Rebecca Primus was born in Hartford in 1836. She lived on Wadsworth Street, about half a mile from Washington College, which would soon change its name to Trinity. Primus’s great-grandfather had been stolen from Africa, enslaved in England’s North American colonies, and ultimately liberated for his military service in the Revolutionary War. Rebecca Primus had no access to the educational institution up the street from her home, but by the time Trinity moved to its current location in the 1870s, she had created her own educational institution.
In the wake of the Civil War, Primus journeyed to Talbot County, Maryland—birthplace of Frederick Douglass—to teach in a school for freed people. She devoted four years to the central cause of Reconstruction: helping African Americans gain back some sliver of what they had been denied during generations of slavery. So profound was her impact on this Eastern Shore community that they christened her schoolhouse The Primus Institute. Rebecca Primus was a bold, independent thinker who led a transformative life.
She lived the rest of her years in Hartford—at the family home on Wadsworth Street and on Adelaide Street near Barry Square. The college on the hill was always in sight yet always closed to her. At her death—she was 95 years old, the college 109—she was buried alongside her parents in the Zion Hill Cemetery, across the street from the Trinity campus. The grave today is unmarked.
It is a tragic and shameful irony that someone could embody Trinity College’s current mission so well yet have been excluded from it through most of its history. For well over a century, untold thousands of people like Rebecca Primus—because they were women, because they were Black, because they were not rich—could not avail themselves of what the college offered. To this day, their access is unequal. How might Hartford, how might the world, have been different if more of them could have been educated at Trinity? How might Trinity be different if they were among our alumni, if theirs were the names on our buildings? What could this institution have learned from Primus’s work, from her vision of Reconstruction and education?
Though Trinity College seemed to overshadow Rebecca Primus during her lifetime, it lags behind her in the project to which she devoted those four pivotal years. She was in the vanguard of Reconstruction, the “second founding” in which full citizenship would finally apply to all Americans (at least all men) regardless of race. America’s Reconstruction was undermined and abandoned, its promise betrayed; Trinity’s Reconstruction, though late to begin, can yet be accomplished. It will require a deeper understanding of the college’s history, especially its complicity in an institution (slavery) and an ongoing system (white supremacy) devoted to exploiting and silencing human beings rather than—the ideal upon which education is founded—empowering them to improve their lives and create a better world.