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A large crowd listens to speakers at the Witness Stones Installation Ceremony on the Guilford Green. (Photo by Zoe Roos/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
The first Witness Stone, commemorating the life of Moses, was placed in front of the Guilford Town Hall. (Photo by Zoe Roos/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Time has a way of erasing the personal from history. Names turn into numbers and personal stories are relegated to footnotes—but not in Guilford. On Nov. 2, students, residents, and local and state leaders gathered on the Guilford Green for the installation of the first witness stones in town to recognize and commemorate the lives of those enslaved individuals who lived in town.
To recognize the enslaved people who lived in Guilford, the Guilford Preservation Alliance (GPA) started 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 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.
While slavery is a practice more commonly associated with the south, it existed here, too. 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 said 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.
At the installation ceremony, Culliton said the project aims to restore the history of these enslaved individuals. On Nov. 2, stones were placed for three former slaves: Moses, Phillis, and Candace.
“We are inspired by the three people we are here today to honor,” he said. “Their stories are those of enslavement, but also of resilience, resistance, and agency…With so little recompense, with such bleak futures, they chose to overcome despair and lived lives that showed hope, that exercised agency, and expressed their humanity. Today we get to hear their stories as spoken by our students.”
Adams Middle School 8th grade students have been working with members of the Witness Stones Committee to compile a biography backstory on each enslaved person. Students analyzed primary documents and groups of students focused on a single individual to compile research through a narrative non-fiction piece.
Students read the backstories of the three enslaved individuals being remembered at the ceremony. Looking at the work done by the students, Superintendent of Schools Paul Freeman said he was very proud of the work and commitment that has gone into this project.
“Our students didn’t read a history, they didn’t study a book, they engaged with real living history in their community,” he said. “They went our and they worked to understand that history and they are taking actions based on that history as part of this history. Learning isn’t about what happens solely in a classroom and in a book; learning is about being that practitioner and I am enormously proud of our historians who are here today…We are recognizing the every member of our community in the actions that we take today. I am enormously proud of every one of you… I am proud of Guilford for what we do here today.”
Witness Stones Committee member Kristine Little Iglesias said this project has elevated the study of slavery in the community. She said as a young woman growing up in Guilford, she realized she was one of few black families in town and said the study of slavery in the classroom was an “open and closed” topic—it happened, it was wrong, and it is over.
“These forgotten people were more than just a name and a date recorded in our town archives,” she said. “These were people who cooked, cleaned, farmed, and provided other valuable services for the founding fathers of this nation. The student essays beautifully restore life to these unrecognized people of our community, thus making Guilford’s history more interesting and memorable. It is so much easier to connect to people who had names and identities, and that connection is the whole beautiful point of the Witness Stones.”
State representatives Sean Scanlon (D-98) and Vincent Candelora (R-86) commented on the importance of the project and the dedication of the students. The Witness Stones are the first to be installed in Connecticut and Candelora said he would like to see other districts embrace this project as well.
All speakers commented on the need to acknowledge and embrace all parts of history to recognize our past wrongs and learn from them so that we may go into the future aware of the prejudices that persist in modern society.
“There are times in our history that make us uncomfortable and ashamed but we must to erase them from our memory, no matter how hideous they are,” said First Selectman Joe Mazza. “To deny that they exist will not make them go away, but may cause them to reappear in future societies.”
To learn more about the Witness Stones project, visit www.WitnessStones.org.
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