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Witness Stones Project: How Do We Remember West Hartford’s Past?

Jude is one of the slaves who lived in West Hartford and is now memorialized with a Witness Stone. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society will hosts a public reception about the project on June 5.

Dr. Tracey Wilson speaks with students and others at Old Center Cemetery when stones for Jude and George were installed in October 2018. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

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Did you know that at least 25 slaveholders enslaved more than 62 people in West Hartford from the 1690s to the 1820s?

Bristow, Caesar, Hannibal, Hercules, Simone, Pompey, Ben, Page, Prut, and Chris are people who were enslaved here in our community, but have been absent in West Hartford’s recorded history … until now.

Through research, education, and civic engagement, the Witness Stones project seeks to restore the history and to honor the humanity and contributions of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities. The Witness Stones project is modeled after the Stolpersteine (stumbling) stones that commemorate those who died in the Holocaust with over 70,000 stones in 22 countries across Europe. In West Hartford, the project is teaching students about Connecticut’s slave holding past and commemorating enslaved individuals whose stories have not previously been told. In 2018, the first Witness Stones for Jude and George were installed.

This school year, eighth-graders in all three West Hartford public middle schools, fifth-graders at Renbrook School, sixth- and seventh-graders at Solomon Schechter Day School, 10th-graders at Conard High School, and 11th-graders at Kingswood Oxford School studied enslaved people who lived in what was then known as the West Division of Hartford and is today West Hartford. Using church records, wills, inventories, account books, genealogies, and gravestones, students are writing the story of enslaved people into the history of our town.

The Witness Stones Project provides students a chance to learn about West Hartford and write the public history of the town. The research, teacher professional development, and in-class instruction has been led by Town Historian Tracey Wilson, retired history teacher Liz Devine, and Library Media Specialist Denise DeMello.

There will be several opportunities for the public to participate in the Witness Stones Project and to learn more about the effort.

On May 14, students from Renbrook School will be presenting a case at the West Hartford Town Council Meeting to add the name of ‘Prut’ (who died at Fort Ticonderoga) to the Revolutionary War Monument in the Veteran’s Memorial. The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. in in the Legislative Chamber, Room 314, West Hartford Town Hall, 50 South Main St., West Hartford.

The public is invited to three Witness Stones installation ceremonies. All ceremonies will take place at First Church, 12 South Main St., West Hartford, where select students will present the research they have conducted. Participants will then walk to Old Center Cemetery on North Main Street in West Hartford, where a stone will be placed memorializing each individual researched. The first installation ceremony is on Wednesday, May 29, at 9:30 a.m. with students from Bristow Middle School, Conard High School, and Solomon Schechter School. The second installation ceremony is on Thursday, May 30, at 9:30 a.m. with students from King Philip Middle School. The final ceremonies are on Friday, May 31, at 9:30 a.m. with students from Sedgwick Middle School and at 11:30 a.m. with students from Renbrook and Kingswood Oxford Schools. On all dates, members of the Hartford Steel Band will accompany participants from the church to the cemetery.

On Wednesday, June 5, at 6 p.m., the public is invited to attend a presentation about the Witness Stones Project at the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, 227 South Main St., West Hartford. Elizabeth Devine and Dr. Tracey Wilson, the co-directors of the project, will share information about Witness Stones West Hartford. Students who have participated in the project will share their knowledge about the enslaved people they studied and will share what their experience has been working on the project. The presentation will be followed by a reception sponsored by Thrivent Financial.

For more information visit https://sites.google.com/view/westhartfordctwitnessstones/home or contact the project co-directors at [email protected] or [email protected].

This project is funded in part by the Connecticut Humanities Council, the West Hartford Public Schools, the Noah Webster House, and several individual donors.

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2 Comments

  • Great article, thanks for drawing the town’s attention to this! Small correction: the Friday, May 31st ceremony with KO and Renbrook is at 11:30, not 9:30. Thanks!

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