By Walter W. Woodward, Summer 2014 Volume 12 Number 3
Almost all Connecticans have at least one significant encounter with the underground. It comes at the end our lives, when the earth itself becomes our final resting place. When Henry Green was buried on June 17, 1911 in Hartford’s Cedar Hill Cemetery, he became the first African American deliberately interred there (as opposed to having “slipped by the authorities unnoticed,” according to Edwin Mitchell Valentine in The Horse and Buggy Age in New England (New York, 1937)).
Born near Richmond, Virginia in 1844, Henry (sometimes Henderson) was enslaved on the plantation of a man named Greene, from whom his last name was derived. The early days of the Civil War found Green (as he spelled it) no longer enslaved near Richmond but living in Washington, D.C. There he met Glastonbury native Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s secretary of the navy and a pivotal figure in Lincoln’s cabinet.
Green was retained by Welles and worked for the Welles family for 50 years. During the war he went into battle as body servant to Gideon’s teenage son Thomas, charged by the boy’s mother with looking out for her son’s welfare. According to author Jean Mitchell Boyd, who knew the elderly Green when she was a child, in one encounter, the panic-stricken Green fled the battlefield, but a vision of Mrs. Welles motioning him to return, said, “Go back, Henry, Go back!” Reportedly fearing her censure more than the gunfire, Green returned to his charge.
When Welles left Washington in 1869, he invited Green to come to Hartford with the family. Henry became one of three servants (along with two Irish sisters, Ann and Catherine Coghlin) at the Welles home on Charter Oak Place, where Welles’s occupation was listed as “Gentleman” and his assets valued at $250,000.
In his half century with the Welles family, Green who was, according to those who knew him, “aristocratic,” “very intelligent though uneducated,” thrifty, jovial, and superstitious, served both as head servant and the family’s coachman, a high-status position in an age when the bearing of coachmen strongly affected the reputations of the families who hired them.
Following the senior Welles’s death in 1878, Green continued to work for his son Thomas, now a colonel, and then Thomas’s son in New Jersey. In his will, Gideon Welles left explicit instructions that Henry be buried in the family plot in the then all-white Cedar Hill Cemetery. When Green died in New Jersey 33 years after Gideon, his body was returned to Hartford and the cemetery honored the request, though the Hartford Times noted Henry’s burial as “a somewhat unusual distinction.” Mitchell, who wrote about Green a quarter century after his passing, said Green’s interment provoked “a storm of protest, the Southern press being very emphatic in its view that the color line should be drawn after death as well as before.” A search of Southern newspapers for 1911, however, does not show this to be the case. Southerners, it seemed, knew exactly what category to place Henry Green in, a category that had long been part of their “lost cause” mythology. Rather than seeing Henry Green as a man whose death broke a color barrier, the Richmond Times saw him as just another “faithful servant,” a black man who had taken such good care of the family that they wanted him near them in death.
In 2010, descendants of Gideon Welles had Henry Green’s name inscribed on the front of the family’s memorial obelisk.