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The town’s second annual Witness Stones Installation Ceremony took place on Nov. 15, honoring Jouachim, Montros, and Pompey, who were enslaved in Guilford. Here, 8th grade student Ava Pascarella and Patricia Wilson Pheanious place the stones of Phillis and Montos in front of the Guilford Savings Bank. (Photo by Susan Lambert/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Remembering the Enslaved in Guilford: Witness Stones bearing the names Phillis and Montros were placed in front of the Guilford Savings Bank on Nov. 15. (Photo by Susan Lambert/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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History isn’t simply dates, places, and figures. The human element of historical events is critically important and something the Guilford community is trying to illuminate. On Nov. 15, students, residents, and local and state leaders gathered at Adams Middle School and on the Guilford Green for the second installation of witness stones that 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 in which 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. Those 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.
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.
This year, students researched the lives of three more of the enslaved: Jouachim, Montros, and Pompey. Witness Stone committee member Douglas Nygren said projects like this seek to understand and acknowledge the human suffering involved in slavery.
“The students’ essays, like trauma narratives seek to make sense of what happened,” he said. “…Their reports are trauma acknowledgments. They acknowledge what happened in Guilford. That is necessary, a good first step.”
Local leaders and school officials joined the students and members of the committee at the installation ceremony. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Freeman said work like this is one of the many reasons he is proud of the Guilford community.
“For a community like Guilford to have the courage and to have the open-mindedness and to have the compassion to look back at our own history, and to recognize that history, and to think about how do we mitigate or address that history moving forward is an important piece of who we are,” he said. “I am enormously proud to be a part of a community that embraces that opportunity.”
First Selectman Matt Hoey said he, too, is proud of the students and broader community. He said he hopes this project teaches students a valuable lesson that applies today.
“Do not be afraid to be the voice for those being wronged today,” he said. “For those students are being ostracized, shamed, bullied, or people who are being discriminated against, you need to be their voice. Those being singled out or targeted because of the color of their skin, because of their ethnicity, their religious beliefs, and so many other tenets of their lives. You can make a difference in some other peoples lives and please remember that it doesn’t cost anything to be kind. So I leave you with this: If you see something that is wrong, say something about it.”
The keynote speaker of the event was Patricia Wilson Pheanious. While not a resident in town, she, through the witness stones project, has discovered that her lineage traces back to some of those individuals who were enslaved in Guilford. In addressing the students, Pheanious tried to impress upon the audience that slavery in so many ways destroyed any chance of tracing family history for African Americans.
“Until that call from Dennis Culliton, I couldn’t trace my family’s roots to the land of my forebears,” she said. “…Conversations about slavery were few and far between. Once a year or so there would be a unit on the Civil War in school, and I remember being embarrassed because I was the only living example of a slave. Unlike so many of my classmates, I couldn’t trace my family’s roots back to Italy or Germany or France, all countries that our culture respects and cherishes.”
Pheanious was recently elected to the state legislature and will serve as the state representative for the 53rd House District (Ashford and Willington), a district where Pheanious said very few constituents look like her, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It says something about how far we have come,” she said. “It makes me know that we are truly approaching the time when I will be judged by the content of my accomplishments and character, not just my connection to a painful history so evident in the color of my skin.”
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