By Philip R. Devlin.
The former resident of both Middletown and Higganum — and history teacher at Hale-Ray High School in East Haddam — published the definitive study of the Underground Railroad in Connecticut Over 50 years ago.
As a young man, Horatio Strother envisioned the Underground Railroad “as a big train roaring through a long tunnel.”
But just as Voltaire had said that the “Holy Roman Empire” was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, so too was the “Underground Railroad” neither underground nor a railroad. Instead, Strother came to realize that it was “a widespread and loosely knit network of hideouts and secret routes of escape” for slaves to use to escape bondage in the South during the Antebellum period. Through this network of hideouts, as many as 100,000 slaves escaped to the North and to freedom.
One state that was part of this network was Connecticut — Strother’s adopted home. It became the main focus of his life’s work to study the role that Connecticut had played in the Underground Railroad. The result was the publication of The Underground Railroad in Connecticut by Wesleyan University Press 59 years ago in 1962.
Horatio T. Strother was born in New York City on Feb. 1, 1930. By the age of 2 months, he was living with his parents, Theodore and Helen Strother, in Middletown; the 1930 Middletown Directory lists him living off of Newfield Street. Middletown’s 1931 directory shows that Theodore had removed to New York City. It is likely that Horatio went with him, as a 1994 interview with Middletown educator Dan Chubbock indicates that Horatio returned to Middletown from Harlem about 1943. Horatio attended Woodrow Wilson High School in Middletown and had the good fortune of coming under the tutelage of a teacher named Gladys Glidden. Miss Glidden cultivated Strother’s interest in American history and motivated him to achieve in school.
Strother was also interested in track and football and needed to improve his academic performance in order to qualify for both teams. He did; in fact, under the influence of Middletown Hall of Fame track coach and legendary Connecticut educator Dan Chubbuck, Horatio set a state broad jump record in track and field. He later attended the University of Connecticut, where he obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees in history and became a member of Phi Alpha Theta, the National Honor Society of History.
Strother married Joanne Horner of Connecticut in June of 1951. They had at least four children together — perhaps five. Their son, David Strother, born in 1960, died on Jan. 8, 1961, at their residence in Haddam at the age of 2 months.
After a brief stint teaching at the Killingworth Elementary School (a K-8 facility), Strother soon became an effective history teacher at Hale-Ray High School in the Moodus section of East Haddam — a predominantly white community — during the 1950s. Furthermore, while living in Higganum, he then became the head of the social studies department at Hale-Ray. It was most appropriate for Strother to teach in East Haddam, as the home of abolitionist shipbuilder Gideon Higgins — a stop along the way of the Underground Railroad — is located there along the Connecticut River.
The home of Gideon Higgins in East Haddam is one of 86 Connecticut sites identified in Strothers’ book as a safe haven for slaves seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad.* Writing his book was no easy task. After proposing to write about the topic in graduate school at UConn, his advisors discouraged the effort, saying that there weren’t enough records to research the topic adequately; however, Strother persevered in his task, and the result was an impressively researched narrative that has become the definitive work on the subject.
In 2012, Wesleyan University Press decided to reissue Strother’s work. Here is what the press website has to say about the book’s importance:
This classic text sheds light on one of the least-documented movements in Connecticut’s history — the rise, organization, and operations of the Underground Railroad, over which fugitive slaves from the South found their way to freedom. Drawing data from published sources and, perhaps more importantly, from descendants of Underground agents and from oral tradition, Horatio T. Strother tells the story in detail in this book, originally published in 1962. He traces the routes from such entry points as New Haven harbor and the New York state line, through important crossroads like Brooklyn and Farmington. He tells the stories of many fugitives, shows the dangers they faced, and identifies those who operated the system — farmers and merchants, local officials and judges, at least one United States Senator, and many dedicated ministers of the Gospel. Set against the larger background of the development of slavery and abolitionism in America, this volume remains the only book-length study of this critical topic.
The Journal of African American History — formerly known as The Journal of Negro History — had this to say about Strother’s work:
Mr. Strother’s work is important for he has added to the knowledge of one facet of United States history about which the entire story will never be known because of the very nature of the movement … Here are the engrossing facts about one of the least-known movements in Connecticut’s history — the rise, organization, and operations of the Underground Railroad, over which fugitive slaves from the South found their way to freedom…. Revealing the dangers fugitives faced, the author also identifies the high-minded lawbreakers who operated the system — farmers and merchants, local officials and judges, at least one United States Senator, and many dedicated ministers of the Gospel. These narratives are set against the larger background of the development of slavery and abolitionism in America — conversations still relevant today.
Click here to see the table of contents of The Underground Railroad in Connecticut: http://www.upne.com/TOC/TOC_081956012X.html
Horatio T. Strother later became a professor of history at South Central Community College in New Haven. He died in a swimming accident when he was only 44 years old in September of 1974 at Hidden Lake.
Notes, Sources, and Links:
* The 1887 history of East Haddam, The Chimney Stacks of East Haddam, had this to say about Gideon Higgins: “Being a radical anti-slavery man, he took great satisfaction in all proper measures looking to the emancipation of the slave, and was ever prepared to extend such assistance as lay in his power in the prosecution of that object.”
The Underground Railroad In Connecticut (1962: Wesleyan University Press)
Interview with Dione Longley, former head of the Middlesex County Historical Society.
“The Power Of a Wise Teacher’s Faith,” a 1994 article in The Hartford Courant by Jennifer Frank.