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Wandering by historic homes in Guilford, a passerby will often notice a plaque adorning the front of a building indicating the year the house was built, who built it, and who of importance might have lived there—perhaps a famous figure such as Harriet Beecher Stowe or a soldier. The plaques are a reminder of the people who have come and gone over the years—but what about the people history has since forgotten?
It may have been centuries ago and a practice more commonly associated with the south, but the slave ownership is a part of Guilford’s history. To remember and recognize the slaves who lived in Guilford, the Guilford Preservation Alliance (GPA) is starting the Witness Stone Project, a project through which a stone will be placed on the sidewalk in front of a building or home where a slave once lived or worked in town.
The GPA presented the project to the Board of Selectmen (BOS) on April 3. Member Doug Nygren said the idea for the project stems from something he has seen in Germany. When he first visited Germany nearly 50 years ago, Nygren said the Germans were not very dedicated to remembering their history, but on a more recent trip, he noticed a concentrated effort to publicly remember those who were victims of the Nazis.
“On a small scale in Berlin they have started a program where they put small stones in front of the apartment and homes were the Berliners who had been deported and murdered lived,” he said. “They are very simple stones—they are called stumbling stones, a cobblestone with a piece of brass on them.”
Nygren said the Berlin stones simply state the name of the person, the year they were born, the year they were killed, and the location or concentration camp where they were murdered. After learning more about slavery in Guilford, Nygren said he realized a similar project could work in Guilford.
“The Germans talk about this as creating a discussion with the past,” he said. “[GPA member] Dennis [Culliton] told me about his research on slavery and I was shocked to find out that we had slaves here in Guilford and I suggested to him that one way for us to come to terms with the past, one way of having a discussion with the past…is by doing the same thing and taking a cue from the Germans.”
So the Witness Stone Project was born. Culliton said the goal is to install a witness stone—a small plaque no larger than half a brick—in front of a location where a slave lived, worked, or prayed in Guilford. Cullition says he has information on about 70 slaves who lived in Guilford (and Madison because of how town lines were drawn at the time) and the GPA is partnering with students to learn more about each slave.
“In conjunction with 8th-grade students at Adams Middle School, we will research primary and secondary documents to find out details and write a story about a person who could represent the institution of slavery in Guilford,” he said. “The story of slavery can be uncovered even if it is not readily available. Some of the historic resources can be found in places like the property records vault, the probate records, and in the Henry Whitfield Museum and at the Guilford Free Library.”
After a slave’s history is uncovered, Culliton said the GPA hopes to install at least one stone a year in relevant locations.
“Our little mantra we keep telling each other is one soul, one stone, one year,” he said. “We want to do one of these properly, but after the first year probably do three a year with the 8th graders so they can continue doing research of slaves and different slaves and who they were and who they worked for and what they did.”
Culliton said the GPA will not install a stone in front of a person’s home if they are opposed to the idea, but said the whole point of the project is to shed light on a forgotten moment in history.
“Our town history permeates so much of who we are and where we work and how we live our lives in Guilford,” he said. “We know a lot about Guilford’s history, but some of that history is still being uncovered.”
While the BOS did not need to formally approve the project at the meeting, Culliton did let the board in on a little bit of its own history. In 1792, the Board of Selectmen at the time purchased a slave, Dinah, and the current site of Town Hall has its own history. The first stone the GPA would like to place will recognize Moses, a slave of a preacher, who lived at 31 Park Street—the current location of Town Hall.
“Three hundred and 66 days from now, April 2018, is the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Culliton. “That is the first stone we would want to put in the ground on a Wednesday, the fifth of April 2018, in front of Town Hall.”
Culliton said the GPA hopes to start working with students this coming fall and get the first stone placed next spring. The BOS unanimously endorsed the project.
To learn more about the Guilford Preservation Alliance, visit guilfordpreservation.org/WordPress.
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