WITNESS STONES PROJECT™
Through research, education, and civic engagement, the WITNESS STONES PROJECT seeks to restore the history and to honor the humanity and contributions of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities.
2022 marks the fifth installation of Witness Stones in West Hartford. Fifty brass plaques attached to stones in the ground mark the discovery, research, inquiry and commemoration carried out by students and community members.
The Witness Stones Project asks students to engage in analyzing and interpreting primary sources about enslaved individuals and to present that information to the public. These stones remind us of lives lived in bondage in this town.
The institution of slavery grew as the town grew, starting with the division of land among white property holders in Hartford in 1672. Stephen and Hannah Bushnell Hosmer, the son and daughter-in-law of Thomas Hosmer who built the first mill just north of present day American School for the Deaf, listed two enslaved people in his will in 1693. In the next 130 years, at least 30 enslavers held more than 80 people against their will. The first two ministers, Rev. Benjamin Colton (1713-1759) and Rev. Nathaniel Hooker (1759-1770) enslaved people.
While these first English settlers gained wealth by owning land, farming, and trading, they valued enslaved people second only to land in their wills, and passed them along to the next generation. This complicated story is part of what students learn in the curriculum as they focus on the story of one enslaved individual.
The Witness Stones Project West Hartford gives both students and adults (through online community sessions) the opportunity to learn more about the town’s history, and to consider issues of race and bias that continue to plague our nation and town 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, 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. John Whiting recorded some of the people he enslaved in his Account Book seen here.
The installation ceremony is part of the Juneteenth celebration in Blue Back Square. Students and adults tell the stories of those who have been found and honor their names. As of 2022, visit the 50 stones in the Old Center Cemetery on North Main Street.
The Witness Stones Project West Hartford is facilitated by retired history teachers Tracey Wilson, Liz Devine and retired media specialist Denise deMello 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. It is part of the Witness Stones Project™, begun in Guilford, CT in 2017.
John Whiting Account Book,
1716-1854, MS 95989 Oversize,
The Connecticut Historical Society.
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.