On June 7 th, 2022, seventh graders from Woodstock Middle School shared evidence and insights about slavery in the dedication ceremony of a Witness Stone for a young man named Caesar, who was born enslaved in 1784 and raised with three other young men, Cit, Simon, and Prince in the Samuel McClellan home. In 1803, Caesar self-emancipated and his name never appears again in the Woodstock records.
The Woodstock Education Foundation and The Last Green Valley granted seventh grade English teacher, Christine Carter, and social studies teacher, Kyra Lit Schauer funds to research and place a Witness Stone in Woodstock. The Witness Stones Project™, “is a K-12 educational initiative whose mission is to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities. The project provides archival research, professional teacher development, a classroom curriculum, and public programming to help students discover and chronicle the local history of slavery. The final component of the work in each community is the placement of Witness Stone Memorials, permanent landscape markers that honor enslaved individuals where they lived, worked, or worshiped. The award-winning program has spread to over eighty-six communities in five states and is rapidly growing throughout the Northeast from New Jersey to Maine.
The dedication ceremony, which took place at Roseland Park Amphitheater, included the flag ceremony and Pledge of Allegiance led by: Brendan Wright, Jacob Twordzidlo, Blake Kudzal and Blake Robida, of Woodstock Boy Scout Troop # 27. The Reverend Kevin Downer of First Church of Woodstock opened the ceremony with an invocation. First Selectman, Jay Swan, and Viktor Toth, Superintendent of Woodstock Schools gave remarks, commending the students for their hard work and dedication.
The following students read excerpts from their essays about Caesar: Robert Graham, Brayden Bottone, Lorelai Fish, Bella Stilltano, Kelsey McNeil, Maylie Ganias, and Brendan Lund. Izzy Crowly and Brendan Wright read Poems about Caesar. It was apparent through the student essays and poems that they learned about Woodstock history on their journey to uncover Caesar’s life. While examining primary sources, students gained a snapshot of the economy, industries, agricultural practices, the thriving commerce of South Woodstock, and Samuel McClellan’s contributions to Woodstock and the Revolutionary War, giving context to Caesar’s experience.
It’s not easy to find the stories of enslaved Africans who lived and worked in Northeast Connecticut. Vital records, land records, wills, and probate records from the time of slavery in the 18 th century left a scant trail behind those who were enumerated as “negro male or female” in census data or merely mentioned as possessions in wills, such as “my negro man Cuff”. And yet, students found evidence of their existence and the reality that even the smallest of New England towns were complicit in African slave trade whether they liked it or not.
Dennis Culliton, co-founder of The Witness Stones Project, introduced keynote speaker, Pat Wilson Pheanious, chair of the Witness Stones Project BOD. Ms. Pheanious, former State Representative from Ashford, and the daughter of a Tuskegee Airman, remarked on how empowering it was for her to learn from the Witness Stone research in Guilford, her ancestors’ place in American History. By saying their names, Pheanious felt for the first time that she belonged to America as much as anyone else.
At the end of the ceremony, the Woodstock Middle School Chorus performed “We Shall Overcome,” conducted by Maria Wood. The students continued to sing the song while walking from Roseland Park to the Witness Stone site at the McClellan House where owner, Kevin Lewis, welcomed the group to unveil the stone where Caesar once lived. The Reverend Kevin Downer gave a benediction that reminded students of the higher purpose of their project. He asked the whole group to repeat the following words:
I am somebody. You are somebody. And now, in the spirit of the Witness Stone Project, join me as we declare that Everybody is somebody!
The Reverend Downer went on to challenge the students who were part of the Witness Stones Project to share their experience with others so that we might have a “more hopeful, sustainable future.
According to teacher, Christine Carter, “students were very interested in discovering elements of Woodstock history that they did not know before. They felt a kinship with Caesar in his desire to be out from under the paternalism of enslavement as they dream of also growing up and having more choices. I am grateful to have been part of this project, and I hope it will continue to bring community members together”