Country School Students Record, Honor Life of Enslaved Madison Resident
The Country School students will install a marker commemorating enslaved Madison resident Lettuce Bailey in front of the First Congregational Church in Madison. (Photo by Jesse Williams/The Source)
After months of research, writing, and conversations, students from The Country School (TCS) have finished up their research on one of Madison’s enslaved residents as part of the Witness Stones Project, with plans to come together and install a marker in front of the First Congregational Church next month.
TCS middle school students began their work last fall and were in the final stages of the project when the pandemic forced the closure of their school.
But over the last few months, students and faculty were able to put all their research and work together, according to TCS Alumni and Outreach staffer Liz Lightfoot, resulting in the creation of a booklet that commemorates the life of Lettuce Bailey, who lived much of her life in what is now Madison.
The Witness Stones Project, Inc., founded by retired Guilford teacher Dennis Culliton and counselor Doug Nygren, asks students to use primary sources such as wills, bills of sale, letters, and diary entries to learn about a person who had been enslaved in their town.
That person is then honored with a marker, usually a stone, permanently installed in a place where they “worked, prayed, or lived,” according to Witness Stones’ websitewitnessstonesproject.org.
The students’ research revealed that Lettuce (likely pronounced leh-TOOS) Bailey possibly survived a shipwreck with her mother, Tamar, before the minister of the First Congregational Church at the time, Rev. Jonathan Todd, enslaved both of them in Madison.
Twice winning her freedom, Bailey married a man named Cesar and had seven children, at least one of whom died as an infant.
After initially being freed upon Todd’s death in 1791, Bailey was pulled back into enslavement by the stipulation she had to take care of herself by some measure, or become property of the Todd family again.
Bailey was again freed in 1793 by a Connecticut law that allowed enslaved people to be granted freedom based on physical health “without condition.”
Tamar died in 1810, and Bailey spent at least portions of next decade living in poverty in almshouses, forced to “bind out” her children—essentially rent them as servants for a specified period of time.
Bailey died in 1820, her age recorded as 55 years, though Lightfoot said even that number was far from certain.
According to Lightfoot, students were somewhat “frustrated” by the relative lack of historical details they were able to glean about Lettuce from available documentations, making it difficult to construct any type of comprehensive biography.
But a large part of the Witness Stones curriculum is focused on making an emotional connection to the horrors of slavery and the people who it most grievously harmed, according to Culliton. Students were especially moved by poet Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, according to Lightfoot, who spoke and worked with TCS faculty and students early this year.
McDuffie-Thurmond, a graduate of Wesleyan University who is Black, wrote his thesis using the same type of research Witness Stones asks students to do, learning about his own enslaved ancestors and their lives. He also wrote a book of poems largely inspired by those stories.
In a bizarre coincidence, Lightfoot and McDuffie-Thurmond discovered through this research that they are distantly related—something Lightfoot called a “beautiful fortune” and illustrative of how these types of historical connections can stretch forward in time.
Rather than simply compiling their limited research, students also decided to turn their experience and ideas into art, writing poems, stories, and songs encompassing both what they knew about Bailey’s life as well as the feelings or ideas that learning about racism and enslavement inspired.
Through these expressions as well as through the research, TCS students and Madison at large might be able to “do something that would really matter” to Bailey or her descendants, Lightfoot said, and connect racism today with America’s history of oppression of Black people.
The plan is to have middle school students research another enslaved person every year, according to the TCS website.
For more information on the Witness Stones Project, Inc., visit witnessstonesproject.org. Selected TCS student work and research can be found at sites.google.com/view/tcs-witness-stones.