Archive illuminates New Haven’s Bias Stanley, a 19th-century civil rights advocate

Papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library shed new light on the lives of Bias and Margaret Stanley, stalwarts of New Haven’s Black community in the early 1800s.
Tarel Dennie examines an archival document relating to Bias Stanley

(Portrait of Tarel Dennie by Andrew Hurley)

Bias Stanley, a prominent New Haven resident and first deacon and treasurer of the Temple Street Congregational Church, died on Aug. 26, 1854. His exact age was unknown.

Although there are five draft inscriptions for his tomb preserved in a small collection of documents related to him at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, none lists his date of birth. At the time, Black people in the United States, whether free or enslaved, often were deprived of official birth records.

In New Haven’s historic Grove Street Cemetery, where Stanley is buried alongside his wife Margaret, their shared gravestone has been weathered by the centuries, leaving only traces of his epitaph legible.

Yet the couple left a lasting mark on New Haven.

Their story is one of community and class mobility, but also extreme social stratification,” said Tarel Dennie ’24, a Yale College junior and community engagement intern with the Beinecke, part of the Yale University Library, who researched the Stanleys as part of the library’s ongoing efforts to highlight how New Haven’s past lives on in its archives. “They moved to the top of the class structure for Black residents of New Haven, but there was disparate gap between the Black upper class and the lower stations of white people when it came to social and communal rights.”

Last summer, Dennie was introduced to Stanley’s papers by Michael Morand and Tubyez Cropper, members of the library’s community engagement department. He grew eager to learn more about the Stanleys and share their story with the campus and local communities.

His archival research complements his work as a campus tour guide through the Yale Visitor Center. While helping others get to know Yale, Dennie, an English major, has sought to better understand the history of the university’s hometown and the stories of historic figures, like the Stanleys, who deserve more attention, he explained.

That story is one of resilience in the face of deep-seated prejudice — but also of a generosity of spirit that forever changed their city. Bias (short for “Tobias”) Stanley was a founding member of the African United Ecclesiastical Society and its Temple Street Church, now the Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ, which was established by Black worshippers who had experienced segregation in the city’s predominately white Center Church, such as being required to sit in the balcony during worship services. He advocated for civil rights and access to education for Black people. An enterprising businessman, he bequeathed his estate of nearly $10,000 — about $350,000 today — to support his church and community and the education of Black youth in New Haven.

Bias and Margaret Stanley uplifted their neighbors despite living in a deeply racist society that denied them the full rights and benefits of citizenship, said Dennie, who described his research in a talk earlier this year as part of the “Mondays at Beinecke” lecture program.

Many of his discoveries emerged from a single overlooked manila file folder containing about two dozen documents, including multiple drafts of Margaret’s epitaph and Bias’s will, in the Beinecke archive.

Three documents stood out: a passport Bias Stanley needed to travel freely in Pennsylvania as a young man; a “certificate of character” he acquired from white residents of New Haven; and a contract he signed with merchant Timothy Dwight, the eldest son of Timothy Dwight IV, the eighth president of Yale College, to cultivate a parcel of land.

A sense of propriety

Bias Stanley was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, according to the drafts of his epitaph. He was enslaved in his early life, church histories report. Though the circumstances and date of his freedom are not clear, on Oct. 11, 1796, he was issued a pass in Philadelphia by John Jennings, a city alderman, to travel “unmolested” to Coryell’s Ferry, a hamlet in Bucks County. The document affirms that Stanley was then a free Black man who behaves “with propriety.”

Black people couldn’t really do anything without the permission of white people,” Dennie said. “Part of this included a demand that Black people behave with a certain sense of propriety.”

Stanley’s propriety is a theme in documents in the collection, including the certificate of character, which is composed of six testimonials and signed by 14 white people who knew the Stanleys or had resided in the boarding house the couple operated on College Street in New Haven. 

I further certify that they are persons possessing estimable characters, for morality and good conduct, and that they have always kept an orderly and good boarding house,” wrote a man named Isaac Mills. [Emphasis in the original.] 

Lawyer and jurist David Daggett, who served as mayor of New Haven from 1828 to 1829, a U.S. senator, and a judge of the Connecticut Supreme Court, affirmed that he believed the Stanleys to be “perfectly trustworthy in every respect as to their morality and sobriety” and that he was unaware of any lapse in “propriety” on their part.

