North Guilford to Receive First Witness Stone, First Installation Since Pandemic
It has been about two years since Guilford saw the installation of a Witness Stone. That’s about to change.
The project, founded by retired teacher Dennis Culliton and psychologist Doug Nygren has split, evolved, and greatly expanded since it was originally conceived as a way to teach middle school students about slavery through local history, something that gained even more momentum with the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder a year ago.
Next Tuesday, June 1, the town will see another marker added, honoring three people who were enslaved while living in Guilford.
The three people being honored are Shem, Peter, and Tombo, and Culliton emphasized the focus should remain on them and their lives, as one of the primary missions of the project is shed light on the full human experiences of people who were entirely dehumanized in their lifetime and often forgotten after they passed.
The Witness Stones’ mission of teaching about and honoring those folks continues in town even as it spreads across New England.
“I think that as much as we understood how important this was, we now understand how necessary this is,” Culliton said. “It’s necessary that we learn about the past and how African-Americans were treated 300 years ago to help us understand changes we have to make today.”
A Wider Footprint
Eighteen schools from Litchfield County to New Jersey participated in the Witness Stones Project this year, according to Culliton. The project tasks local history classes with combing primary source documents like wills, letters, and deeds to learn about the lives of people who were enslaved. A marker or stone honoring that person is then placed somewhere where they “lived, worked, or prayed” in town.
After the pandemic slowed the initiative in 2020 (though a few schools, including The Country School in Madison adopted the curriculum and installed a stone), Culliton said he expects the project to gain momentum again. At the June 1 ceremony, local officials and state representatives are expected to speak and the public invited to attend.
At Adams Middle School, where students worked on the project, Culliton said he was able to work with history teacher Tom Bushnell, and the school prioritized addressing the “pandemic of racism” even during all the chaos created by COVID.
Culliton also thanked Witness to History: Slavery in Guilford, an organization that branched off from the original Witness Stones concept and has remained more locally focused, for sponsoring and collaborating on this year’s project.
This is also the first installation in North Guilford, with previous iterations mostly centered around downtown, according to Culliton. Witness Stones are intended for prominent places where people walking by will easily notice them—spots that have been harder to pin down in North Guilford.
The location of the stones will be near Melisa Jones Elementary, St. John’s Episcopal Church, and North Guilford Congregational. Connecting people like Shem, Tombo, and Peter to real locations and organizations like churches, many of which existed 200 years ago when slavery was still legal, is another important part of the project.
One of the odd, surreal little connections that came up in the course of the research is that the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was widely credited with accelerating anti-slavery sentiment ahead of the Civil War, is buried in Old North Cemetery right across from the new installation.
“And in that same cemetery are buried enslaved people,” Culltion said. “It’s just Connecticut history, Guilford history, northern history...slavery was common.”
The ceremony is scheduled to take place at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 1, at 59 Ledge Hill Road. For more information about The Witness Stones Project, Inc., visit witnessstonesproject.org. To learn more about Witness to History: Slavery in Guilford, visit slaveryinguilford.org.