This news story caught my attention: “After 215 years, member of St. John’s Church to be buried.” The Rev. Amy Welin, priest-in-charge at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Waterbury, Connecticut, received a phone call asking if
she’d be willing to do a funeral for a man named “Fortune” who died in 1798.
Fortune was a man of African descent who was the slave of Dr. Porter, a bone surgeon in Waterbury. After Fortune’s death, Dr. Porter used his bones for study at a time when access to human skeletons was extremely limited. Generations of doctors in his family passed the bones down for more than two centuries. They were reticulated in the 1930’s into a full skeleton and later given to the Mattatuck
Museum in Waterbury and put on display as a tangible reminder that the North had not been totally immune to slavery. Out of respect for the deceased, the museum director took the skeleton down in 1970 and put it in storage. Much later,
interest in Waterbury’s African American history took hold and the president of
the local chapter of the NAACP , Maxine Watts, with the assistance of her
committee members did an enormous amount of work to assemble a body of history that will be helpful in understanding the heritage of African Americans in that area. Near the end of their work they discovered Mr. Fortune’s bones.
In the spring of this year, a team of diagnostic imaging professors and students
studied Fortune’s skeleton. The bones were scanned and a 3-D printer will be
used to make replicas of them. It has been discovered that Fortune, who was 50
to 60 years old when he died, owned a small house on Dr. Porter’s land.
He lived there with his wife, Dinah, and their three children, Jacob, Mira, and
Roxa. Researchers say that he was a strong, rugged man who had sustained several injuries before his death. One year before Mr. Fortune died, Dr. Porter’s wife, Lydia, a member of St. John’s, had him baptized on the Nativity of our Lord,
Connecticut’s Poet Laureate wrote an elegy, "The Manumission Requiem," to honor Fortune, which the Waterbury Symphony had set to music and in 2012, the
“Fortune’s Bones Cantata” was performed by the University of Maryland by a full
symphony, two choirs, seven soloists, and a chorus of African bells. Maxine
Watts, who started this rediscovery, was never sure that Fortune needed to be
put to rest because future medical science could reveal more about him.
Nevertheless, she came around to the decision and said, “Fortune is talking
now; not Dr. Porter.”
This past Thursday, September 12, a parishioner of St. John’s Episcopal in
Waterbury, had a “decent and respectful burial that he was denied 215 years
ago,” according to the Rev. Welin. She said that during his lifetime, “African
American slaves were not considered fully human, but isn’t it ironic that the
doctors used his bones for human study? Underneath the skin, we’re all the
same. Mr. Fortune proved it in his death, even though he never consented to
it.” The Hon. Steven R. Mullins, president of the Southern Connecticut Chapter
of the Union of Black Episcopalians, served as the MC and the Governor’s Foot
Guard accompanied the casket to the cemetery to a plot donated by St. John’s.
There are many lessons we can learn from Mr. Fortune and his life. As his priest
said, “Underneath the skin, we’re all the same.” And, in God’s eyes, we are all
loved and precious in His sight. That is why believe in, one faith, one
baptism, one Lord of all.