The endorsements demonstrate the control whites had over their Black neighbors, getting the final say on who was and was not worthy of opportunity, Dennie said.

It is functionally a permission slip, like children need to go on fieldtrips, but for a fully grown adult to engage freely in business to better himself and his community,” he said. “If he hadn’t satisfied this notion of propriety, it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have done all the good for the Black community that he did.”

A reputation for propriety also allowed Stanley to negotiate business deals with prominent whites.

On April 14, 1817, he signed the contract with Timothy Dwight to farm a lot on the “Old Hartford Road” — possibly today’s Whitney Avenue — that had belonged to Dwight’s esteemed father, the former Yale president who had died three months earlier. According to the agreement, Dwight would furnish half the feed for the draft animals and all the manure to prepare the land while Stanley would provide the other half of the feed and all the labor, including “plowing, planting, weeding” and harvesting the crop, which they agreed to split evenly between them.

This worthy couple’

As he endeavored to make a living, Stanley was active in the local Black community and strove to secure justice and opportunity for Black people.

Until 1814, free Black men who owned property could vote in Connecticut. That year, however, the state legislature stripped them of the franchise. In response, Stanley and William Lanson, a free Black man and engineer who was instrumental in building New Haven’s wharf, sent a petition to the state’s General Assembly arguing that if they were excluded from voting, they should also be exempt from paying taxes, echoing the cries of “no taxation without representation” that had fueled the fires of rebellion in the American colonies 40 years prior.

The legislature ignored the petition, which is now kept in the Connecticut State Library. In 1818, the state’s constitution was amended to restrict the franchise to white men who were at least 21 years old and owned at least $7 in property. Black men did not secure the right to vote in the state until the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1870. (Connecticut enacted gradual emancipation in 1784, meaning that slavery was not fully abolished in the state until 1848.)

In 1820, Stanley belonged to a group of 24 free Black men and women who, with the white abolitionist Simeon Jocelyn, formed a congregation of worshippers devoted to promoting piety and religious knowledge among New Haven’s Black residents. Four years later, the society purchased a building on Temple Street between George and Crown streets, which became the Temple Street Congregational Church for Colored People, the country’s first Black Congregational church. There Stanley served many years as deacon and treasurer.  (The congregation moved to its current location on Dixwell Avenue in 1886. The Temple Street building was sold to Congregation B’nai Jacob and served as its synagogue until 1912. It has since been demolished.)  

The Stanleys also participated in an effort in 1831 to establish the country’s first college for Black youth on land Jocelyn purchased on Water Street between East and Wallace streets in New Haven. Bias was tapped to help lead fundraising for the project. In the end, the city’s white male property owners rejected the proposal 700 to 4 at a town meeting. Daggett, a Yale alumnus and founder of Yale Law School who knew Stanley well and had attested to his character, was one of the leaders of the opposition to the college.

The founding of the Temple Street Church and the failed attempt to establish the Black college demonstrate Stanley’s desire to build institutions to support Black people regardless of whether their white neighbors accepted them, Dennie explained.

Stanley wasn’t necessarily a champion of integration,” he said. “He had a duality to his perspective. If whites insisted on segregation, then he was willing to create Black spaces for his community as opposed to trying to infiltrate the existing white spaces.”

Charles Warner Jr., historian of the Dixwell Congregational Church and chair of the Connecticut Freedom Trail, a series of historic sites across the state that illuminate the struggle for freedom by Black people and other minority groups, called Bias Stanley a “visionary leader” whose impact remains evident.

Even in death, Stanley was realizing a vision, bequeathing money for the sustenance of his church and creating a fund dedicated to the education of New Haven’s Black youth,” Warner said. “The Bias Stanley Fund awarded money from 1865 until 1993! Bias and his wife, Margaret, led with love and selflessness, so that New Haven, the United States, and society in general might be a better place for all.”

After Bias died, Margaret carried on supporting their church and community until her own death, on Nov. 12, 1861, at age 81. Her good works are memorialized in her epitaph, still legible on the couple’s marker:

Thoughtful for her people, she generously completed her husband’s charities, and bestowed her savings on her church and poor widows of her color.”

A draft of another inscription, also preserved in the Beinecke archives and apparently written for a separate burial monument to the Stanleys that was never erected, honors their legacy:

This worthy couple, by industry [and] frugality, saved nearly ten thousand dollars, which they devoted to the cause of religion and humanity.”

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