Dispatches from Dennis, Spring 2018
Mission Statement: Through research, education, and civic engagement, the Witness Stones Project seeks to restore the history and honor the humanity and contributions of enslaved individuals who helped build our communities.
One year ago, the Guilford Preservation Alliance helped form the Witness Stones Committee. Doug Nygren, a retired family counselor and German scholar brought the idea of memorializing enslaved individuals from Guilford’s history to Cindy Kozal and myself (who are both GPA board members). His inspiration was the Stolpersteine Project in Berlin where Jews are remembered by installing a stone where they lived freely before being deported and murdered during the Holocaust. The GPA accepted the challenge of becoming the fiscal sponsor of the Witness Stones Project allowing our organization to apply for grants and receive funding as a nonprofit organization.
The Project quickly requested approvals from Guilford Public Schools and the Board of Selectmen. The Guilford Fund for Education and the Guilford Foundation promptly showed their support by providing funds for the first year as did the Horton Group, developers of 66 High Street. The Committee grew by adding interested Guilford residents who had non-profit experience, scholarly credentials, organizational abilities, and a particular interest in the topic of local slavery.
In the Spring and early Summer, we developed both programming for the community at large as well as an educational unit for 8th graders at Adams Middle School. As in many public activities, we realized that it was important to involve the public by developing programming to introduce the topic of local slavery and the Witness Stones Project. So in both July and September, we partnered with the Guilford Free Library and had large audiences to listen and engage each other on issues of slavery, inequality, and injustice. These gatherings gave us confidence to believe that future activities in public would be met with understanding and acceptance.
The student education portion of the project was developed to require students to engage in themes of slavery to understand the lives of enslaved individuals in Southern New England. This was done in October by having student groups focus on one of the five themes: dehumanization, treatment of the enslaved, paternalism, economics of slavery, and agency and resistance. Students were guided in history class and were given tools such as a glossary of terms, transcription of primary documents (such as 18th century wills, property records, inventories, census, church records, and anecdotes). When done properly, student groups presented their findings about their themes to other groups in a jigsaw activity; so a class of students would have an opportunity to develop a whole understanding about local slavery using just the facts presented in the documents used for research.
Once the students had developed their understanding and presented their findings, they were handed off to the Language Arts teachers to develop biographical sketches. The purpose of the sketches are to restore the history of the enslaved who have lived in our community and to honor their humanity and contributions. Once these sketches were completed, teachers selected the top three essays, one each for Moses, Phillis, and Candace, enslaved persons who lived near the center of Guilford.
We completed the first year’s educational activity by conducting a culminating activity on November 2nd, 2017. We held a Installation Ceremony on the Guilford Green with music, local dignitaries, student singers, a keynote speaker, and students reciting their essays restoring the history and honoring the humanity of Moses, Phillis, and Candace. A Witness Stone for each was placed in the ground in front of the location where he or she had lived.
We started our second year by having the first Witness Stones Book Club. Dr. Donna Daniels and Prof. Hazel Carby led discussions about the book Kindred by Octavia Butler. A crowd of over fifty readers were in attendance and discussions about the book and the issues the author was addressing made the discussions lively. A survey given to those in attendance showed an overwhelmingly positive response to the program.
On the student education side, teachers from Adams Middle School are creating a teacher’s guide to the Witness Stones Project and are creating the curriculum for summer workshops for Connecticut teachers in Guilford and beyond. Our intention is to install three stones a year in Guilford for up to ten years. Imagine what Guilford would look like with thirty stones installed in our town?
Please visit our website and join our mailing list to keep up to date with the Witness Stones Project, our activities, and outreach. Go to: www.WitnessStones.org for more information and follow us on Facebook.
Dennis Culliton, Social Studies teacher at Elizabeth Adams Middle School.