WATERBURY, Conn. — A slave who died more than 200 years ago in Connecticut but was never buried was given an extraordinary funeral Thursday that included lying in state at the Capitol and calls for learning from his painful life.
The enslaved man known as Mr. Fortune was buried in a cemetery filled with prominent citizens after a service at the Waterbury church where he had been baptized. Earlier in the day, his remains lay in state in the Capitol rotunda in Hartford.
"Our brother Mr. Fortune has been remembered, and it is with restored dignity his bones shall be buried," the Rev. Amy D. Welin of St. John's Episcopal Church in Waterbury told hundreds gathered for the service. "We bury Mr. Fortune not as a slave, but as a child of God who is blessed."
Fortune "teaches us today about the long and convoluted path to justice and reconciliation," Welin said, adding later that "this story from Waterbury's past calls us to remember and to continue our commitment to justice."
The service was marked by thunderous singing that shook the old church at times, occasional clapping, applause and cries of "Amen" as a coffin containing Fortune's bones was placed in front of the altar, amid scripture readings that included Paul's declaration that "there is no longer slave or free."
Welin said they had gathered for a man they never knew whose life was marked by paradox. Fortune was a slave who owned a house, had a wife and four children but had no control over the disposition of his body when he died and was never given a dignified burial despite being baptized as an Episcopalian, she said.
Fortune was owned by Dr. Preserved Porter on a farm in Waterbury. When Fortune died in 1798, Porter, a bone surgeon, preserved his skeleton by having the bones boiled to study anatomy at a time when cadavers for medical study were disproportionately taken from slaves, servants and prisoners.
One of Porter's descendants gave the skeleton in 1933 to Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, where it was displayed from the 1940s until 1970. The descendant referred to the slave as "Larry," and his name was forgotten at the time.
A local historical account from 1896 claimed "Larry" slipped on a rock and drowned in the river. Tests over the years, including a recent exam at Quinnipiac University, found evidence of a neck fracture around the time of death not associated with hanging. The university has not been able to determine the cause of his death.
The study by Quinnipiac concluded that Fortune was about 5 feet 5 inches tall and died when he was around 55 years old, said Richard Gonzalez, an assistant professor and forensic anthropologist at Quinnipiac's school of medicine. He suffered a number of painful ailments, including a fracture in his left hand, a severe ankle sprain and lower back pain.
The museum has long wanted to give Fortune a proper burial, Director Bob Burns said. The latest tests, which included CT scans of the bones, will allow researchers to continue studying the bones without the need for the physical remains, he said.
"We've always had a desire to finally put these remains to rest, but there was always a concern that there may be some new opportunity to learn more in the future. And that future is right now," Burns said.
Maxine Watts, chairman of a committee involved with the project and past president of the NAACP, shared those concerns. Now that the latest tests have been done, she said, it's time to bury Fortune.
"Now we feel even though he was used that way, he did prove underneath the skin we're all the same," Watts said of the earlier anatomical study of the skeleton.
Fortune was buried near contemporaries who never would have spoken to him or viewed him as human, said Steven Mullins, president of the southern Connecticut chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians. He noted the use and display of his bones was done without his consent.
"He will be at a place of honor completely contrary to the life he and his family and his colleagues in slavery ever knew," Mullins said.