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On the Freedom Trail

Carol Sommer

Publication: The Day

Published January 20. 2013 4:00AM

When I prowl around for street names that might be signposts to engaging stories, I don't spend much time thinking about places like Elm, Oak, Spring or Winter Street.

That could be a mistake. Winter Avenue in Deep River tells the dramatic story of a runaway slave who persevered against cruel odds and finally found a safe place he could call home, thanks in part to the kindness of a compassionate but complicated stranger.

The story begins in South Carolina in 1828.

Stealing the horse had been foolish and they released the animal almost immediately. Black men seen with a horse would raise dangerous questions, so Daniel Fisher and another fugitive slave slept during the day and walked at night guided by the North Star. On cloudy nights they sometimes walked in circles. They were always hungry because begging for food was risky. Once they stole a fishing boat so they could cross a river without being scrutinized by authorities at the bridge. They followed rail tracks, stowed away on a commercial boat, hid in holes in the ground and dodged bounty hunters.

Reaching Philadelphia was a major milestone, but they still weren't safe. To attract less attention Daniel and his friend parted company. With the help of sympathetic abolitionists Daniel finally reached New Haven; from there he was directed to Deep River and the home of George Read, who took in Daniel.

At George's urging Daniel changed his name and became William Winters. He sometimes wore a wig as a disguise because even in the North a runaway had to watch his back. He taught himself to read, acquired property and owned his own catering business. William made Deep River his home, except for a hiatus in New Bedford during the years of the Fugitive Slave Act, when Southern bounty hunters could legally search the North for runaway slaves. William returned to Deep River after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and lived there until his death in 1899. Winter Avenue is named for him.

George Read, William's benefactor, was a church deacon, an abolitionist years before Connecticut outlawed slavery, and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He was also a successful business man, one of the "River Gods" who made his fortune in the Connecticut River Valley.

The firm George led with his partner, Julius Pratt (also a passionate abolitionist), manufactured ladies' combs, ornaments, billiard balls and piano keys, all made from ivory. At one point 90 percent of the ivory imported into the U.S. was processed in Deep River and Ivoryton. Until the availability of radios diminished the demand for pianos, ivory brought employment and prosperity to these communities.

But there was a dark side to the ivory trade; it butchered animals and killed human beings in appalling numbers. Africans, goaded by men with whips, were forced to walk hundreds of miles in chains, carrying elephant tusks from the continent's interior to the coast where international customers bought the ivory. The surviving tusk bearers were sold into slavery.

This heartbreaking river of blood was chronicled by men like the explorers Henry Stanley and David Livingstone, who observed it firsthand and were sickened by it. But when ivory arrived in Connecticut, it was easy to be blind to suffering a hemisphere away.

So here's the obvious question: Did George Read, the activist for freedom and human dignity, the man who treated a refugee like a member of his own family, understand that the ivory industry rested literally on the backs of African slaves? It's possible that he didn't. Still, we have to wonder, if George did know, what kind of person could harbor such conflicting values? In history's mirror, we see that answer in our own reflections.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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