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Restoring History: 8th Graders share untold story of enslavement

Since October, members of the Class of 2020 have been researching the history of enslavement in Madison, working with Dennis Culliton of the Witness Stones project to piece together the untold story of a woman named Lettuce who was enslaved and later freed in East Guilford, now Madison, during the mid-to-late 18th century. Students have explored deeds, wills, and other primary and secondary source documents found in local archives to research Lettuce and attempt to paint a picture of her life in and honor her contributions to the town of Madison.

Later this spring, a brass Witness Stones memorial will be installed on the green in front of the First Congregational Church of Madison, near where Lettuce lived, worked, and raised her family. Stay tuned for details. 

This six-month project, made possible by a grant from Teaching Tolerance, has involved civic engagement, with 8th Graders reaching out to local officials to gain their support for the project; months of research and interpretation; writing, including nonfiction, poetry, and fiction; art; music; and the creation of a Country School Witness Stones project website (still in formation but coming soon).  

Exploring documents in the probate court.

Civic engagement at a Board of Selectmen meeting.

 

The undertaking has not been easy. Records for the region's enslaved individuals are scant, and many of them are handwritten and more than 200 years old. Students have had to learn to decipher fading script and to interpret language that is very different from what we might see today. In addition to missing data, they have found inconsistencies, such is different spellings of the same name, leaving them to make inferences about some of the people and events in Lettuce's life and educated guesses about others, based on what they have learned was common practice at the time.

During the installation ceremony, students will share poetry, fiction, and artwork inspired by Lettuce's life. One student has also written a song to honor and remember Lettuce and her family.  

Student work on visual representations of Lettuce's story. 

To learn more about the Country School Witness Stones project, check out these articles in the local press:

Country School Students Take in Poetry as They Begin to Research Slavery in Madison, from The Source. This article focuses on a visit from Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, a poet who visited campus to share poetry he wrote about researching his enslaved ancestors. Mr. McDuffie-Thurmond also led a creative writing workshop for students and advised some of them as they wrote their own poems. He will be one of the speakers at the installation ceremony on April 2.

Country School Students Seek to Research, Honor Lives of Local Enslaved Persons, from The Source. This article includes an interview with Dennis Culliton, co-founder of the Witness Stones Project and our advisor for the Country School Witness Stones exploration. It focuses on the scope of the project for Country School students and features their appearance before Madison's Board of Selectmen.

Rev. Todd Vetter, senior minister at the First Congregational Church, which has kindly offered to host the installation ceremony, has also written about the project. The following is an excerpt from the February issue of the church's Meetinghouse News:

The enslavement of Africans in America is not a distant reality for New Englanders, despite our support for abolition. The first two Ministers of our church owned slaves. These unnamed men and women lived here. It is possible some were baptized into our church. And yet, their stories remain unknown and untold to most of us. In an effort to tell their stories, a group of 8th graders at the Country School are involved in a Witness Stone Project, which involves research into local archives to determine who these enslaved people were, where they lived and how we were a part of Madison’s early history. As part of their research, they spent time with Marilyn Johnson in our own church archives and met with members of our Church Board to determine how we might participate in their work. Their research will conclude with the planting of a Witness Stone commemorating the life of an enslaved person named Lettuce. The Board voted to approve the planting on the grounds of the church. ...

Witness is an important word for Christians. It speaks of our desire to tell stories about how God is present and active in the world, and how we have experienced that activity in our own lives. Bearing witness is often an expression of hope, perhaps for healing or transformation, or for forgiveness and wholeness, for peace and justice. In this case, bearing witness allows for stories long-neglected and lives long-forgotten to breathe again, and for all of us to learn and embrace the broader truth of our own stories as well.

More information is also available in these Country School blogs:

Bearing Witness After the Fact: Seeking untold stories

Witness Stones Project

The Country School Witness Stones team is grateful to Dennis Culliton, Teaching Tolerance, the First Congregational Church of Madison, the Madison Board of Selectmen, the Madison Historical Society, and the Madison Probate Court for their assistance with and support of this project. We also thank poet Jumoke-McDuffie Thurmond and Tim Smith, writer and editor, for their invaluable advice about writing poetry and narratives using primary and secondary source documents. Thank you, as well, to Alastair Clements '08 for assistance with the creation of the student website. 

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