1905 article, Alfred Henry Goodwin, seeks to detail all the improvements that Twachtman made to his property, but, in the process, makes elitest statements about the house before Twachtman bought it. He refers to the house that Allen built as being “ugly” and how this house “desecrated” the land. Of course, Twachtman is portrayed as the man who arrived to “beautify the property” and made it harmonize with the natural environment as only he could. Likewise, Susan G. Larkin in her article, On Home Ground: John Twachtman and the Familiar Landscape, not only quotes Goodwin, but even juxtoposes the 1890 photo of the back of 30 Round Hill Rd. featuring the Horseneck Falls above with a 1905 photo of the same Horseneck Falls that Goodwin presented in his article. While the 1890 photo was taken seemingly in the Winter and shows a barren landscape with my three ancestors present in the background, the 1905 photo was obviously taken the in the Summer and shows a much shadier, lush, and cultivated environment. They are meant to be Before and After photos clearly. Both Goodwin and Larkin see Twachtman as the “Great White Hope” who rescues the property from its poor Black farmer past. Clearly, they admire what Twachtman has done to the environment and his house. There is no need to elaborate on those who owned the property before or who still lived next to his property then. Unlike me, they are either unaware or not concerned with how their words negatively taint the community of Hangroot because they don’t see this community though they are right in the midst of it. All the focus on Twachtman’s “beautifying the property” obscures and renders invisible the community that was Hangroot. Defining Hangroot as “a Black settlement” or indicating that “poor Black farmers” lived there says nothing actually about this community itself. But, of course, people assume that they know everything when they hear such designations.
Standing Up For My Ancestors By Reclaiming Hangroot and Black Greenwich History: We Shall Be Erased No More
As a descendant of Hangroot ancestors, I am acutely aware of how our Black Greenwich family history has been lost, erased, and forgotten. In researching my own family history, I came across an article by Christine McKay titled African Americans in 19th Century Greenwich:Notes on New Research. It was published in 2001 in conjuction with a Greenwich Historical Society exhibit on African-Americans in Greenwich. Other than Jeffrey Bingham Mead, McKay is the only other historian that I know of who has sought to factually present a portrait of Black Greenwich. However, even she recognized that, although she had researched African Americans in Greenwich, the Abolitionist movement, and Underground Railroad for her article, there was much more research yet to be done.
Needless to say, my blogposts on Greenwich will eventually lead to a book on my family’s history as the descendants of both Lyon slaves and Lyon slave owners that traces back to the 17th century. I will be defining and reclaiming both the Hangroot and Byram sections of Greenwich as our home. I will be giving a “bottom up” perspective, rather than a “top down” perspective, that defines and accurately portrays my ancestors and their community. Our Lyon-Green-Merritts family history is nothing less than an African-American success story that was born of slavery personified in Greenwich, CT. I began this blogpost with the photo that was taken in Hangroot in 1897. This is the Hangroot that my family was part of for 100 years. It is a visual reminder of just how vibrant this community was even in the midst of being erased from history. This is the Hangroot that I will be researching for years to come. We shall be erased no more.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been kneep-deep in genealogical and family history research that I know has been guided by my Greenwich ancestors. I may not be a religious person, but I am a spiritual one. For almost a year, I have also been trying to get justice for my ancestors in the fight over the Byram African-American Cemetery where my ancestors reside in a peace that has been disturbed. When I first learned about my 4th great-grandparents, Anthony and Peg, I called their names and let them know that they were found and would never be lost to history or their descendants again. And I meant every word that I said when I said them. They have never left my side since then and they keep visiting me in my dreams — visitations that guide me and push me to continue telling their true stories.
What happened to my ancestors in Hangroot, when gentrification came, is just a continuation of gentrification that is still happening in Greenwich today, but on an even grander scale — a gentrification that originally included 19th and 20th century millionaires, now includes 21st century millionaires AND hedge fund billionaires. Historic homes and places are being demolished and replaced with larger homes and McMansions today. When this happens, local history is lost and family history is lost as well. If you are a person who has a long family history in Greenwich which was well documented, you may not feel the same impact as those of us, who also have long family histories in Greenwich as well, but our family histories were barely recorded in historical records because our ancestors were born slaves. When the places we occupied, in life and death, disappear, our family history disappears as well. The fight over the Byram African-American Cemetery is a fight, not only about whether or not the residents of 11 Byram Dock Rd. own and have a right to “beautify the property,” but, it is also a battle that I am engaged in to defend my ancestors’ burial place AND to prevent the loss of our larger family history in Greenwich itself. To be clear, when Twachtman arrived in Hangroot in 1890 and “beautified the property’, he made improvements on property that he owned. The couple at 11 Byram Dock Rd., however, don’t own — but are claiming to own — a burial ground that had always been a part of the Byram Cemetery of our Lyon ancestors. They acknowledge the two white cemeteries in our extended family, but want to deny the existence of our Black one so that my ancestors are now buried in what looks like someone’s front lawn. I remain resolute and steadfast in standing up for my ancestors and reclaiming and defending our family history. Why one may ask? Because of our Anthony and Peg, our esteemed slave ancestors. When the light of a freedom certain came, they crawled down that path to emancipation and stood up and took some steps so that their children and grandchildren could walk so that their descendants could run on and keep running so that their descedants today could fly. I know that they are counting on me to be the sum of their Byram and Hangroot hopes and dreams and to be their voice from beyond their Byram graves. I will be representing them for as long as I live with pride. I am a proud slave descendant who comes from good stock indeed.
