Country School Students Seek to Research, Honor Lives of Local Enslaved Persons
While slavery has remained a consistent, underlying thread causing harm and affecting communities throughout the country, the realities of what slavery looked like in any given place often remains unexplored, according to Dennis Culliton, a former Guilford teacher who has made it his mission to tell those stories and honor those individuals. Due to the efforts of local students, the story of individuals who lived in slavery in Madison will soon be shared.
Culliton is co-founder and executive director of The Witness Stones Project Inc., which seeks to shine a light on the history of slavery while honoring the lives of enslaved persons. Beginning in Guilford, where Culliton taught social studies for many years, the project has now arrived in Madison, as students from The Country School presented an early portion of their research to the Board of Selectmen on Nov. 12.
The project is a unique and in-depth process that has students engage the town 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 an engraved stone—at a place in town where that individual “lived, worked, or prayed,” according to Witness Stones’ website witnessstones.org.
“Madison...has a great historical society,” said Culliton. “The Deacon John Grave House is now really starting to look at their history of slavery and interpret[ing] around it. And I think the feeling [at the selectmen meeting] was that this is something the community wants to be a part of.”
The installation of each marker includes a ceremony and commemoration of the life of that enslaved person, as students share what they have learned with residents.
Culliton said he had spoken to The Country School Headmaster John Fixx, who was familiar with Witness Stones’ work already through Culliton’s collaboration with Breakwater Books in Guilford. Students at The Country School were already in the middle of an “inclusion, diversity, and equity” learning unit, Culliton said, and so Witness Stones’ program fit right in.
Acknowledging the enslaved people who contributed to towns like Madison—people who lived and suffered and worked and raised families here—is vital not only from a historical perspective but as a way to begin recognizing and healing the wounds that still exist in the United States today due to slavery, Culliton said.
Very few people are aware of the history and practices of slavery—in New England particularly—Culliton said, and the Witness Stones Project is a way to understand and honor the lives of people who have largely been ignored.
Culliton also said the prevalance of slavery in small New England towns like Madison is often underestimated by residents. At the selectmen meeting, newly inaugurated First Selectman Peggy Lyons told the students that she had learned her own house had once been home to enslaved persons. Culliton said that former first selectman Tom Banisch’s house was another place in Madison where enslaved people had once lived.
“There’s a lot of opportunities...by [Lyons] saying that, [that] is a sign that Madison is the right place to bring the Witness Stones to,” Culliton said.
Working in Guilford, Culliton identified more than 80 enslaved persons who had lived and worked in the town, and so far, Guilford has installed almost a dozen stones commemorating those people. Because Guilford and Madison were the same town during the time period when slavery was legal, Culliton said a lot of his research will be applicable in Madison, and could result in many more projects and markers.
Letice, the woman The Country School students are currently researching, was actually enslaved by a reverend of the First Congregational Church, and students have also been working with church leaders as they move forward with the project, Culliton said.
Culliton said he was used to doing the project with large classes of a couple hundred students. Because the classes at The Country School are so much smaller, students are able to more directly engage in the “civic engagement” parts of the project, he said, including presenting directly to town boards and other community leaders.
Culliton said the exact location of the marker for Letice or when it will be installed has not been determined yet, but he said the ceremony won’t be installed until after the holidays.
The Country School's Witness Stones Project is made possible through a grant from Teaching Tolerance. For more information about The Witness Stones Project, visit witnessstones.org.