A Portrait of Nancy Toney
A Portrait of Nancy Toney
Nancy Toney faces us. She wears a loose-fitting shift and apron and a colorful fichu draped over her shoulders. A flax wheel, fibers to be spun at the wheel, and other household tools at the hearth suggest this as a scene from daily life, recorded by the artist’s brush. Born into slavery at Greenfield Hill, Connecticut, Toney resided there and in Windsor until her death in 1857 at age 82. While some historians remembered her as one of the last slaves in Connecticut, another telling of Toney’s story raises critical questions about the final three decades of her life at the intersection of systemic inequities understood by formerly enslaved persons, women of color, and the laboring class.
Few nineteenth-century paintings survive that depict Black working women gazing directly at the viewer. More expected would be an image of Nancy absorbed in her work, head down and unaware of visitors to the scene. But the artist of this painting, Osbert Loomis, created something different. Working around the year 1862, he almost certainly relied on a closely related daguerreotype of Nancy Toney, now held in a collection of Loomis family photographs. In using that image—made with the then relatively new technology of daguerreotyping or affixing a photographed image onto a metal plate—Loomis eschewed the artistic conventions of his time. In the painted portrait, we see Nancy Toney, not as a faceless working woman, but as a person familiar and known to the artist.
Nancy Toney was born into enslavement around 1774 in Fairfield County, Connecticut, the daughter of two slaves, Nanny and Toney. By 1785, Hezekiah Bradley of Greenhill, Connecticut owned Nancy and when Bradley’s daughter, Charlotte, married Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee, Jr. that year, Nancy moved to Windsor to live with the Chaffees as an enslaved person. Dr. Chaffee’s 1821 will bequeathed Nancy to his daughter, Abigail Chaffee Loomis. Osbert Loomis, Abigail’s son, was eight years old when Nancy moved to the Loomis household, where she resided for the rest of her life. The United States Census documents Nancy’s status—as reported by the Loomis family—changed from slave to free person sometime between 1821 and 1830. Local histories name Nancy Toney as one of the last slaves in Connecticut. US Census records include Connecticut returns showing 25 persons counted as slaves in the 1830 Census. The 1840 Census lists 17 enslaved persons living in Connecticut.
Gradual abolition laws applied to slaves born after 1784. Older Connecticut slaves, including Nancy Toney, were forced to rely on their owners for emancipation until Connecticut law prohibited slavery in 1848. It is unclear why she chose to continue living with the Loomis family after being named a free person in the census and why a manumission paper cementing her freedom has not been found. Local lore contends that Nancy suffered disabilities preventing gainful employment. Emancipation laws required a slave owner pledge in the manumission paper that his former slave would not need assistance from the local poor relief system. Perhaps the Loomis family could not make this pledge and, yet, they considered her a free person. Evidence of Nancy’s opinions on living and working in the Loomis household remains elusive.
Systematic inequities would have bounded freedom for any woman of color, formerly enslaved person, and any member of the working class during the antebellum period in Connecticut. Freedom understood by any of these groups was more ambiguous, located somewhere between the full political and economic freedom of white property-holding males and the complete unfreedom of all enslaved persons. Black working class women’s experiences lived at the intersection of many implicit biases present in American society; prejudices that created real obstacles to economic autonomy. Nancy Toney’s life had been shaped by enslavement in the Chaffee family. Slavery prevented her from gaining education, additional job experience, and from sustaining relationships within her own birth family.
We may never know for certain how Nancy’s story became entangled with the notion of being one of the last slaves in Connecticut. Reframing the narrative and the questions asked about Nancy Toney will help us move closer to understanding the multi-layered and shape-shifting experiences upon which she constructed her own identity and sense of self. A grave marker placed by Abigail Chaffee Loomis after Nancy’s death bears an epitaph beginning with “[b]orn a slave” and ending with Nancy’s “fidelity” to the Loomis family. One wonders how Nancy Toney would tell her own story.
Karen Parsons teaches history and is the school's archivist.