On Documenting the Underground Railroad In Greenwich: Why These 5 Places Matter
While the role that Greenwich white abolitionists and anti-slavery activists has been researched in regards to the Underground Railroad, the role that the free Black population in Greenwich played in shepherding enslaved people to freedom has never been studied. Because of this, I have been complelled to first define the free Black community in Greenwich that existed in the 19th century. That community was Hangroot. At the end of my previous blogpost, I wrote about the direction of my current research which will also look at the history of the White anti-slavery activists/abolitionists in our extended Lyon family and their social networks as well. As I said then, it can’t just be a coincidence that our Hangroot Greens and Merritts have a cousin named Hawley Green, who along with his wife Harriet Peterson Green, were stationmasters on the Underground Railroad in Peekskill, NY in the 1830s. Its can’t be another coincidence that our Hangroot ancestors have ties to the free Black populations of Westchester County, NY that extend back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. Below are the places that matter in Greenwich to our Lyon-Green-Merritt family.
This house is the oldest house in Greenwich built by my 9th great-uncle. It is an historic house that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is also on the CT Freedom Trail list. This is the house where a distant cousin, Seth Lyon, harbored a fugitive slave named Peter John Lee for six years. As I documented in my blogpost Coming to The Table in Honor of Jack Husted, Seth and his cousin Gilbert Lyon were anti-slavery activists and members of the Whig Party (Northeast), an anti-slavery party. Their social network included known Greenwich abolitionists like Deacon Jonas Mead, a neighbor of Gilbert Lyon, a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, and Vice-President of the Fairfield Anti-Slavery Society.
2) Our Byram Cemeteries : The Lyon, Byram and Byram African-American Cemeteries
These three cemeteries link our Lyon, Green and Merritt ancestors to both the Thomas Lyon House and to the Green-Twachtman House. Our family ancestors, on both sides of the color line, were born and bred in Byram and are buried there. The Lyon family is one of the 17th century founding families of Greenwich. It was our Lyon ancestors who created a section of their Byram Cemetery for their slaves and former slaves. The Byram African-American Cemetery is where our Anthony and Peg are buried. Lyon-Green-Merritt descendants trace their ancestry back to Peg, who was the mulatto daughter of Daniel Lyon, who is buried in the Byram Cemetery.
I am a proud member of the Greenwich Preservation Trust (GPT) an organization that stood up three years ago to defend the desecration of the Byram African-American Cemetery. Along with our Lyon cousins, we are now united in restoring The Thomas Lyon House and backing the Town of Greenwich’s acquisition of all three of our ancestral cemeteries and making all of them historic ones. I will continue to support this organization any way I can. I want to also take the time here to thank Jo Conboy, State Rep. Michael Bocchino, the GPT Board and members for advocating for the passage of a new law that will protect abandoned cemeteries in the State of Connecticut in lieu of our current battle to save the Byram African-American Cemetery. The new law passed the legislature last week and is now on to the Senate for final approval.
3) Union Cemetery (Lot 23)
Second Congregational Church opened Lot 23 for the poor and Colored people in 1851. Half the people buried in that lot are our Green, Merritt, Husted ancestors along with other Hangroot families like the Banks, Felmetta, Watsons, Petersons and others. Five members of the 29th Infantry are buried there as well. In addition, some of our white Lyon and Husted ancestors are buried in other sections of Union Cemetery.
4) Little Bethel AME Church
Little Bethel AME Church was founded in 1882 and was the first Black church founded in Greenwich, CT. It is also listed on the CT Freedom Trail. The founding members of this church included Charles E. Green, Allen Banks, George Treadwell, Augusta Felmetta, Ellen Banks, Caselia Merritt, Catherine Merritt, Mandeville Merritt, Ruben Belcher, Mr. and Mrs. Belcher, Cornelia Bush, and Esther Bush. All were originally from Hangroot. Later church members included the descendants of these families.
5) The Green-Twachtman House
This landmark house was built in 1845 by my 3rd great-grandfather, Allen Green, the 5th son of Anthony and Peg Green who settled in Hangroot in 1820. Allen arrived in 1839 when he bought property at 30 Round Hill Rd. His wife, Mary Johnson Green may have been born a fugitive slave from Virginia who made Hangroot her haven when she married the Allen. Allen and his extended family were cousins to Hawley Green and his wife Harriet Peterson Green, who owned an Underground Railroad House in Peekskill, NY in the 1830s.
If I can prove that Mary was in fact fugitive slave and/or I can prove a more definitve link between our Hangroot Greens and Merritts and Hawley and Harriet Peterson Green, then I will then make it my new mission to apply for state and federal recognition so the house that Allen built is recognized as an Underground Railroad House and the community that was Hangroot will be known as a confirmed depot stop on the Underground Railroad. One day soon I will proudly stand in front of 30 Round Hill Rd. and hold up a sign that says THIS PLACE MATTERED MORE THAN ANYONE KNEW. I already know in my heart of hearts that it does and always did.
May my ancestors continue to be my guide on my mission to seek their historical truths.
Goodwin, Alfred Henry. An Artist’s Unspoiled Country Home. Country Life In America. Vol. 8 (October 1905), pp. 625-630.
Larkin, Susan G. On Home Ground: John Twachtman and the Familiar Landscape. The American Art Journal, Vol. 29, No 1/2 (1998), pp. 52-85.
McKay, Christine. African Americans in Nineteenth Century Greenwich. Greenwich History. Vol 6 (2001), pp. 56-74.
Mead, Daniel. A History of the Town of Greenwich, Fairfield, CT. NY:Baker and Godwin Printers, 1857.
Peters, Lisa. John Twachtman (1853-1902) and The American Scene in the Late Nineteenth Century: Frontiers within the Terrain of the Familiar. 2 Vols. PhD Dissertation. City University of New York, 1995. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1996).