Guilford, a town of twenty-thousand half an hour north of New Haven, is a place that loves its past. There are three historical societies, and in the town center, by the chocolatier and tea shop, historical markers nearly outnumber street signs. A lone soldier stands at the center of the town green, looming over the dog walkers and families. Tall and imposing, with a musket by his side, he is the centerpiece of an 1877 memorial dedicated to the town’s Civil War veterans. Until recently, there was no such memorial for the town’s slaves, who are buried beneath him. In Connecticut, slavery dates back to the mid-1600s, and though it’s hard to know when it reached Guilford, by the late 1700s there were around fifty slaves living there. For all that Guilford loves to remember, until not long ago, their slaves had been forgotten.
A few years ago, frustrated that the textbooks he used almost never mentioned Northern slavery, Dennis Culliton, a history teacher at Adams Middle School in Guilford, set out to unearth the stories of the town’s slaves. He dug through court documents, wills, and property archives, and eventually found records of over seventy slaves who had lived there. Two years ago, Culliton presented his findings to a local historical society. Afterwards, fellow resident Doug Nygren approached him with the idea of memorializing the slaves’ lives in stone. Nygren was inspired by a recent trip to Germany, where he had encountered a project by the artist Gunter Demnig that placed small memorials called stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) outside the final residences of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The project began in 1992 and has since grown beyond the bounds of Germany, with fifty-six thousand stolpersteine installed in twenty-two European countries.
Last year, Culliton, Nygren, and a few other Guilford residents founded the Witness Stones Project, which plans to install memorial stones each year and organize educational events to remind residents of the enslaved men and women who lived, labored, and died in their town. Now, three “stones” are scattered across the streets of Guilford, placed on the sites of three slaves’ homes––one outside the town hall, one outside the local bank, and one outside a historic house. The small brass squares fit smoothly into the brick sidewalk, shining faintly in daylight, hardly visible by night.
The project also enlisted the help of local eighth graders, who dedicated a month of their history curriculum this year to studying Culliton’s findings. Following a general unit on slavery, they then wrote biographies of Guilford’s slaves, almost all of whom had never been written about before. Guilford has about three-hundred eighth graders, and if the project continues, a new crop of students will continue the project each year. At the installation ceremony for the first three stones this past November, eighth grader Theo Freeman read the biography he wrote about Candace, a slave who lived in Guilford in the late 1700s and worked as a baker. “Candace found a way to be her own person, even as a slave,” Theo said, speaking to the crowd of parents, students, and residents gathered on the Guilford Green. “She also wrote her own will, which most slaves didn’t do. Some people may think this is impossible, but she did it.”
One of the project’s aims is to show Guilford’s residents, ninety-six percent of whom are white, that enslaved African Americans are an integral part of the town’s history. Kristine Iglesias, a lifelong Guilford resident and founding member of Witness Stones, grew up thinking that she and her family were among the town’s first Black residents. “I’m glad my parents chose Guilford,” she said at the installation ceremony. “And while I’m not blind to the prejudices that still exist here, I am fiercely loyal to this town.” As Iglesias was growing up, fellow residents sometimes assumed that she was an underprivileged girl from New Haven, or that she was related to her principal, who was also Black. Like most people in Guilford, she only recently learned through Culliton that slaves had once lived there, and the discovery has deepened her connection to the town. “There’s no such thing as good slavery, but there are stories of people who had lives, communities, families to come home to,” Iglesias said. “There’s a sadness to it, but it’s also empowering, to me and my kids as well, knowing that Black people helped make this town what it is.”
Hazel Carby, a Witness Stones board member and professor of African American Studies at Yale, wants to expand the project’s scope within Guilford. On February 21, she will lead a book club discussion at the Guilford Free Library about Kindred by Octavia Butler, a novel that oscillates between a plantation in antebellum Maryland and 1976 California. After that, she’s considering Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” Carby, who thinks the United States is segregated enough to be considered an apartheid state, hopes the project will push Guilford residents to realize that the difference between slavery and contemporary society is smaller than they think.
One evening, as the sun started to set over the green, a mom walked by one of the Guilford Witness stones with her child. In the fading light, the coaster-sized brass was hard to see, but the girl, perhaps one of Culliton’s eighth graders, pulled her mom to a stop and pointed at the stone insistently. “Moses: Enslaved Here: 1762-1812,” it read. The mom smiled at her daughter, looked down at the stone for a few moments, then picked her head back up, ready to keep walking. The girl stayed in place, still staring at the stone, not yet ready to leave.