In April 2012, the Hartford Public Library put on permanent display “The Early History of Hartford” by the renowned painter and Pulitzer Prize winner Rudolph Zallinger in its The American Place (located on the Main Floor).


Born in Siberia in 1919, Mr. Zallinger emigrated to Seattle with his family and later won a scholarship to study art at Yale University. At Yale, he came to the attention of the director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, and was commissioned to paint the 110-foot mural “The Age of Reptiles.” That mural, which was followed by the “Age of Mammals,” was prized for its authenticity and the quality of its research.

While no mural of Hartford’s early centuries could include everything, there is, despite his reputation for peerless research, an omission from Mr. Zallinger’s mural at Hartford Public Library. There is no representation of the enslaved black people who helped build the city.

When Mr. Zallinger painted his mural in the 1980s, he likely didn’t know about the black men and women who helped build Hartford. That material would not have been included in the texts available to him.

But they were here.

In 1636 when Thomas Hooker came overland from the Massachusetts Bay Colony with his small band there were already a few captives in Connecticut. By the mid-1750s, an early census shows that colonial Connecticut held 3,019 people in bondage, 854 of them in Hartford County. By 1774, an era which falls well within the scope of Rudolph Zallinger’s mural, there were 6,462 black people held in the colony, and 1,215 in Hartford County.  In that dramatic pre-Revolutionary War year, in fact, the Connecticut colony held more people in bondage than any colony in New England.

We cannot change his painting, but we can change how we understand it, and understand the truth that is missing from it. Early documents and histories flow through the veins of the Hartford History Center here at the Hartford Public Library. They are the lifeblood and the substance that form the basis for exhibitions, research, new books, and new understanding. Anyone with an interest in history knows that while you cannot change the past, you can bring new knowledge to it and understand it better and more fully.

A history with integrity is the goal.


To learn more visit the Hartford History Center where you will find:

The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas by David Eltis;

“Complicity: How Connecticut Chained itself to Slavery,” published in Northeast magazine, The Hartford Courant;

Black Bondage in the North by Edgar J. McManus;

Black Yankees: The Development of an African-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England by William D. Piersen; and,

American Population before the Federal Census of 1790 by Evarts B. Greene and Virginia D. Harrington.