Zuris: markers represent ‘concept of freedom’
[Editor’s Note: The following are the remarks made by local genealogist Kathleen Zuris at the grave marker dedication ceremony for Jeruel and Samuel Phillips Oct. 10 at Center Cemetery.]
I want to thank the Roger Sherman Chapter DAR for recognizing the men we are honoring here today.
Thank you, Jennie Rehnberg, for reaching out and including me in the process of applying for the DAR insignia markers. Special thanks to Mary Schenzer, whom I bombarded with, but too much information, nonetheless managed to glean the information needed for the application and dedication.
One-hundred and 15 years ago, in 1905, the Roger Sherman Chapter DAR Regent, Mrs. Henry S. Mygatt (but everyone knew her as “Nancy”), furnished The New Milford Gazette, with a list of New Milford’s Revolutionary War soldiers.
Seven years later, in 1912, the Honor Roll of Litchfield County Revolutionary Soldiers was published by the Mary Floyd Tallmadge Chapter DAR, the men grouped by Litchfield County towns.
Several compilations of Connecticut men who served in the Revolution have been published since, and some were specifically compiled of men of color, but the Litchfield County Honor Roll is the only one I’ve seen that includes the 12 minorities attributed to New Milford: Prince Crosley, Jesse Gratis, Prince Gratis, Thaddeus Jacklin, Peter Middleton, Shem Negro, Jeruel Phillips, Reuben Phillips, Samuel Phillips, Shubael Phillips, Mingo Treat and Javan Wilson.
You notice that four of these share the same last name. Jeruel, Reuben and Shubael Phillips were brothers and Samuel Phillips was their half brother. Their father Benjamin, a free man of color since the early 1700s, came to New Milford from Windham the mid 18th century.
Complexion isn’t obvious for the 12 men I mentioned, except for Shem Negro, the surname Gratis, and on the honor roll Javan Wilson’s name was followed by colored in parentheses. Census and pension records show the others were men of color.
I came across these individuals, and other African-Americans who lived in New Milford long ago, after an unsuccessful attempt to associate Elisha Bostwick (a Patriot) and family to abolitionism. It’s been handed down that Elisha’s house, still standing on Grove Street, was a part of the Underground Railroad.
Instead, I turned my attention towards finding someone who may have used that system successfully and reached New Milford and said “this must be the promised land.”
Research turned up an 1885 death record for Robert Smith whose birth info revealed “a runaway Slave from the South.”
In 1824, Robert Smith was arrested for breaking into Samuel Treadwell’s blacksmith shop here in New Milford. One of the items pilfered was a sledgehammer. He wasn’t alone; his accomplices were Philip Jacklin, Smith’s future father-in-law Nathan Gauson, and John Phillips, the son of Revolutionary Patriot Philip Phillips.
So, besides the Phillips’ military history, we know that Philip and family were pioneers of New Connecticut, nowadays known as Ohio. They settled Medina, Medina County, Ohio, surveyed in 1810 by another patriot, Elijah Boardman.
The Phillips (and Jacklins) were frequent customers of Boardman’s mercantile business in New Milford. So, they purchased a lot of rum, and other spirits, but that’s okay, almanacs and spelling books can also be found next to their names in Boardman’s ledgers.
Several Phillips descendants were born, and lived and died in New Milford. There are a lot of names and dates to be found, but images and artifacts are few.
This is the house of Jeruel Phillips’ son Jarvis. In 1983, Malcolm Hunt of the New Milford Historical Society determined it was built between 1836 and 1853. A photo is about all that is left of it, unfortunately.
A great-great-great granddaughter of Jeruel passed away in May of 2019, and a photo of Shirley Johnson accompanied her obituary.
Shirley’s cousin Ethel Parker and her husband, James Terry, worked for author William Styron when he lived in Roxbury. Ethel and James were featured in a New York Times Father’s Day editorial written in 2012 by Styron’s daughter Alexandra, accompanied by a photograph of James Terry holding Alexandra.
I am grateful that the aforementioned has been shared, but I’m certain there is other information and I’m sure images and more to learn out there. I see the need to collect and archive material on people of color from this area and house it in a place dedicated to their heritage.
New Milford is included on the Connecticut Freedom Trail’s UGRR Western Connecticut route. Reuben Phillips’ great-granddaughter, Martha Minerva Franklin, has a Connecticut Freedom Trail plaque on her gravestone.
Martha was born in New Milford, and founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, incorporated in 1908.
The CT Freedom Trail was created in 1995 by the CT General Assembly to acknowledge sites that represent “the heritage and movement towards freedom of its African-American citizens.”
I believe that the markers dedicated today qualify as representative of the concept of freedom.
So, thank you, again, Daughters of the American Revolution, for organizing this memorial, so that these Patriots of Color will no longer be forgotten and these DAR
Insignia Markers are proof that these lives mattered.