Person of the Week
A Witness to History: Brown Chairs Witness Stone’s ‘Juneteenth’ at Hyland House
On Sunday, June 23, The Witness Stones Project of the Guilford Preservation Alliance and the Hyland House Museum present the second annual Juneteenth. This year’s event, Juneteenth–A Garden Party, includes a day of civic engagement, refreshments, music, and remembrance of those enslaved in Guilford’s past, chaired by Stephanie Little Brown at the historic Hyland House, 84 Boston Street, from 4 to 7 p.m. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Courier)
“When we did the first Juneteenth last year, the first question we asked the audience was, ‘How many people know what Juneteenth is?’” recalls Stephanie Little Brown. “Now this was in a crowd of about 80 adults. Probably eight hands went up. That’s through no fault of their own—they didn’t know what they didn’t know. But that just solidified, for me, how important it is to keep this going. Because if you don’t know your history, you are going to be doomed to repeat it.”
Originally named for the date the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas (June 19, 1865), Juneteenth marks a milestone moment that recognizes the emancipation of all enslaved African Americans.
On Sunday, June 23, The Witness Stones Project of The Guilford Preservation Alliance will join with The Hyland House Museum in presenting the second annual Juneteenth. This year’s event, Juneteenth–A Garden Party, chaired by Stephanie, takes places in the downtown gardens behind the historic Hyland House, 84 Boston Street, from 4 to 7 p.m.
The afternoon will be one of remembrance, celebration and music. The featured performer is Connecticut State Troubadour Nekita Waller, the first African American to hold the honor. There will also be poetry readings of poems by noted African-American poets. The ticketed event ($30 adults, $15 for children under 16) will also offer food, beverages, and activities for a day of coming together, civic engagement, and learning, says Stephanie. (Find more information and ticket reservations at WitnessStones.org.)
“Last year, it really was a wonderful afternoon of people coming together and being okay to talk about slavery and the fact that it happened here,” says Stephanie. “It’s a part of our history, as ugly as it is. You can’t erase it by not talking about it. Eventually, we want to take this over to the Town Green and make it a community picnic, because that’s really what it’s about: A community celebrating the freedom of folks who weren’t free—and knowing, in celebrating that freedom, that even today [there are still] those who are not free.”
Bringing the second annual Juneteenth to the 1713 Hyland House also marks a point of slavery in town that’s being mapped, at the rate of three stones installed per year, by the Witness Stones Project.
“We’re having it here at the Hyland House because one of the first stones we installed is right out front,” Stephanie says. “It’s also a perfect tie-in for this year’s partnership with the Hyland House, because it’s one of the few places that’s still standing, as a museum you can visit, that actually housed slaves here in Guilford.”
The stone for a woman named Candace is prominently placed in the entry path to Hyland House.
Marking Forgotten History
The Witness Stone project was instituted in 2017 after Adams Middle School 8th grade educator Dennis Culliton began a research unit with his students on the history of slaves in their town. In that first year, the students not only learned of the story of Candace, a spinner and baker who was enslaved at Hyland House from 1773 to 1793, but also of her mother, Phillis, who had been kidnapped and brought to Guilford in the 18th century by a merchant and enslaver, David Naughty.
Phillis and her husband, Montrose, together with their children Candace and Moses, were enslaved in Naughty’s home on the Town Green. The home still stands, and today holds the offices of Guilford Savings Bank.
Culliton and a project co-founder, Douglas Nygren, modeled the Witness Stones after Stolpersteine (a German word meaning “stumbling stone”), a multi-country project installing stones naming those killed by the Nazi regime outside each victim’s home in Europe.
Each Witness Stone in Guilford is capped in bronze and constructed with a deep, concrete foundation to ensure longevity.
This year, the Witness Stones Project will bear witness to more people enslaved in Guilford, installing three more bronze-capped stones.
“Basically, we want to make this an ongoing thing,” says Stephanie. “Three new stones every year. Three new lives remembered for their contributions to this community and building it to make it what it is.”
Poignant and Powerful
As a person of color who grew up in Guilford and has returned to live here as the second generation of her family in town, getting involved in The Witness Stones project has been especially poignant and powerful for Stephanie. She moved back to Guilford from New York in 2016 with her husband, Daryl.
“I was born and raised here. My parents have lived in the same house on Trolley Road since 1975,” she says of her mom and dad, Wanda and Horace Little. “So this is home. My birth certificate is in Town Hall. These are my roots.”
Stephanie was between jobs and looking for a non-profit group that she could assist as a volunteer when she learned from her sister about Culliton’s student-driven project, which was underway in her nephew’s classroom.
“It just happened that Dennis Culliton was my oldest nephew’s 8th grade social studies teacher. They needed help before the first installation ceremony,” says Stephanie, who volunteered to create the installation program for the event.
“As I started attending more meetings, I realized there’s a reason I came home at the time I did, and was able to get involved, because it’s become an important project to me,” says Stephanie.
“Growing up here, I was one of very few brown faces—probably the only brown face in my elementary school at Cox. I didn’t see another brown face until I got to Baldwin. And I guess over time, I never really thought about the effect that had on my psyche, growing up here. But not seeing pieces of your history—when you get older and look back, you’re like, ‘I wonder what the connection is?’” she says.
