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The Witness Stones Project unearths and shares stories of northern slavery


The history of slavery has deep roots in New England, starting in the 1600s and peaking around the time of the Revolutionary War. But for centuries, stories of Northern slavery were not easy to find. Connecticut Public Radio's Diane Orson reports on new efforts to share these stories.

DIANE ORSON, BYLINE: We're inside a home built in the 1600s along coastal Connecticut, the Deacon John Grave House. The Grave family enslaved several people here. Today, middle school students are honoring an enslaved carpenter named Tome. Thirteen-year-old Maybeline Hladky reads from a poem she wrote.

MAYBELINE HLADKY: (Reading) You were a mason. You were a builder. You were a constructor. You were a foundation of Guilford. But were you a poet? Were you an artist?

ORSON: She and her classmates at the country school spent weeks studying historic materials, probate records, census info and newspaper articles to piece together the story of Tome's life. The most important document was the Grave family's own account book. It lists money the family earned by hiring Tome out to neighbors. Here's student Charlie Ogeneski.

CHARLIE OGENESKI: The first mention of Tome in the Graves account book was in 1682. From this, we can infer that Tome was born between 1660-1670 based on the kind of physical work he was doing at the time.

ORSON: The archival materials were provided by an educational program called the Witness Stones Project. Executive director Dennis Culliton is a former middle school history teacher.

DENNIS CULLITON: We work with teachers and students to restore the history and honor the humanity of enslaved individuals who helped build our communities. And we do it through research, education and civic engagement.

ORSON: Each project centers on one or two enslaved people. Harlyn Benetti led a program at the Compass School in Kingston, R.I. She says the class was surprised to find out they'd be studying archival documents from their own town.

HARLYN BENETTI: So students were familiar with the names of the streets, the names of the buildings...

ORSON: And the names of families. Benetti was teaching a group of white, Black and Indigenous students.

BENETTI: A lot of the names that we were hearing from colonial times was the names of last names in our class. And some of them were white people, some of them were Black people.

ORSON: Enslaved people often took on the last name of their enslaver. Adrienne Joy Burns is Witness Stones' outreach director.

ADRIENNE JOY BURNS: If a young person were to say to me - was this history my fault? - the answer to that question is no. Learning about this history is something that's going to be a benefit to you because it helps us to understand how we got here.

ORSON: About a hundred miles away in Longmeadow, Mass., Williams Middle School is starting its first Witness Stones Project. A local church reached out to teacher Tracy Bradshaw.

TRACY BRADSHAW: They discovered that Stephen Williams, our first minister of the first church, had enslaved 16 individuals. And they really wanted to find a way to honor members of our town that we had never talked about with our students.

PAM CANGEMI: And I'd like to add, too, our school's name is Williams Middle School. We are named after Reverend Stephen Williams.

ORSON: Teacher Pam Cangemi says the class will study Williams' own diary.

CANGEMI: Reverend Stephen Williams kept this diary for over 60 years where he clearly recorded his enslavement of individuals.

ORSON: Students will research Phillis, who was enslaved by Williams, and her husband, enslaved by someone else in town. Cangemi says the next few weeks may be painful.

CANGEMI: I think it's going to raise a lot of questions, especially when the parents and the students start to reflect on the fact that our namesake was a slaveholder.

ORSON: Each unit concludes with the installation of a small bronze plaque at a site where the enslaved person lived, worked or worshipped. The Witness Stones Project has reached more than 14,000 kids in five states.

For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in Connecticut.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diane Orson is CT Public Radio's Deputy News Director and Southern Connecticut Bureau Chief. For years, hers was the first voice many Connecticut residents heard each day as the local host of Morning Edition. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. She is the co-recipient of a Peabody Award. Her work has been recognized by the Connecticut Society for Professional Journalists and the Associated Press, including the Ellen Abrams Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism and the Walt Dibble Award for Overall Excellence.