2022 April | by Jacob Graf
HARTFORD, CT — On April 21, 2022, at the Capital Community College Centinel Hill Hall, a Rev. Dr. James W.C. Pennington themed lecture series began with a breakfast, architecture presentation, and morning lecture by Dr. Christopher L. Webber.
This lecture series was hosted by the Hartford Heritage Project and organized by Dr. Jeffrey Partridge, Professor of English, Director of Hartford Heritage Project, and CCC Faculty Director of the Liberal Arts Action Lab. Capital’s Hartford Heritage Project highlights Hartford’s history and cultural landmarks to both students, faculty, and the local community by organizing themed lectures and events such as The Justice and Faith Hartford Walking tour coming up on October 13th.
This lecture event was made possible by spring 2020 Action Lab Research Group members Aliyah Freeman-Johnson, Mercy Unoh, Julian Hogan, and Armani Parnther; a collaborative team of Capital Community College and Trinity College students. After doing a semester research project on the Talcott Street Congregational Church, the research team and Dr. Partridge was awarded a $149,426 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant allows for a curriculum for students to learn about the Black community history in Hartford and an annual lecture series named after Rev. Dr. Pennington featuring prominent speakers to come to Capital Community College and discuss racial and justice topics. An online exhibit from the spring 2020 action lab is available to learn more.
Due to the new curriculum changes from the grant, Capital Architectural Engineering Technology students created Rev. Dr. Pennington inspired architectural designs for the location where he pastored Hartford’s first Black church and school. The building was located on the corner of Talcott Street and Market Street, just beside the Capital Community College building. The plot of land where Talcott Street Congregational Church and School used to be is currently an outdoor parking lot along with a condemned parking garage. Students who were available to present their designs and answer questions included Jeremy Gamble, Ericka Salazar, and Tyler Spada who were available to present their designs and answer questions.
Gamble’s design included an underground tunnel to symbolize the underground railroad that the church had been a part of. There would be cultural inscriptions on the inside for visitors to read and learn about historical people of the Talcott community. Salazar’s design featured a monument of Rev. Dr. Pennington with symbols around the statue relevant to his life and experience Spada’s design presented a museum of Talcott Church related artifacts and information.
On the keynote lecture Dr. Christopher Webber informed guests of Rev. Dr. Pennington’s life who escaped slavery in 1827 from Maryland at the age of 19, leaving behind a large family of siblings and parents. He was a short way from the free state of Pennsylvania, but got misdirected towards Baltimore. He ran into slave catchers and didn’t have an easy journey. When he was finally in a free state, years later, he was able to mail letters to his family, some of which are public today. A couple members of his family ended up escaping later on, but many of the others never did. His parents ended up dying in slavery. One of his brothers escaped to New York, with slave catchers “hot on his heels,” but was caught and dragged back to the south. The brother wrote a letter asking for help, and Rev. Dr. Pennington struggled to be able to raise the money to buy his brothers freedom. Before being able to raise the money, Rev. Dr. Pennington said, “I am an American to the backbone, and yet I can’t get the funding to free my brother,” which is what inspired the title of Dr. Webbers book. Afterwards the brothers were able to travel together and talk in churches and other places about their experience of slavery.
Rev. Dr. Pennington made it to Pennsylvania where he met Quakers including William Wright from whom he first learned about Jesus and Christianity, which had a major impact on his life from that point forward. Sometime after, being the first Black student to audit courses at Yale University, Pennington became ordained and even married Fredrick Douglas and Ana Murray. Rev
A table was setup where guests could buy Dr. Webbers biography of Rev. Dr. Pennington titled American to the Backbone. Dr. Christopher L. Webber is a graduate of Princeton University currently living in San Francisco although he has lived in Connecticut previously for 20 years. He has authored 36 books, gives lectures as well as book readings, and is an accomplished mountain climber, most notably climbing Mt. Fuji in Japan.
After the lecture, I had a chance to sit down with Dr. Christopher L. Webber and inquire further.
After reading Pennington’s autobiography entitled “The Fugitive Blacksmith”, Dr. Webber thought that more people should know about his life story. He went on to say that when Rev. Dr. Pennington escaped, he was illiterate and 15 years later, he was given an honorary doctorate. At first, Dr. Webber wanted to update Rev. Dr. Pennington’s story but was emphatically encouraged to write his whole biography instead, which was Dr. Webbers first biography.
He hopes that this story might inspire people and help them to realize that a person “can start from zero at age 19 and still do something with your life.”
Dr. Webber says one of the most challenging parts of Rev. Dr. Pennington’s life was taking the first step out of his familiar life and compared it to Christopher Columbus in a way because he didn’t know what was out there or what might happen.
“You hope it’s going to be better, but you won’t know ‘til you get there…That takes courage.”
Dr. Webber recounted a particularly striking detail from Rev. Dr. Pennington’s life how he was able to take courses in the Yale School of Divinity, while forced to sit in the back row, yet couldn’t speak or ask any questions throughout his entire time there. He was older than many of the other students; in his late twenties.
“He was never really a part of the community in any real sense,” Dr. Webber revealed.
Rev. Dr. Pennington never got a degree from Yale; although recently, Noah Humphrey, a contributing reporter from Yale Daily News and second-year master’s of divinity student at Yale Divinity School, wrote an article about how Humphrey is fighting to award him a posthumous degree.
When asked about whether some of the issues Rev. Dr. Pennington faced in his time are still prevalent today, Dr. Webber makes the connection to still negative attitudes towards other groups of people and cultures and having them in our country.
He pointed out that having Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson being the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court is “exceptional still, that somebody should receive the same treatment if they’re Black, as somebody who is white.” We don’t live in a society where equal opportunity is so normal that these instances don’t need special attention.
Dr. Webber spoke about stories of significant people and trying to figure out what it is that makes these extraordinary people and their stories special or different so we can try “sprinkling it more broadly over the population. There are a lot of things we don’t know about what shapes human lives and what it is that makes that difference.”
He specifically spoke of character and why one person might work and succeed while another person gives up and is discouraged. He hopes this story and others he writes about will inspire others to accomplish all that they aspire to accomplish.