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Witness Stones Ceremony Kicks off Juneteenth 2022 in West Hartford

Tracey Wilson speaks at the Witness Stones installation ceremony held as part of West Hartford's 2022 Juneteenth celebration. Photo credit: Lily Guberman

More than 100 people were in attendance for this year’s Witness Stones installation held in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square.

During a community educational program that was part of the Witness Stones, dirt from the land where some of the enslaved may have once worked and lived was collected. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Lily Guberman. Photos by Lily Guberman and Ronni Newton.

The weather celebrated along with the attendees as West Hartford’s Juneteenth celebration got underway midday Sunday in West Hartford with the installation of 14 more Witness Stones.

The arch in Blue Back square was decked out in black, red, green and yellow colored balloons and a banner commemorating the day was strung across the top. Leaders of the Witness Stones West Hartford project handed out 36 cards with the names of enslaved people for attendees to read aloud during the ceremony.

The Trinity College Afro Caribbean Drummers, led by Curtis Greenidge along with Asaad Jackson and Melissa Craig, welcomed attendees to the space and the event.

Trinity College Afro Caribbean Drummers at Witness Stones Ceremony. Photo Credit: Lily Guberman

Following their performance, Tracey Wilson, the town’s historian and one of the project directors of  Witness Stones West Hartford, gave her remarks about the research that goes into the project. “The part of the project that was most inspirational is working with students and teachers who analyze documents and amplify the stories through poetry, art, music and reflection,” she noted.

Wilson also spoke about remembering the enslaved people who heard they were free in 1865, how we celebrate the freedom and think about those who never got to experience it.

Community members recognize enslaved people at Witness Stones ceremony. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The names of 50 enslaved people – whose histories have been at least partially discovered through the Witness Stones project – were read aloud, including the 14 new names on the witness stones being dedicated at the event. The first 36 names were read by attendees circled around Blue Back Square, and the readers note which of the formerly enslaved had been freed. There were only 12.

Community members recognize enslaved people at Witness Stones ceremony. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The 14 for whom new Witness Stones are being installed had their names read along with their stories by students, teachers, and members of the community.

Mayor Shari Cantor presents witness stone at Witness Stones Ceremony. Photo Credit: Lily Guberman

Mayor Shari Cantor was the first to dedicate a Witness Stone with the story of Hagar, daughter of Hagar. After detailing part of Hagar’s history, she asked questions that no one can answer. “We wonder if either had learned how to read? We wonder what African traditions Hagar, the mother, passed to her daughter? We wonder if Hagar’s mother named her daughter Hagar?” These wonderments drew attention to the fact that there is so little information about the enslaved people who lived in West Hartford.

The new Witness Stones that were presented at the ceremony on Juneteenth will be installed in Old Center Cemetery. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Following Mayor Cantor, Conor McHugh, a student at King Philip Middle School shared a poem he wrote about Hagar (the mother):

“Hagar was a human, although she was never treated like it.

Greeted by many new owners, all there was to do was stay, resilient and block it all out.

Writing was a skill she taught herself.  Another was reading.

She was truly motivated, always remembered in our hearts.

Heroic is how I would describe Hagar, unaffected by the things she went through.

Making sure she was a good mother, always caring for her daughter.

Never looking back.”

State Rep. Tammy Exum also shared the story of an enslaved person, Lill’s Child. She detailed the child’s birth on Aug. 17, 1757, and shared her own questions about the child. “We wonder if their mother had the power to name the child?… We wonder about Lill’s child’s life after their mother died? We wonder if this person remained enslaved throughout childhood and adulthood?”

The speeches presented included what little information is known about the history of the enslaved person such as where they were born, the people that owned them and if they had any family members. Many also included similar wonderment about all the unknown parts of their lives, continuing to remind us that we know little about what really happened to them.

Dinah Road street sign unveiling at Juneteenth Witness Stones ceremony. Photo credit: Lily Guberman

Closing out the ceremony, Wilson addressed the renaming of New Street to Dinah Road, which was recently approved by the Town Council, and invited two of the students who petitioned for the change to say a few words. Sarah Granquist and Priya Sinha shared the story of Dinah and her daughter Dinah, and stated that “the name change is in order to honor Dinah’s voice and her daughter’s voice in town … [the sign] is a reminder of our complicated history that needs to be recognized in this town. It seeks to remember and honor Dinah as well as the many other enslaved people that lived in West Hartford.”

From left: Witness Stones West Hartford project leaders Tracey Wilson, Liz Devine, and Denise deMello. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Town Council member Adrienne Billings-Smith, organizer of West Hartford’s Juneteenth Celebration, introduces the Witness Stones project installation. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Community members recognize enslaved people at Witness Stones ceremony. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, chair of the West Hartford Board of Education, speaks about one of the formerly individuals who will have a Witness Stone installed in Old Center Cemetery. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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Lily Guberman

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