Courtesy of Stuart Semmel
This weekend, the Elm City dedicated a new statue on Farmington Canal to William Lanson –– a prominent 19th century Black engineer, entrepreneur and civil rights activist from New Haven.
On Saturday morning, city leaders and community members gathered at the Farmington Canal Trail to unveil a 7-foot bronze statue commemorating the life and legacy of Lanson. Oakland-based sculptor Dana King created the statue as part of an effort — coordinated by the New Haven City Plan Department and Amistad Committee, a Connecticut based non-profit that educates the public about African American history — to celebrate oft-overlooked accomplishments by the city’s Black residents.
“This is not a project that we consider belonging to the Amistad Committee,” Alfred Marder, the 98-year old President and founder of the Amistad Committee, told the News. “Everything we do, we believe, is the responsibility of the state and the people of our community to understand their history.”
The Amistad Committee has been envisioning such a project for ten years. In 2010, the committee received a grant to expand the Connecticut Freedom Trail, which is a group of historic sites that offer a glimpse into the African-American experience in the state. Soon after, historian Katherine Harris published a pamphlet on the trail, which included a William Lanson site. The Amistad Committee used Harris’ research to present a brochure to former Mayor Toni Harp, and persuaded her that honoring his legacy should become a city project.
According to Connecticut History’s website, William Lanson was a formerly enslaved man who moved to New Haven with his family at the start of the 19th century and quickly became one of the city’s leading innovators. In 1810, he led a successful effort to expand the city’s Long Wharf by 1,350 feet –– a move that made it possible for larger ships to dock in New Haven and stimulated the city’s economy.
Lanson and his employees quarried rocks from the Blue Mountain in East Haven and loaded them onto transport boats that he owned, a strenuous effort that Yale University President Timothy Dwight praised in an 1811 report, according to the website. In 1825, Lanson became New Haven’s Black governor and led the construction of the retaining wall for the harbor basin of Farmington Canal.
“[The statue] is an historic event. It comes in the midst of millions of people marching on the whole question of racism and to end the inequality which exists in our country,” said Marder, the President of the Amistad Committee. “So it’s not just a statue of an individual who was very active…but it’s really a signal that times are changing in our country.”
Connecticut History also credits Lanson for establishing a leading hostelry on Chapel Street and purchasing large amounts of land on New Haven’s New Township, which is now known as Wooster Square. In addition, Landon helped found the African United Ecclesiastical Society, the African Improvement Society, and the Temple Street Church –– now known as Dixwell United Church of Christ –– which is the oldest formally recognized Black congregational church in the world.
Sculptor Dana King, who flew out from California to attend the statue dedication, says that she was not familiar with Lanson before she learned about the project, and is not surprised that most New Haven residents are not either. Jeanette Morrison, the Alder of Ward 22-D where the statue is located, also criticised her own limited education in New Haven about Black history.
“Where I’m from, I was taught three things…as far as Black history is concerned,” Morrison said at the statue dedication on Saturday. “That Martin Luther King was a good man, Malcolm X was a bad man, and Harriet Tubman freed the slaves. That was it.”
With no written or photographic records of Lanson’s appearance apart from his weight –– 200 pounds –– sculptor Dana King researched the faces of 19th century West African men for her artistic rendering. She told the News that in creating the sculpture, she envisioned “a beautiful man”, inside and outside. King used this idea to inform her depiction of Lanson as powerful and wealthy –– holding a top hat in his right arm and clenching his fist in a gesture for black liberation.
Despite Lanson’s contributions to New Haven, his race made him subject to harassment, according to Connecticut History. Lanson was targeted by popular news sources and arrested numerous times by the police, and by the end of his life he had lost all of his wealth and property. At the dedication ceremony on Saturday, Mayor Elicker pardoned Lanson, apologizing for the harm done to him by city government
King emphasized how pleased she was that the Mayor acknowledged the struggles Lanson faced, and the importance of retelling stories in marginalized communities.
“Creating Black bodies in bronze is my public protest,” King told the News. “This is the only kind of work I create, because our bodies are always on display, and our bodies are harmed for being Black…so when I create Black bodies in bronze, you can’t hurt us anymore.”
She added that bronze can last for thousands of years, allowing Lanson’s story to be told by generations to come.
This statue is part of the city’s larger plans to construct a William Lanson Plaza, which will include a timeline of Lanson’s life and accomplishments as well as an outline of an historic canal boat.
Simisola Fagbemi | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Oct. 1: A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Alfred Marder. The story has been updated.