Memorial park for Norwich artist, whose life ended in mystery, added to CT Freedom Trail

New London

NORWICH, Conn. (WTNH)– The Connecticut Freedom Trail, which is said to document and designate sites that embody the struggle for freedom and human dignity, now includes 146 locations in 61 towns. The newest site is the Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park in Norwich.

His artwork has been described as dreamlike in its composition and his life was one which caused controversy when in 1933 Ellis Walter Ruley married his second wife, Wilhelmina Fox, who was white.

“So it was an interracial marriage,” said Sheila Hayes, President, Norwich NAAP. “You stop and think back in the 30s and 40s we still had a lot of racial divide.”

So today having this Memorial Park, built on his Norwich homestead, be added to the Connecticut Freedom Trail brings with it a lot of meaning to many who say some of the same struggles still exist.

“Racial tensions I think that was a thought in all of our minds at the time that this was something that could help to bring together the diverse community of Norwich,” said Frank Manfredi, Chairman of the Ellis Walter Ruley Committee.

Ruley, who used regular household paint and clapboard wood to create his paintings, would never live to see his artwork hang in museums like the Smithsonian. Born in 1882, he was found dead at the end of his driveway on a cold winter day in 1959.

Two years after his death, Ruley’s house mysteriously burned down. The original foundation still stands and so does the desire by many to find out what exactly happened to him at the end of his life.

In 1948, his son-in-law was found dead in a very shallow well. It wasn’t until 2015 that it was ruled a homicide.

“Ellis Ruley and the injustice that happened with the Ruley family have finally been corrected,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, (D) Sprague.

“His dad escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad to come here to Norwich and here Ellis made a life for himself as an artist, as a folk artist,” said Todd Levine, Coordinator for the Connecticut Freedom Trail.

Levine says his story embodies what the Freedom Trail honors, overcoming the impossible and inspiring generations to come. 

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