West Hartford — A procedural technicality has blocked a local high school student’s quest to rename a West Hartford street in honor of a formerly enslaved man who served the community as Black governor and as a provisions cart driver during the Revolutionary War.
When Isaias Wooden, a recent Kingswood Oxford School graduate, brought his application to rename West Hartford’s Sycamore Lane to Peleg Nott Lane before the Town Planning and Zoning Commission on June 6, he thought the resolution had passed.
After long hours canvassing neighborhoods, collecting more than 100 signatures and gathering records on Nott to justify the name change, Wooden, a classmate and their advisors were elated that Nott would finally receive the public recognition he deserved.
“If someone like [Peleg Nott], a formerly enslaved man who won his freedom, had a federal street named after him, that just seemed really big to me,” Wooden said.
Even the commissioners believed the name change had been successful. The official minutes from the TPZ’s June 6 meeting state that the commission, in a 3-1 vote, approved the renaming, and the item was placed on the Town Council’s June 14 agenda for final approval.
Soon after the TPZ’s decision, though, the legality of the ruling came into question. On the day of the vote, a fifth member of the TPZ arrived late and could not rule on the item, and the street name-change ordinance required a two-thirds supermajority of commissioners to pass.
After the Town Council tabled discussion of the name change, Corporation Counsel Dallas Dodge concluded that the name-change ordinance required an absolute supermajority of all TPZ commissioners and needed at least four yes votes to pass. The original 3-1 vote did not meet the absolute supermajority threshold.
Per town ordinance guidelines, Wooden would need to wait a full year to submit another application to rename Sycamore Lane after Nott.
“My opinion as corporation counsel on this was just as to the procedure before TPZ. It had nothing to do with the merits of the actual application itself,” Dodge said.
Mayor Shari Cantor pointed out that West Hartford’s ordinance for renaming of public streets is relatively new. At the urging of local high school students, the Town Council unanimously passed the name-change ordinance in June 2021. So far, it has been used just once in May 2022 when the TPZ and Town Council approved the renaming of Blue Back Square’s New Street to Dinah Road after a formerly enslaved woman and her daughter, both called Dinah. That name change will become official on Aug. 10.
Cantor regrets that the error caused confusion.
“It should never have come to the council. ... Unfortunately, the communication at the TPZ was an error, and it was not right. ... I’m going to talk to the chair of TPZ to make sure that never happens again,” Cantor said. “We as a town know we are going to fully recognize and honor Peleg Nott in an appropriate way.”
Dodge said that the one-year waiting period only applies to Sycamore Lane and that Wooden could submit an application to rename another street after Peleg Nott at any time.
But Wooden and his team feel that Nott was robbed of a victory. They said that if they knew about the absolute supermajority rule, they would have asked to delay the vote. They shared their frustrations at having to repeat the application process.
“I became, I don’t want to use the word upset, but disappointed as I saw all the adults around me kind of let this thing unravel,” Wooden said.
Regina Miller, another recent graduate of Kingswood Oxford, thought the renaming of Sycamore Lane would be the culmination of more than two years of work. In 2021, Miller was part of the team of students that pushed for the passage of the town’s name-change ordinance.
Miller and Isaias said that they first learned about Nott in history class, working with the town to research and honor the enslaved people of West Hartford through the Witness Stones Project.
According to the students’ research, Nott spent the first 30 years of his life as a slave. Born in 1750, he was enslaved in Hartford and the West Division of Hartford (modern-day West Hartford) until he gained freedom in 1780.
During the Revolutionary War, Nott drove provision carts for the Patriot and French armies, traveling up and down the East Coast. As a free man, Nott continued to manage the estate of his former enslaver Jeremiah Wilson, one of the richest men in town, breeding horses and overseeing 150 acres of orchards. For two decades Nott served the Black community as the elected “negro governor” of Hartford.
Estimates suggest that at least 70 people were enslaved in West Hartford — something that Wooden said he did not know before taking part in the history class.
“I wasn’t fully aware of the extent of slavery in the North. As a state, we really try to say that we are in touch with slavery, but I think we tend to forget that slavery wasn’t just a Southern problem,” Wooden said.
Wooden originally chose Sycamore Lane, which intersects with Sycamore Road and Prospect Avenue, because it resides on the land that Nott once worked on. The owners of all four properties that abut Sycamore Lane publicly opposed the name change, citing the inconvenience of changing their address. They suggested that the town honor Nott in another way, such as dedicating a small monument.
For Wooden and his team, a plaque would not be sufficient for a man like Nott.
“We did think about maybe just putting a marker on the sidewalk. But that’s different than having the government recognize you and your life and your history and your presence and what you’ve contributed to society,” Wooden said.
Alison Cross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.