The Witness Stones Project is a K-12 educational initiative launched in Connecticut. Its mission is to “restore history and honor the humanity of the slaves who helped build our communities”.
As a former passionate eighth-grade history teacher, Dennis Culliton understands that each slave story is different, but just as important as the next. This prompted him to start the project, emulated after the Stolpersteine in Germany.
“I saw the power of this unknown story, this hidden story that was there in the archives that were there and who better than the students to tell that story,” Culliton said.
“Stolpersteine are stones you plant in the ground where Jews lived freely before they were kidnapped and murdered in the Holocaust,” he continued.
The first project was completed in Guilford in 2017.
Since then, there have been several witness stone ceremonies across the state, including Mansfield, New Haven, Hartford, West Hartford and Old Lyme where stones are already in place.
Some research into Connecticut’s slave history led Culliton to former State Representative Pat Pheanious.
She discovered that her ancestors had helped build Guilford.
“Dennis had passed down five generations to me that I knew nothing about,” Pheanious said.
“It’s like an American family story and it’s been an incredible gift that I’ve received,” she said.
So how do they even begin to tap into the unknown history of people who lived over 200 years ago?
“One of the best ways to start is to look on Ancestry, Ancestry took church indexes from many CT churches that were found at the state library and if you go to the church index it is listed alphabetically, but at the end of they list everyone without a last name,” Culliton said.
Last week, the program hosted an installation ceremony at the Central Hartford Church led by students from CREC’s Greater Hartford Area High School of the Arts.
Kaitlyn Oberndorfer is a history teacher there and is happy to be able to focus on more than the history of slavery in the South.
She said that while the information behind the names can sometimes be very brief, it captures the humanity of the lives dedicated to them.
She said children learn something new in their own backyard.
“They never knew just a mile from this school that we have real slaves buried so close to our site right here that they again felt they had a much more tangible understanding of the past,” said Oberndorfer.
In five years, the project has partnered with 86 schools and community institutions. It reached more than 7,500 middle and high school students in 45 communities in five states.
If you are interested in bringing the Witness Stones project to your community, visit their website.
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