“Only by coming to terms with history can we free ourselves to create a more just world.” – Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s twenty-eighth president, at The Universities and Slavery: Bound by History Conference at Harvard University on March 3, 2017.
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),Dennis Culliton (teacher), Doug Nygren (family counselor and German scholar), and Cindy Kozal (activist) came together in 2017 in Guilford, CT to develop a way to use research unearthed by Culliton, to tell the truth of Northern slavery and to change the local historical narrative. We believed that it was important to first start in Guilford, CT where they resided and where their children were educated or miseducated about the North’s role in the ownership of enslaved persons and the profits derived from slavery. With a growing list of contributors, the Witness Stones Project created an educational activity in less than nine months, engaged 300 students in the curriculum and installed three Witness Stones memorials to remember the lives and humanity of Phillis, Moses, and Candice. The Witness Stones Committee formed with the Guilford Preservation Alliance as its fiscal sponsor with the intent to created a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit as the project spread to new communities.
In the summer of 2018, the first Witness Stones teachers’ workshop was presented to educators from three new communities spreading the project to students in new parts of the state of Connecticut. As of January 2020, over 1,600 students, from eight schools, and four communities have engaged the curriculum with nineteen Witness Stones memorials installed. In August 2019, Witness Stones Project, Inc. became a nonprofit corporation while the Witness Stones Committee, now known as Witness Stones Guilford, remained part of the Guilford Preservation Alliance.
“We bear witness by installing a marker that recalls an enslaved individual at a site of significance, such as where they lived, worked, or prayed. We cannot change the past, but we can, through this project, give a voice to the voiceless by uncovering their stories. We partner with local schools and historical societies to assist students in researching the history of an enslaved individual from their community and reconstructing the memory of that person through the written record. Ultimately the students, along with the community, will install a commemorative Witness Stone (memorial).” – Cindy Kozal, Witness Stones Co-Founder
The Witness Stones are created using cement and bronze reflecting the inspiration of the Stolpersteine. Upon the bronze cap is engraved the name of the enslaved individual, together with their trade, and whether they were emancipated or died enslaved with corresponding dates.
What we learn about the individual, through the students’ research, is shared at the ceremony for the installation of the Witness Stone, published in a commemorative pamphlet, and archived on our website. Ultimately, we hope for this to become a digital library of the research, knowledge, and memory that we acquire through this project.
We welcome your feedback and input.