OLD LYME — Cato, Lewis Lewia, Humphrey, Caeser, Jack Howard, Jenny Freeman, Luce, Crusa, Nancy Freeman, Temperance Still, Jane, Pompey Freeman, Samuel Freeman, and Arabella — 14 African Americans who were once enslaved along what is now Lyme St.
Until recently, their history had been almost entirely unknown and untold, and few people knew the history of slavery in Connecticut.
“Know their names. Repeat their names after I say them,” said poet Marilyn Nelson to a large crowd on the lawn of the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library during a ceremony Friday morning to honor the installation of a Witness Stone for each individual near the house where they once lived on Lyme St.
The bronze and concrete markers are part of the Witness Stones Project, which was started in Guilford in 2018 by a former teacher, Dennis Culliton, who designed a curriculum for students to learn about the history of slavery as part of a goal to restore the history of enslaved people in those communities.
The ceremony included biographical poems written and read aloud by seventh grade students from Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School, who had researched the histories of two of the slaves, Jenny Freeman and Lewis Lewia.
“The reason why we chose middle school students was because they walk this street and we thought that is an incredibly powerful opportunity for them to be able to participate in historic research and then to actually know the enslaved people who are on the plaques. It’s powerful to walk the street and see the person’s name and say, ‘I’m connected to that person,’” said Michelle Dean, director of curriculum for Lyme-Old Lyme schools.
During the ceremony, Dean asked the audience to imagine the significance of the Witness Stones not only for the students but for the broader community.
“How powerful will it be for residents and visitors to walk the Witness Stones path along Lyme Street to Sill Lane and share the journey of 14 people and reflect? How powerful will it be for future generations to have a community that values human life, humanity and history?”
Pat Wilson Pheanious, of Guilford, who is a former state representative for District 53 and former state commissioner of social services, told the audience that Culliton and the Witness Stones Project at Adams Middle School in Guilford transformed her life when they uncovered her family’s history of enslavement.
“Dennis discovered me while researching the progeny of Montrose and Phyllis, two teenagers captured in Africa and brought to Guilford in 1727. He wound through seven generations to find the obituary of a Tuskegee Airman, my father Lt. Bertram Wilson, who died in 2002,” she said. “But it was on a sunny afternoon almost 16 years later, in 2018, when Dennis tracked me down and in a 90-minute phone call filled me in on six generations of my lost history.”
Wilson said previously she had traced her history back only as far as her great-grandparents, but then she learned her ancestors had been enslaved in Connecticut.
“The new knowledge changed the way I looked at myself and what I saw as my purpose and made me appreciate my place in the history of this country. I am the ninth of 11 generations of an American family. Knowing this gives me a sense of belonging, ownership and entitlement not just to a family legacy, but to this nation,” she said.
Carolyn Wakeman, a historian in Old Lyme, told the audience that as a seventh grader in Old Lyme she did not learn that African Americans had played an important role in our town’s history and “had contributed significantly through their involuntary labor to the wealth, status and influence of the town’s prominent families.”
“I had no idea that enslaved people had labored on Lyme Street until I started working in the local archives a decade ago,” she said.
Through research she discovered that Richard Ely, who bought a 3,000-acre farm along the Connecticut River where Ely’s Ferry is now located, brought the first documented African captives to Lyme before 1670.
“That date may not mean much to you in isolation but the town was only named Lyme in 1667, only three years earlier, which means that slavery was embedded in our history from the time of the town’s founding,” she said.
In the historic town of Lyme, which included Lyme, Old Lyme, and parts of East Lyme and Salem, there were more than 200 enslaved African Americans and Native Americans between 1670 and 1820, according to Witness Stones Old Lyme.
Wakeman said the Witness Stones project will continue for at least four more years and will include programs to involve the community, ongoing instruction in the schools, more research, expanding Witness Stones Old Lyme, and placing more stones throughout the community.
Poet Antoinette Brim-Bell, who read one of her poems during the ceremony, said afterward that she was excited to hear children and residents in Old Lyme talk about the town’s formerly enslaved people.
“It’s not a hidden history anymore. Now they know and they have the opportunity to do more research and they have time to reflect. Now it belongs to the community, so it’s a shared history,” she said.
She said her poem was about giving voice to enslaved people of Old Lyme, which involved learning about the history of the 14 individuals who were being honored.
“I have felt the weight of measuring out every word, trying to make what I say give value to them and to celebrate them but still deal with the true history. It’s a labor of love and it’s taken a lot of reflection and a lot of time and a lot of “sitting with yourself,” as my grandmother would say. I did a lot of that so that I could sit with Cesar, Arabella and the others.”
The ceremony included poet Rhonda Ward, who also read a poem from poet Kate Rushin who could not attend. Soloist Lisa Williamson performed “Amazing Grace” and “Deep River.” Speakers included Katie Huffman, director of the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, Rebekah Beaulieu, director of the Florence Griswold Museum, Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, and First Selectman Tim Griswold. The Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School Chorus opened and closed the ceremony with several songs.