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Enlightening. Frustrating. Important. Difficult. Cool. Groundbreaking.
Students share their impressions of the Witness Stones Project
Last week, 8th Graders began digging into wills, deeds, birth, marriage, and death records, and other primary source documents found in local archives to formulate a narrative about Lettuce, an enslaved woman who lived and died in East Guilford, Connecticut (what is now Madison) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As they attempt to decipher the documents and write about Lettuce's life as part of the Witness Stones Project, we asked students to share their impressions of the project so far.
Students examine digitized versions of records related to the life of Lettuce.
Their answers speak to both the difficulty and importance of telling Lettuce's story, who died 200 years ago at around the age of 55, leaving at least four children but very few records of the actual life she led. As an enslaved woman, her name (spelled both Lettuce — pronounced Luh-toose — and Lettice in the records) makes only brief and infrequent appearances in the primary source documents students have found. They are hoping to be able to discover more details about her life, legacy, and the circumstances of her emancipation in the coming weeks as they continue their exploration.
"It's enlightening — so many details are missing that it's frustrating, but it also feels nice to do this work, because no one else is doing it," one student said. "On the other hand, you have to be ready to be wrong because no one has done it."
Lettuce, who students believe was born around 1765 and died in 1820, was freed by her owner, the Rev. Jonathan Todd, on his deathbed. Students are still trying to figure out the circumstances, but it appears Lettuce was actually freed twice, first by Rev. Todd and then a few years later by his nephew and heir, also called Jonathan Todd.
Dennis Culliton, co-founder of the Witness Stones Project, is facilitating the project, working with history teacher Heather Butler and English teacher Kristin Liu. As they attempt to learn more about Lettuce's history, Mr. Culliton has been counseling students to "read against the grain" — or to analyze the primary and secondary source documents in the context of the time they were written while also bringing their contemporary understanding to the analysis. What are the contradictions? How does the text reflect the historical, political, and economic realities of the time period? What can be deduced about the keepers of the records and about those whose information is being recorded?
As they reflected on the work so far, students shared some observations.
What it means to have this opportunity to do the work of historians:
"I think it's cool. In a lot of classes we're just taking notes or doing homework on stuff that's been discovered already, and with this we're discovering and doing the work itself."
"For me personally, I hope to find a lot of background history about Lettuce – as much as we can about her, about what she did. I like this detective work."
A comment about the teamwork this process requires:
"We had to learn [the details] for ourselves, at our own pace, and then we help the entire class understand."
What makes this project fun, exciting, and meaningful:
"I like this whole thing – finding and telling Lettuce's story. We have some missing parts to it and we need to find those."
"I think it's really interesting and cool how we're doing this, and I really enjoy doing it. It's detective work and it's really satisfying when you figure something out."
"I like the excitement of being able to work on something that is unknown. We're doing work that if anyone else did do it in the past, the research is not present. And I think that says something and I think it's really been fun to work on the enigma of Lettuce's life."
"One path leads to a different path."
"It's kind of like a video game. .... You go a ton of different routes and you can go one of two paths. You go one way and you figure out that there are more paths, and you keep going and you keep going and you keep going. Then you have to connect the paths. I haven't finished the game yet."
About the challenges and rewards of this research:
"I like how it all comes together with the family — when you see the connection. I don't like it when I don't see it."
"It's difficult but we also know that it's really important and it's a step up from anything else that we're doing."
"It's hard because we have to go through a bunch of documents that are hard to read and almost illegible because of the cursive. It's like putting the pieces together – it's like a big puzzle."
"Sometimes we end up with more question marks than we started with, but that may be because we found something else that makes us ponder and wonder."
How it feels to be doing groundbreaking work:
"We are the first people to tell Lettuce's story."
"I think it's important, and I'm looking forward to see what the whole story ends up being like at the end. I think it's important because we're starting something and other grades will follow."
"I think it's cool that we're the only ones doing the research on this person right now. No one else has the research and information. I feel like if someone else wants to do it we are the people they'd come to. We are the experts."
"We have the chance to uncover people's stories that are untold and we're making it possible to know those stories."
"I think it's cool how we're bringing out her story. We're not bringing her back to life but at the same time, we're making her a little more known because she didn't get that [during her own lifetime]."
How this project may have changed their understanding of history:
"Looking back on the past becomes more interesting, because you see how the events connect and how the entire economy depended on slavery, even if you thought it was immoral."
The Witness Stones Project at The Country School is being made possible by a grant from Teaching Tolerance. Eighth Grade history and English students began the project this fall, visiting local archives to understand how to find primary source documents and then meeting with town and church leaders to share their plans for the project and gain their support. Working with Mr. Culliton, they learned how to decipher archival documents, while considering themes such as dehumanization, paternalism, the economics of slavery, and resistance and agency.
Meeting with the Madison Board of Selectmen after making a presentation at a Selectmen's meeting.
Researching records in the Madison Probate Court.
A record found by an archivist at the First Congregational Church of Guilford.
In December, Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, a poet who has written about researching his enslaved ancestors, visited campus to share his poetry and talk about what it was like for him to sift through archives in order to uncover his family history. He also shared suggestions about ways students could write about their research without attempting to speak on Lettuce's behalf (read more).
Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond talks with students about his poetry.
Once they have learned as much about Lettuce as they can from the archives, students will write narratives or poetry and produce other tributes to commemorate her life and honor her contributions to our town. On April 2, a permanent brass marker will be placed near the church where Rev. Todd served as minister. Lettuce's marker, or Witness Stone, will call on all of us to reflect on our past as we work to shape a more just future.
A memorial installed in Guilford by the Witness Stones Guilford Committee. The memorials, and the project, are inspired by the Stolpersteine Project in Germany, which honors and commemorates Jews and others who lost their lives during the Holocaust.