William Grimes – Seeking Freedom in Connecticut

Deejae Maxwell
Library Media Specialist
Bridgeport Public Schools


Historical Background

William Grimes was born into slavery in 1784 in King George County, Virginia. When he was 10 years old, he was sold to a far-off plantation, away from his mother and everything he knew. In 1814, he decided to escape from slavery by stowing away on a ship leaving Savannah, Georgia for New York City. From there, he made his way to New Haven. In time, he married and became a father, homeowner, and entrepreneur. Grimes became a barber and moved frequently, working in various Connecticut cities and towns, including Litchfield, Stratford, Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Fairfield. Eventually he returned to New Haven and set up a barber shop on Chapel Street. One day, an agent of his former slaveholder found Grimes and demanded that he either pay for his freedom or return to Savannah in chains. Grimes sold his home to raise the money. In 1825, he wrote the first “fugitive slave narrative” published in America, in part to recoup money he paid for his freedom.

D1: Potential Compelling Question

How can we find out about people and places in the past?


  • What clues about their lives do “regular” people leave behind?
  • Why—and how—do people move from one place to another?
  • Who was William Grimes and how does his story connect to the story of the United States?
  • How was Connecticut/New Haven different in William Grimes’ time than today?



This Teach It is designed to take place in small segments over several days. At the end of each session, review the compelling question and discuss/record any new questions the students may have.

1. Start with a class discussion about the compelling question: How can we find out about people and places in the past? If historians wanted to know about you 200 years from now, what clues might they have? Have students make a list, which might include things such as family photos, postcards written from vacation, notes/letters, official records (such as report cards), etc. Record answers in the manner that suits your class (chart, post-its, collaboration board, flip grid).

2. Introduce William Grimes and his story of escaping slavery by stowing away on a ship leaving Savannah, Georgia and headed to New York City. Show on a map of the United States, if possible. Together as a class, read and discuss the excerpt from his autobiography in which Grimes describes making his way from New York to New Haven. Annotate the passage together, defining unfamiliar vocabulary and pulling out main ideas to ensure that students understand the meaning of the excerpt.

3. Have students look at the 1817 map of New Haven, made around the time Grimes arrived there. Give students time to examine the map and have them use the Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis Tool to OBSERVE, REFLECT, and QUESTION. What do they see, what does it make them think, and what do they wonder about the map?

4. Next, show the 1849 map of New Haven, made after Grimes had been living in the city for some time. Have students do a similar examination, and then compare and contrast the two maps. What do the maps tell us about how things changed during the time that William Grimes lived in New Haven? (One example is the arrival of the railroad, which you can see on the 1849 map.)

5. Next, show the 1849 bird’s eye view of New Haven. Have students use the Primary Source Analysis Tool worksheet once more, but then compare the picture to the 1849 map. What information do they both give? What different information can you get from each? How is each one useful if you want to know about New Haven in 1849?

6. Finally, show the page from the 1842 New Haven City Directory. You can explain that a city directory listed the addresses for all of the residents in a city. Sometimes the directories also provided information about a person’s race or occupation/job. Can they find William Grimes on the page? What information does the directory give us about him? (Note that “col’d” was the abbreviation for “colored,” which was the term at the time used to identify people of color; “n” was the abbreviation for “near”, in this case indicating an intersection of streets.) Try looking back at the 1849 map; can the students find where William Grimes lived? What about Chapel Street, where his barber shop was?


  • Write a letter to William Grimes asking him questions that you have, perhaps about his escape or his travels in Connecticut.
  • Each student will gather 5-10 items that might give future historians clues about the student and/or the place they live (no personal data!) Students will either look at the items themselves and make a list of information future historians could gather or trade with a partner.


Place to GO

Learn about the history of your own town with a visit to your local historical society or public library.

Find out more about the history of New Haven and its residents at the New Haven Museum.

Things To DO

Use a current map to plot some of the places in Connecticut that William Grimes lived and then some places that each student has lived or visited. Is there any overlap?

Websites to VISIT

Articles to READ