A nation’s history is never perfect and there are often parts people would rather forget or not discuss, but no part of history should go unrecognized. It may have been centuries ago and a practice more commonly associated with the south, but 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 Stones 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 a rough version of the project to the Board of Selectmen (BOS) on April 3. The idea for the project stems from a project started in Germany to publicly remember those who were victims of the Nazis. Small stones have been placed in front of the homes of Berliners who were deported and murdered. 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.
Knowing what we do about slavery in Guilford, GPA’s Dennis Culliton said he realized that a similar project could be done right here in town. 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. Culliton 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 enslaved person.
On Thursday, July 20 at 7 p.m. at the Guilford Free Library, Culliton will formally introduce the project following a talk on slavery.
“I am going to be looking at the community of enslaved people through these ideas of dehumanization, treatment, paternalism, economics, and then this idea of human agency—how did these people in a sense show their humanity through how they tried to control parts of their lives,” he said.
Since the project was presented to the BOS, Culliton said the project has received funding from the Guilford Foundation Youth Advisory Group and the Guilford Fund for Education (GFFE) and donated services from The Horton Group LLC., Pasquariello Electric, and Bender Plumbing.
“We really want people to understand what we are doing and to get involved either directly or by telling their friends or becoming a member or sponsoring us or volunteering,” Culliton said. “We are so pleased that we have support for the GFFE and the Guilford Foundation and the BOS and really everyone we have spoken to.”
Each stone will represent an enslaved person and his or her backstory. By working with 8th grade students to analyze primary documents, groups of students will focus in on a single individual and compile research through a narrative non-fiction piece.
Students “would take that story and use it as a story behind the witness stone that we want to put in the ground,” he said. “The stone is a marker, but what it does is it represents a story of a person that the kids have researched.”
The project pairs up with the 8th grade curriculum on American history. Originally, Culliton said the plan was to get the first stone in the ground this spring, but now he is aiming for the fall.
“When we are done with the unit, we want to almost quickly put the stone in the ground so that it is a culminating activity and it will seal it in the student’s memory,” he said.
Stones will likely be placed all around town and Culiton said the goal of this project is not to impose on people, but to invite the community to share in the project and share in the town’s history.
“We are not trying to slap people in the face with this, but we are really trying to say that we need to deal with our past and maybe it helps us understand our present and our future,” he said.
The Dennis Culliton talk slavery and introduction to the Witness Stones Project is on Thursday, July 20 at 7 p.m. at the Guilford Free Library. To learn more about the project, visit www.WitnessStones.org.