By Lorrain Connelly
Last Wednesday, the Wallingford Public Library sponsored workshop facilitators from the Witness Stones Project, Executive Director Dennis Culliton and Director of Operations Liz Lightfoot, who shared with attendees their award-winning curriculum on slavery in New England, and more specifically in Wallingford.
Facilitators discussed the colonial era and early American economy and its ties to the West Indian slave trade. They also shared archival evidence and research gathered by slavery scholar Chris Menapace that tell the story of Dick Freedom, a Black Revolutionary War soldier enslaved in Wallingford by Moses Royce.
Last year, the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust received a matching grant from the Cuno Foundation as well as a Connecticut Humanities SHARP Capacity Grant in support of its ongoing project, “Enslaved Wallingford: The Missing Chapter of Our American Narrative.” This Sunday, as the town observes Juneteenth and kicks off week-long events for its Wallingford 350+2 Jubilee, “Enslaved Wallingford” will become a permanent exhibit at the Trust’s Nehemiah Royce House where the dedication of Wallingford’s first witness stone in honor of Dick Freedom will be held at 3:00 p.m.
A Witness Stone is a simple marker acknowledging the history and humanity of those enslaved individuals who helped build our communities. Presently, there are more than 125 witness stones in all eight counties in Connecticut with the program now expanding to towns in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
What a milestone this is for a town that in 2000 received national notoriety as the lone holdout among the state’s 169 municipalities to observe the Martin Luther King Day holiday. At the time Mayor William Dickinson insisted the King holiday controversy was not about race, but a dispute with the town’s labor unions. Regrettably, Wallingford has been slow to acknowledge its complicated history with enslavement and race.
Liz Lightfoot, a researcher for witness stones, knows firsthand just how complex family history can be. She is a descendant of one of Wallingford’s founding fathers, Abraham Doolittle (1620 – 1690). By 1790, the Doolittles were listed as slaveholders in census records. A former reporter, Lightfoot says she has always been interested in stories, especially those involving histories and voices we don’t typically know about or hear. After learning about witness stones work in neighboring Guilford, she and a colleague from The Country School in Madison, applied for a Learning for Justice grant to embark on slavery research. Teachers and students researched records relating to an enslaved girl named Lettuce Bailey, and her mother, Tamar. This year they’ve focused on an enslaved man named Theophilus Niger and were able to place a witness stone in his memory at Horse Pond Park in Madison last month.
Lightfoot learned about her own familial connection to enslavement through a young African-Amercian poet, Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, who based his thesis work at Wesleyan University on research into his enslaved ancestors. His poem, “Song for My Mother” appeared in the student publication The Ankh, in 2016. McDuffie-Thurmond discovered a European male blood relative who was born in Connecticut and moved to Edgefield, South Carolina, where his ancestors were enslaved. It turned out that the man’s last name was Doolittle. Lightfoot is descended from Abraham Doolittle’s son, Joseph, and McDuffie-Thurmond is descended from his son, Samuel — the two eldest sons from Abraham Doolittle’s second marriage.
Here they were, descendants of a shared heritage — both a blessing and a burden — brought together by fate 300 years later. Says McDuffie-Thurmond, Culture & Equity Coordinator at Pace Gallery in New York, “American society has refused to engage with the reality of enslavement,” adding, “enslavement is not just a chapter of our story, but rather it is the Book itself and its binding.” Rather than attempting to find a redemptive narrative, he says, “I’m more interested in what happens when we engage with the root problem and how it transforms our personal lives in the present.”
He explains, “History is about a group of individuals making choices in time. As educators in white communities, we must ask ourselves and our students, Who do we want to be? How do we want to fuel positive social actions?”
Says Lightfoot, “It’s been eye-opening (and transformative) to learn about not just my personal history, but the fact that so much of New England’s wealth grew directly or indirectly from the institution of slavery. If we are ever going to make progress toward true equality and justice, a starting point must be acknowledging and truly understanding our country’s complete history.”
A witness stone in Wallingford is a starting point for this understanding, but as McDuffie-Thurmond’s poetry reminds us, it’s not the stones, but the rustling trees of memory that tell the fuller story: “The trees have not forgotten the crimes committed against you. Their branches are eyes that extend beyond the years of my birth. Their longevity stands testament to the fact that you lived as a human being. They vibrate with your presence. They sing your song and so shall I. Mother, my voice shall be your voice. This tongue will speak your truth.”
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and director of operations at the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust.