OLD LYME — A slave named Cornelia was bought in New London for 80 pounds; Hagar Jeffrey ran away at the age of 38; and Prince Griswold Crosley, a soldier and mariner who played the fiddle, served in the American Revolution in exchange for his freedom.
These enslaved people, and five others, now have plaques honoring them in a grassy triangle in the Black Hall section of Old Lyme, thanks to the town’s chapter of the Witness Stones Project. The eight, who were all owned by members of the Griswold family, labored in the town during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Witness Stones Project, originally developed by Guilford resident Dennis Culliton, is modeled after the Stolpersteine of Berlin, a series of “stumbling stones” placed around the city in remembrance of the Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The project has spread to multiple towns across Connecticut, as well as to New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Katie Huffman, director of the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, told community members at a Friday ceremony that, between 1670 and 1826, over 200 enslaved and indentured African Americans and Native Americans lived in what are now the towns of Lyme and Old Lyme, and parts of East Lyme and Salem.
The ceremony also included talks from historians and genealogists, a reading from Connecticut Poet Laureate Antoinette Brim Bell, who has written poetry about the individuals memorialized in the Witness Stones Project, several songs performed by high schoolers and the reading of original poems written by middle school students.
Of the eight slaves commemorated on the plaques, one, a Native American man named George, was indentured to Matthew Griswold. Two others – a boy named Neptune and a woman named Phyllis – were owned by John Griswold, a prominent judge in New London. John’s brother, the first minister of the East Parish in Lyme, bought Cornelia in 1730. John Griswold’s son Thomas passed down an enslaved man named Jack Freeman to his daughter in 1770; and his other son, Gov. Matthew Griswold, owned Crosley and his parents, York and Eunice Crosley.
“This is a tangled story in which families of the enslaved and the enslavers intertwined, but the circumstances of those enslaved in Black Hall and throughout the historic town of Lyme allow us more broadly to discern the contours of northern slavery today,” said Carolyn Wakeman, a local historian who spearheaded the Witness Stones Project in town.
Wakeman told CT Examiner that the stones’ locations were chosen to create a contiguous route that the general public can access. They originally wanted to place the stones near the estates where the enslaved individuals had labored, but she said this would have scattered the stones across several towns and on private property.
“We want them to be accessible. The people can find them and see them, and, also, I think they gather some sort of power by being aggregated together,” Wakeman said.
In 2021 and 2022, 30 plaques were placed at intervals along Lyme Street and in the Duck River Cemetery along McCurdy Road. Wakeman said there are plans next year to install additional plaques at the Lyme Library.
Wakeman explained she is a descendent of a slave-holding family — the Huntleys. Two of the slaves memorialized in the Witness Stones Project, Cato and Jack, were owned by her forebears.
John Mills, a historian in Bloomfield, founder of the Alex Breanne Corporation and a descendant of slaves, said at the ceremony that when he first began researching his genealogy, he encountered a roadblock that many African Americans hit when they seek details about their ancestors — a lack of records, coupled with the “intentional erasure” of information.
“There was a cruel sting I felt when having to comb through the country’s vast collection of historical documentation on an enslaver, all in search of a moment of grace where they may have mentioned my ancestor,” he said.
During his search, Mills said, he discovered information that challenged him – his last name was actually the surname of the person who enslaved his family. He also found out his third great-grandfather, William Cooper, a Maryland native who served in the Civil War, was buried in an African American cemetery that now lies beneath a shopping center parking lot. In contrast, White men from the area who served in the Civil War were buried in the London Park National Cemetery.
“I see researching the enslaved as not a mere intellectual exercise,” Mills said. “As an African American, I see it as a profound act of resistance. By unearthing, studying and sharing these stories, we reject the historical practice of erasure.”
Genealogist Vicki Welch, who specializes in the genealogy of African Americans and Native Americans in New England, said at the ceremony that she conducted in-depth research on Prince Griswold Crosley, who served in the Revolutionary War between 1777 and 1782. His brothers, Jim and Sonny, also served in the war.
“Picture a tall, dark mulatto man, 6 feet, 1 inch with long, dark, wavy hair tied back, and brown eyes that snap when you look at him. … Prince had with him a Brown Bess [musket], or more likely a flintlock, powder horn and ball. He also had a bed roll and a backpack, and his beloved fiddle,” Welch said during the ceremony. “This is the picture in your mind as you see him attending the battles of Germantown, the winter at Valley Forge, a battle in Monmouth, Redding, Connecticut and Morristown, New Jersey. This is a man of strength.”
Crosley was freed after the war, eventually married, settled in North Lyme and had eight children. Three of Crosley’s descendants were present at the ceremony.
Descendant Keith Wilson said he discovered his connection to Crosley about 20 years ago, after reading an article that Welch wrote called “Slaves of the Governor,” and recognized some of the names as belonging to his ancestors. Wilson said his family was particularly interested in the fact that Crosley was known for always having a fiddle with him.
“Someone told my brothers that are musicians, [and] they go, ‘I knew where we got it from!’” he said.
Wilson said he has been trying to get the U.S. Veterans Administration to create a headstone in recognition of Crosley. So far, he said, they have denied his requests, claiming they needed to know Crosley’s burial site in order to get the stone.
“Some Revolutionary War soldiers might have only served for a few days, a few months. This guy served three years [in] one regiment, eight months [in] a regiment. He deserves a stone,” Wilson said.
Lynn Boylan told CT Examiner she discovered her connection to Crosley after she retired and began looking into her family’s genealogy, and eventually connected with Welch. Crosley is her fourth great-grandfather on her father’s side.
“I just don’t want them to be forgotten,” she said.
Brim Bell told CT Examiner that even small bits of information about enslaved individuals can be used to create a picture of their lives. One of her poems, for example, talks about a formerly enslaved woman named Arabella who taught herself how to make soap.
“Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of information, and you can dig deeper and expound on that and kind of crawl inside that little bit of information and discover new worlds,” Brim Bell said.
She said she was heartened to see a crowd of people, Black and White, coming together to talk about the stones.
“It’s all of our history. Our present is nestled right in our history — for all of us,” she said. “It gives me hope when I see that we can have a crowd that looks like this, and all of us embrace our history and talk about it openly, and decide that this is work we want to continue and that we want to share it with the kids.”