Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society to Lead Workshops on History of Slavery

Retired educators (from left) Denise deMello, Elizabeth Devine, and Town Historian Tracey Wilson. Photo credit: Lisa Brisson (we-ha.com file photo)

The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society has received an Access Grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and will be leading workshops to to help others uncover the history of slavery in towns throughout the area.

Noah Webster House. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

By Ronni Newton

Residents of some Connecticut towns, including West Hartford, have recently undertaken the journey of uncovering their own history of slavery, and with the support of an Access Grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society will be leading a series of workshops designed to help other historical societies and community groups with their own research.

“The museum is honored to be chosen as the recipient of an Access Grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving,” said Jennifer DiCola Matos, executive director of the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society. “We are looking forward to offering the ‘Uncovering the Hidden History in Your Town’ program to other towns to help shift the narrative of colonial history to dismantle structural racism.”

Including these additional elements of history – colonial stories that may not have been previously known or acknowledged – is an important first step, Matos said. “The hope is that after the program, historical societies will feel better prepared and have actionable plans to learn more about how to address the legacy of discrimination in their own towns,” she said.

Tracey Wilson, Liz Devine, and Denise deMello – historians and retired educators who have had extensive experience researching the town’s history of slavery and freedom and developing curriculum – have been hired to lead the workshops. In addition to uncovering the history of those who were enslaved in West Hartford, their work has led to the placement of markers and amendment of the Veterans Memorial, and has contributed to the installation of the striking and highly visible MLK39 mural on the exterior of the main branch of the library and the renaming of the town’s green and a local roadway.

From left: Sara Granquist, Priya Sinha, Town Historian Tracey Wilson, Teen Services Librarian Kari Karp, and Tziyona Goldfischer collect signatures outside the Noah Webster branch of the West Hartford Public Library in order to get the Town Council to consider renaming New Street. Their efforts were successful and the roadway was renamed Dinah Road to honor a formerly enslaved woman and her daughter. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

Five teams, located in the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving’s 29-town region, will be chosen to participate in the first learning cohort of the program, and they will attend three half-day workshops at the Noah Webster House on Feb. 23, March 22, and May 10, 2023. A short application is due by Jan. 9, and notice will be made to participants by Jan. 13. More information and a link for the online application can be found here. A copy of the flyer can be found as a PDF below, and those interested can also email Amy Boulton at [email protected].

According to the description of the program, workshop participants will learn to conduct research on colonial era history through primary source documents like probate records and account books. They will discuss how to address the legacies of discrimination and how to educate and engage, sharing the information with their community.

As part of the program, each cohort member will also receive a half day of independent consulting at their own site, which will help assess and interpret the information unique to that town.

The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving announced in November the awarding of 11 Access Grants, chosen from among 59 applications. Nearly $420,000 in grants was awarded in the most recent round, and the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Society received $30,125 for this program. The description of the grant is: “Addressing the legacy of discrimination: making slavery and freedom part of local colonial stories: Working with historical societies to shift narratives of town histories, update town/church records, and devise action plans to share an inclusive and truthful history.”

The name of Prut, a formerly enslaved man in West Hartford, has been engraved on the Revolutionary War memorial at the Connecticut Veterans Memorial in West Hartford Center. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The Access Grants were launched in 2021 by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and to date more than $1.8 million has been awarded to 52 nonprofits to support the organization’s “strategic priorities to dismantle structural racism and increase social and economic mobility for Black and Latinx residents of Greater Hartford.”

“We welcome new approaches and new partners whose work contributes to our strategic goals,” Hartford Foundation Direct of Community Impact Grantmaking Megan Burke said in a statement. “Access Grants are one way the Foundation seeks to identify these approaches and partners and to gather input from the community. The grants recommended here all offered a strong articulation of how their proposed efforts would make a significant contribution to dismantling structural racism in Greater Hartford.”

The Access Grant will heavily subsidize the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society program. The cost to participate will be $500 per 2-4 member team.

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