The Witness Stones Project, begun by an 8th grade Guilford United States History teacher, asks students to engage in analyzing and interpreting primary sources about enslaved individuals and to present that information to the public. The research results in a stone with a brass plaque installed in the sidewalk where each of the enslaved persons once lived. These stones remind us of the lives lived in bondage.
A Witness Stone placed in Jude’s honor will be West Hartford’s first stone bearing witness to slavery.
In the spring of 2018, 42 students at Conard High School addressed the compelling question “Why bear witness to slavery in West Hartford?” by researching two of these men: George, owned by Timothy Goodman, and Jude, owned by Stephen Sedgwick. Students learned about the broader context of 18th century Connecticut slavery and what is known about Bristow, the man who now has a school named after him in our town. This first group kicked off the Witness Stones Project West Hartford, and will help pave the way for the study of at least four more enslaved people and their owners in the 2018-19 school year.
The Witness Stones Project West Hartford is facilitated by retired history teachers Tracey Wilson and Liz Devine on behalf of the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit museum with a mission to preserve, interpret and champion Noah Webster’s legacy and birthplace and the evolving history of West Hartford.
The museum’s goal is to engage people in conversations and programs about the role of language, civic engagement, education, and a shared national and community identity. The Witness Stones Project West Hartford is an important tool to share the stories of all of the town’s past residents, especially those who have hitherto been silenced. West Hartford is the second town in Connecticut to take on this project.
Henry Whitman’s notes on “Slaves in West Hartford – from Church Records,” c. 1910, in the museum’s collection.
To identify West Hartford’s enslaved population, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Devine conduct preliminary research and gather primary source materials. They then work directly with West Hartford Public School teachers to bring the project to high school students. The culmination of the students’ work will be a public program where students can share their findings and the biographies they have written about each enslaved person. A ceremony will be held for the installation of each stone, attended by students, community members, and town officials.
The Witness Stones Project West Hartford gives both students and adults the opportunity to learn more about the town’s history, and to consider issues of race and bias that continue to plague our nation today. Programming related to the project will be designed to help encourage discussions about these difficult topics.
The presence of slavery in West Hartford’s history makes us face the complicated relationship between both owners and enslaved people, and consider issues of oppression, dehumanization, paternalism, agency, and resistance that the system of slavery invoked. The project asks us to acknowledge and bear witness to this system. By addressing the historical record, acknowledging injustice, naming the perpetrators, and honoring those who suffered under and resisted its grip, we can restore the history and honor the humanity and contributions of the enslaved individuals who helped build the community.