The Missing Pieces
Now, missing pieces of Guilford’s history are starting to return, through the Witness Stones Project.
“As we started getting deeper into this project, we realized slavery wasn’t just in the South—it was right here in Guilford,” Stephanie says. “It sort makes you think a little bit deeper about where you live, because Guilford is this beautiful, idyllic shoreline town [and it] is full of wonderful people. But it’s nice to be able to bring this history forward, and get people thinking a little bit more deeply about where we live, and how we got to live this way.”
Described by some as historical amnesia, only now are huge gaps in the country’s history of slavery starting to emerge, especially as it relates to slavery in the north. It certainly wasn’t something Stephanie was learning about in school as a Guilford youngster, she recalls.
“We did what was back then called ‘Indian Day’ in 3rd grade, the Colonial studies. There was really never anything that touched on the presence of slavery and black history here,” she says.
As Stephanie is finding, there’s a lot to learn.
“Through getting involved in this project, we learned that Connecticut had the highest number of slaves in the Northeast at the time of the Revolutionary War. And that was a mind-blower for me, because you always hear anything below the Mason-Dixon Line was slavery, and anything above was freedom.”
Although the large landowners and others in the northeast based their gains on the backs of slaves centuries ago, the ripple effect still resonates and often goes unmarked, she adds.
“I think because so many people don’t know about the history and origins of slavery and those long-reaching effects, they don’t really realize that some of the socio-economic divisions we see now in our present day are left over from those times,” says Stephanie.
Her family’s move to Guilford has its own place in that socio-economic history.
“When my parents moved here in 1975—people don’t realize 1975 is not really that far past the Civil Rights movement—Guilford still had some redlining,” says Stephanie.
Through pricing and denial of services like bank loans for mortgages, redlining describes selective development of communities and neighborhoods based on race.
“My parents moved here as a part of a program to end redlining in the shoreline area,” says Stephanie.
Her family was welcomed to the Sachem’s Head neighborhood that her parents have now called home for more than 40 years, although Stephanie adds, “my dad could probably tell you some stories about when they first moved here that were not the ideal situations people want to hear about living here in Guilford. And even now, when I hear about the racial incident that happened, people are so surprised. ‘Not here in Guilford!’ Yes. Yes, here in Guilford.”
The incident involved a customer arrested in November 2018 after directing racial remarks at a family in a restaurant in the center of town.
“That why it’s so important to me,” says Stephanie of her involvement in the Witness Stones Project. “I love Guilford—it’s my home. But I want people to be aware of what happened here, and how some of these places got to be what they are.”
While she attended elementary and middle school in Guilford, “I sent myself off to private high school because I knew I wanted more diversity and more history,” says Stephanie.
“Even after all these years, you see more families of color in Guilford, but you wonder why there aren’t even more. For the kids that are coming up here, I want them to have a program that includes their history—whether that be inside the school or outside the school, whatever we can do to make them feel like they belong in this community. Because they have a piece of history here.”
To have a nephew, and also this year, a niece, who have gone through the Witness Stones Project with Culliton as their teacher is a milestone for her family that Stephanie says can’t be underestimated.
“It was really kind of cool. She was getting a piece of her education, a piece of her history, that was never even mentioned for us, outside a few pages in a textbook that said there was good slavery and bad slavery,” says Stephanie. “It’s nice to see that she’s getting that puzzle piece to fit into her history.”
Stephanie hopes all students who participate are embracing the opportunity.
“There’s always more to be told to the story, but the program Dennis has started at Adams is a really good start,” she says. “The students are at a really good age when they’re starting to question the world around them and the information that they’ve been fed up until now. They use real found documents, wills that are written, property bills of sale for people. I want to stress that: for people. Property listings for people. It sounds awful, but that’s really what it was. I think for students who have never had exposure to that side of history, it’s a bit of an eye-opener.”
Even adults involved in the project are learning more than they had ever anticipated, and doing more to start the conversation about slavery here, says Stephanie, including herself.
“Being involved in the project, I find myself more willing to talk about slavery and issues of race and how it played out,” she says. “Guilford is a special town—there’s no place like it—but as proud as the residents are to live here, I do feel as though some turn a blind eye as to how some of these prominent families came to be that way. There were industries making barrels here in Connecticut, and sending them down [south] to ship people in. It’s pieces like that that people don’t really put together. They may not have necessarily owned slaves, but they certainly participated in the trade itself.”
Whether it’s in the classroom or coming across a Witness Stone, or by attending Juneteenth or other programs being developed by the project, “we hope it’s sparking is conversations at home,” says Stephanie. “We understand not everybody wants to have these conversations; not everybody’s ready; not everybody knows how. But that’s why were doing these sort of civic engagements, to help open doors for people to have these conversations, and ask questions about things you don’t understand.”
While the impacts of slavery can never be reconciled, Stephanie says she is grateful for the chance to work with the Witness Stones Project to help impact change in this day and age.
“I have to look forward and work on what I can help to change,” says Stephanie. “And that is to help change people’s perception about the idea and the conversation about slavery in this country, and just making sure that people understand that those attitudes are not over, even though the practice may be.”