Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Local News

Town Dedicates Second Witness Stone in Honor of Madison Woman

More than 200 years ago, here on the same beaches where Madison residents are currently laid out on the sand catching some sun, a shipwreck washed ashore. From that ship, a handful of people emerged, people who mostly would be spending the rest of their lives working, living, praying, and raising families in what was then known as East Guilford.

Very little is known about these shipwreck survivors. For the most part, their lineages haven’t been traced; their descendants cannot look back on old letters or follow some long record of property ownership to a plot of land in Madison, as many others in town can.

That is because these people were enslaved by the Reverend John Todd of Madison First Congregational Church, having been forcibly removed from their families and homes likely in West Africa, enduring the long Middle Passage across the Atlantic to become unwilling, unsung early settlers on the Connecticut shoreline.

Last week, one of those survivors, a woman named Tamar, finally had some of her story told, as 8th grade students from The Country School (TCS) presented their second completion of the Witness Stones Project, this time with a public ceremony that saw about 30 people, including current pastors of First Congregational Church, Todd and Sarah Vetter, show up to commemorate the installation of a monument honoring her life.

The Witness Stones Project, which grew out of work done by retired Guilford teacher Dennis Culliton and psychologist Doug Nygren, is intended to educate people, usually students, about slavery in local history while honoring people whose lives have mostly been forgotten. That usually culminates in the installation of a physical monument where that person “lived, prayed, or worked,” hopefully involving the local community as much as possible.

Todd Vetter acknowledged that whitewashing of this part of Madison’s history and the complicity of the church in owning slaves, while saying he hoped that the stone and the work done by TCS signaled that residents would not allow it to go unacknowledged in the future.

“As time unfolds, we will continue to hear the stories waiting to be told,” he said.

Last year, TCS installed the first Witness Stones monument also on the grounds of the First Congregational Church, though the pandemic compelled school staff to keep the ceremony small and exclusive to students.

This year, though, both students and other members of the community got to share Tamar’s story publicly, as well as speak on the importance of re-visiting this kind of history today as Black Americans have continued to be deprived of their history.

The keynote speaker at the event was Patricia Wilson Pheanious, co-chair of the Witness Stones board and former state representative, who said she had discovered her own family’s long-lost history through the Witness Stones’ work.

“I know what that did for me, just as a single individual,” she said. “I want to secure that gift for every child.”

The complicated history of slavery in the United States, particularly in the Northeast, has been a huge focus of the project, with Culliton recently saying that the Witness Stones is working especially to connect the not-so-distant past of American slavery to issues of racism ongoing today.

In a strange and surreal coincidence, two of the TCS co-teachers who led the project this year, Liz Lightfoot and Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, last year discovered that they were distant relatives through the kind of research the Witness Stones does.

But apart from the project’s broader implications, TCS and Culliton have repeatedly emphasized that each project is about the individual person, in this case, Tamar. Vetter also kept the focus on the woman whose life—real, complex, and valuable—had been so long ignored.

“I’m hoping we can assume that in her time in Madison Tamar...found ample ways to reframe the story told about her to reclaim that dignity and humanity that enslavement sought to rob her of,” he said.

According to the limited information students were able to obtain regarding Tamar, she was a skilled weaver and chef and was especially kind to Reverend Todd’s nephews- one of whom encountered her after she had been freed later in his life in an interaction he described as joyful.

Even though Todd freed her in his will after saying he believed slavery was “evil” and also bequeathed land to Tamar and her family, research by TCS students and staff could not uncover any evidence that she ever actually received it. Tamar also lived for some time in Branford with her husband, who died there, before eventually returning to East Guilford.

That mystery—why there is no record of that property ownership, or why she may have never received it—was one of many questions students said still troubled them even after the conclusion of the project.

McDuffie-Thurmond, who joined TCS last year during its first Witness Stones Project, introduced the idea of having students write poems that reflected more emotionally on what they were learning.

One student focused on the name—the name Tamar was given by White slaveholders, not the one her parents gave her, which is likely lost forever. Another wrote a poem about how, despite spending much of her life enslaved, Tamar was born free and died free.

McDuffie-Thurmond lauded the students for confronting the complexities and ugliness of race in America.

“I’m so awed at your collective refusal to hold onto comfortable lies, to hold on to easy lies,” McDuiffie-Thurmond said. “I think that all the adults here should be incredibly proud and excited that we have a group of young people who are so invested in telling the truth even when it’s difficult, even when it’s challenging.

“What we’re doing here today is collective practice of recovery, a collective attempt of restoration of dignity and there’s something so beautiful about that,” he added.

With two stones now in Madison and the research done by TCS students enshrined at the school and in other places around town, there are at least two formerly enslaved Madison residents who have been given some degree of honor, and maybe healing from the evils they suffered here, which the Witness Stones is attempting to do all over the region.

Though some have pushed back against this kind of historical focus as somehow anti-American due to the harsh inequalities and abuses it unveils, Pheanious said at the dedication that learning the history of enslaved people is something that has the power to give Black Americans like herself stronger connections to their families, towns, and country.

“Of course some facts made me mad, and some of it made me sad, but ultimately I was reoriented and reinvigorated by this knowledge,” she said. “It made me appreciate my place in the history of this country.”

Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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