Witness Stone Project Remembers Forgotten Conn. Slaves

NBC Connecticut

The Witness Stones Project is a K-12 educational initiative started in Connecticut. Its mission is to “restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved people who helped build our communities.”

As a former eighth grade history teacher with a passion for the past, Dennis Culliton understands each story of an enslaved person is different, but equally as important as the next. It drove him to start the project, emulated after the Stolpersteine in Germany.

“I saw the power of this unknown history, this hidden history that was there in the archives that was sitting there and whom better than the students to tell that story," Culliton said.

“Stolpersteine are stones you put in the ground where Jews lived freely before they were kidnapped and murdered during the holocaust,” he continued.

The first project was completed in Guilford in 2017.

Since then, there have been several witness stone ceremonies all throughout the state, including Mansfield, New Haven, Hartford, West Hartford and Old Lyme have where stones are already in place.

Some of research into Connecticut’s slave history led Culliton to former State Rep. Pat Pheanious.

She found out her ancestors contributed to the building of Guilford.

“Dennis had handed me five generations I knew nothing about," Pheanious said.

“It's like an American family history and it’s an amazing gift that I was given,” she said.  

So how do they even begin to tap into unknown history of people who lived well over 200 years ago?

“One of the great ways of starting is looking on Ancestry, Ancestry has taken church indexes from many of the CT churches that have been found at the state library and if you go to the church index, it's listed alphabetically, but at the end of it, they list all people without surnames," Culliton said.

Last week, the program had an installation ceremony at Hartford’s Center Church led by students at CREC Greater Hartford Area Arts High School.

Kaitlyn Oberndorfer is a history teacher there and is happy she’s able to focus on more than just the history of slavery in the South. 

She said while information behind the names can at times be very brief, they happen to capture the humanity of the lives dedicated to them.

She said the kids are learning something new in their own backyard.

“They never knew only a mile from this school that we have actual enslaved people buried so close to our site right here they again felt they had a much more tangible grasp on the past," Oberndorfer said.

In five years, the project has partnered with 86 schools and community institutions. It has reached more than 7,500 middle and high school students in 45 communities across five states.

 If you are interested in bringing the Witness Stones Project to your community, visit their website.

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