“Only by coming to terms with history can we free ourselves to create a more just world.”
—Drew Gilpin Faust, President Emerita, Harvard University
These words embody the underlying motivation of the Witness Stones Project. In order for our communities to grow to the extent to which they reflect our ideals of justice and equality, it is essential for us to acknowledge and confront the painful times in our history when we have not lived up to those ideals. Through remembrance and reconciliation, we will be able to navigate a path toward healing and growth. It is with this in mind that the Witness Stones Project seeks to restore the history, and honor the humanity and contributions of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities.
Inspired by the Stolpersteine project in Germany (and with their blessing), the Witness Stones Project began in Guilford, Connecticut, in 2017. Our mission is to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities.
We do this work through teacher workshops, engagement with students and members of our community, and, finally, memorializing enslaved individuals through the placement of markers in our communities.
The core of the project is helping middle and high school students explore the history of slavery in their own communities. The students explore the lives of enslaved individuals through primary source documents, including account books, wills and probate inventories, church and town records, indenture contracts, manumission deeds, obituaries, and other surviving archival artifacts. The Project’s teacher training workshops familiarize educators with accessing these primary source materials and facilitating student analysis.
With the proper framing and interrogation, these documents from centuries ago come alive in the twenty-first century classroom. Students are able to identify the dehumanization and paternalism of slavery; the economic and legal framework that supported slavery; and, the agency, resistance, and contributions of the enslaved to our local and national history. They create biographical sketches of the forgotten enslaved men, women, and children from their town. They share those stories through art, poetry, essays, and films.
Finally, the students bring their community together to remember the enslaved through the installation of Witness Stones, a permanent brass marker that memorializes an enslaved person where he/she lived, worked, or worshipped. These public ceremonies bring together students, faculty, administrators, clergy, historians, public officials, and the larger community. Through oration, poetry, and music, they remember and honor those who were enslaved. Our hope that the students’ work and the public memorials inspire communities to learn their true history, dismantle current inequities, and build a just future.