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.
Defining Hangroot: A Colored Settlement
19th Century Residents of Hangroot: A Free Black Community For The Formerly Enslaved (1800-1900)
Our Lyon-Green-Merritt Hangroot Connection
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
Hangroot Heroes: Members of the 29th Infantry United States Colored Troops
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
On Documenting the Underground Railroad In Greenwich: Why These 5 Places Matter