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Leverett Beman Historic District
Cross and Vine Streets, Middletown, CT 06457
The 5-acre triangle of land at Cross and Vine Streets was laid out by Leverett C. Beman (1810-1883) in 1847. The neighborhood is the first known residential subdivision in the state to have been laid out by a free black man for black homeowners. There are 16 historic homes in this district today, with more than half constructed between 1840 and 1890. The remaining homes were built between 1940 and 1959. The growing neighborhood was home to several remarkable African Americans. Resident Isaac Truitt had been enslave in Delaware before he moved to the community. He and several other residents were veterans who fought with the 29th Regiment in the Civil War. The Beman family was involved in the anti-slavery movement. Leverett’s father, Jehiel, was the first pastor of the Cross Street A.M.E. Zion Church which was originally located in the neighborhood and it was under his direction that it became known as the Freedom Church. His wife, Clarissa Beman founded the Middletown Colored Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1834. Leverett’s brother, Amos Beman, was the pastor of the Temple Street Congregational Church in New Haven and often represented Connecticut at national anti-slavery conventions.
A shoemaker by trade, Leverett Beman had a shop on Williams Street in Middletown. He married Clarissa, his first wife, in 1833. In 1943 he moved his family into a house at the corner of Cross and Vine Streets which he had purchased from George Jeffreys. Shortly after the move, Leverett began making plans to develop the area. In 1847 he commissioned a survey of the area and the surveyor’s map of the subdivision was filed with the Middletown Town Clerk. Now located on the western edge of the Wesleyan University campus, the Leverett Beman neighborhood once marked the boundary between the City of Middletown and its hinterland. The triangle is bordered on the east by Vine Street (formerly Park Street), on the west by Knowles Avenue (formerly Vine or Swamp Street) and on the south by Cross Street.
Eleven small house lots, each averaging less than one-tenth acre, were laid out and received a letter designation (A through K). There were buildings on several lots that were owned by trustees of the A.M.E. Zion Church, indicating that Beman’s project had their support. Lot K included Beman’s house, which he purchased from George Jeffreys, and lot E, was the former home of Asa Jeffreys, who left the state in 1837. Ebenezer De Forest owned Lot B, where his house was under construction. This triangle of land was once part of Samuel Savages’ farm, which was sold to Asa Jeffreys with a mortgage in 1832. Through much of the nineteenth century deeds continued to refer to the area as “at or near Dead Swamp,” which may account for Savages’s willingness to sell to an African American. Clearly not a useful part of the Savage farm, it also was not the most desirable area for a housing development. In fact, seasonal flooding of the brook that ran through the neighborhood to the swamp was a problem for most of its history.
Beman’s neighborhood was organized and coalesced into a relatively stable community within 40 years. Residents worked for low wages, but paid off their mortgages, raised families and put down roots in the neighborhood. Sons and daughters intermarried and some stayed in the area. Everyone had boarders to make ends meet. Two-family households were common, even in smaller cottages, and some of them were enlarged with wings or ells to accommodate more people.
By 1875, outside investors began to purchase property in the neighborhood. As a result there were fewer owner-occupied houses and an increase in rental properties. Few African Americans moved into the neighborhood after 1900 and by the 1920’s the grand experiment in community has essentially ended. With a few notable exceptions, such as the third generation of the Dingle-Sparks family which lived at 170 Cross Street until 1930, or the Robinsons at 126 -128 Knowles Avenue, the Truitts and other early families had died out or moved away. Swedish-Americans took their place, followed by several from the Italian-American community. Few in Middletown today recall the time when this black community flourished and current neighborhood residents never knew it existed. The current neighborhood consists of houses built between 1840 and 1959, the former Cross Street AME Zion building and one commercial building. Over time several historic houses were demolished including the home of Leverett Beman. Today, most of the properties are owned by Wesleyan University.
Janice P. Cunningham and Elizabeth A. Warner, Experiment in Community (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Commission, 2002).