Born free around 1785, William Lanson moved along with his family to New Haven in 1803. By 1810, when the city wanted to expand its Long Wharf to accommodate larger ships, Lanson was the only contractor capable of completing the herculean task. His success in that project led to other ventures including a livery stable, store, and hotel.
In 1825, he was contracted to help build the harbor basin for the new Farmington Canal. Lanson’s business acumen allowed him to amass a fortune of at least $20,000, and for his community engagement, he was elected “African King” of New Haven, a title for community leaders throughout New England at that time.
However, following the rebellion of Black slaves led by Nat Turner in 1831, public support in the north for the Black community began to sour. Successful and educated Black Americans were especially targeted. Lanson was accused by one paper of being in charge of an “African college” of vice. This lead to white mobs attacking Lanson’s properties and other Black businesses, along with constant legal proceedings against the city’s most famous Black businessman. Lanson died in 1851 nearly penniless.
To commemorate such a pivotal figure in New Haven’s history, the city dedicated a statue to him in September 2020, alongside the Farmington Canal which he helped build. The project was originally spurred on by the Amistad Committee, and sculpted by Dana King. No known images of Lanson survived, so King based her image on the faces of 19th-century West African men. The statue is meant to convey Lanson as powerful and wealthy, with a clenched fist signifying Black liberation.
Know Before You Go
The statue is outside and accessible year-round. It's alongside the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, near the Grove St. Cemetery where Lock St. meets Canal St.