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Article Published December 18, 2019
Country School Students Take in Poetry as They Begin to Research Slavery in Madison
Jesse Williams

As 7th- and 8th-grade students at The Country School (TCS) prepare to delve into the history of local slavery and the lives of enslaved people as part of The Witness Stones Project, the school hosted a speaker whose words and insights helped prepare students for the tragic and personal explorations they will soon undertake.

Through the Witness Stones Project, TCS students will use documents like ledgers, wills, and reports of auctions to research the life of an enslaved woman who lived in Madison. Poet Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, who wrote his college thesis using the same sorts of resources, recently shared some of what he had learned, along with the poetry it inspired, while running a writing workshop for students.

Those students will eventually write their own reflections as part of the project, according to TCS teachers Kristin Liu and Heather Butler.

Though Witness Stones is essentially a history and civic project, Witness Stones Project co-founder and Executive Director Dennis Culliton said that it’s important that students and anyone else who comes in contact with the project connect with the human elements.

“They’ll be looking at what slavery looked like here, and who was involved with it, and how did that effect those persons lives,” Culliton said, “but also, who were these folks? Not that they were just people on the list, but that they were humans.”

The Witness Stones Project guides people, usually students, to engage with their community as they use primary sources and other local resources to learn about an enslaved individual who lived in their town before eventually installing a public marker of some kind—often a stone—at a place in town where that individual “lived, worked, or prayed,” according to Witness Stones’ website.

Beginning in Guilford, where Culliton taught social studies for many years, the project has now spread to several other Connecticut towns. This class of TCS is the first to take part in the project in Madison.

Making the Connection

McDuffie-Thurmond spent a good deal of the time reading from a collection of poetry that he said was inspired by researching his ancestors, many of whom were enslaved persons originally from Western and Central Africa.

“I wanted to engage with that history through poetry, because I feel like it’s important to develop emotional literacy around enslavement,” he said. “What I was taught about slavery from middle school, high school, even throughout college, a lot of it was based around numbers and data and dates. But those are kind of abstract. It doesn’t let you connect with the real emotional histories of the people who were enslaved, and people who enslaved them, and people who benefited from the slave trade.”

Making these personal connections to the real life suffering, experiences, and humanity of the enslaved person they research is an essential part of the project, according to Culliton..

“The mission of The Witness Stones Project is to restore the history and honor the humanity and contributions of enslaved persons,” said Culliton. McDuffie-Thurmond “is doing the same thing; we’re doing it as a community, and he’s doing it in his own family.”

The particular enslaved woman The Country School students are currently researching was actually enslaved by a reverend of the First Congregational Church, and students have been working with church leaders as they move forward with the project, Culliton said. Students also presented early portions of their work to Madison’s Board of Selectmen in November.

What McDuffie-Thurmond also offered through his poetry and reflections was how these stories of enslaved persons are still relevant today—how the practice of slavery and the lives of the individuals involved in it have created long-reaching arcs of cause and effect that have created societal, familial, and community ties that still exist, even in places like Madison.

“I tend to think about myself as a product of people who came before me,” McDuffie-Thurmond said. “And as a future ancestor of the people who will come after me.”

McDuffie-Thurmond, who is black, was explicit in connecting slavery to the injustices and violence perpetuated against black people in the United States today. The kind of horror that comes from seeing a person’s name listed as a piece of property is “a very specific type of violence...that carries on today when we think about police brutality, when we think about unarmed black people killed by police,” he said.

One emotional and dramatic revelation that came out of the event was TCS Alumni Relations and Outreach staff member Liz Lightfoot, who helped bring McDuffie-Thurmond to speak at the school, discovering that she was distantly related to him, using the same kind of research students are using in the project.

“It’s really profound,” Lightfoot said. “It makes us realize—I felt this tremendous connection to [McDuffie-Thurmond]...[but] it was only doing further research that I realized that we are from the same family tree. This is kind of what we’re going to be doing in this research...is find[ing] how we are all connected.”

Culliton said that seeing these long threads, drawn out over hundreds of years, can reveal the source of inequalities and issues in our communities today. He spoke of how his father benefited greatly from the GI Bill after World War II —a benefit that was denied to black Americans at the time.

“I think if we look at the world and say, ‘There’s a reason why we have what we have.’ And how can we help others who that was taken from,” Culliton said. “There were some systematic ways that things were taken from people. What do we do to make that right?”

The Country School’s Witness Stones Project is being made possible through a grant from Teaching Tolerance.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond.