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As CT learns more about its ties to slavery, students shape efforts to ensure the stories live on

Unforgotten is a cross-platform series and podcast chronicling Connecticut's ties to slavery. Learn more.

It was a promise that changed Dick Bristol’s life.

More than two centuries ago, the enslaved man was sold to a slave holder in New Haven, Connecticut, who prepared to embark on an ambitious expedition to the Far East on board the ship Neptune.

He asked Bristol to join him.

“Dick’s conditional promise of freedom was that if he went on this trip, about three to four years, then he would have been free,” Jason Thomas says.

Thomas, 15, is a student at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven. His history class studied ship logs and archival documents to help piece together, for the first time, the story of Dick Bristol.

While many Americans grow up learning about slavery in the South, slavery also happened in the North — in Connecticut and across New England.

In recent years, experts, historians and volunteers have been uncovering Connecticut’s ties to slavery. But students in communities across the state are also chronicling the untold stories of the enslaved right where they live.

While plenty has been written about the Neptune’s voyage, the enslaved men aboard the ship have received far less attention from historians. The crew would depart from New Haven Harbor and trade seal skins for silk and tea.

Jason Thomas, a sophomore at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn., talks about his experience with The Witness Stones Project to learn the story of an enslaved New Haven man named Dick Bristol. “I think that it's a shame that our school is one of the few schools that gets to do things like this,” said Thomas, 15, “I think that this should be even—I shouldn't say required—but I think this should be a common thing across all schools, across America and across schools, everywhere. I think that while it was awesome that our school did this, I think that all schools should have this opportunity and be able to do the same thing.“
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Jason Thomas, a sophomore at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn., talks about his experience with The Witness Stones Project to learn the story of an enslaved New Haven man named Dick Bristol. “I think that it's a shame that our school is one of the few schools that gets to do things like this,” said Thomas, 15, “I think that this should be even—I shouldn't say required—but I think this should be a common thing across all schools, across America and across schools, everywhere. I think that while it was awesome that our school did this, I think that all schools should have this opportunity and be able to do the same thing.“

Hillhouse students discovered that Bristol’s journey would end prematurely.

“After about a year he was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore. They’re treating me worse than they did in New Haven.’ So he saw this ship,” Thomas says. “It was only about a football field away. He didn’t know how to swim, but he jumped off the ship and he tried to swim over there.”

No one knows what happened to Dick Bristol after that.

'To understand things that I had not understood before'

Students at Hillhouse worked with researchers from the Witness Stones Project to uncover Dick Bristol’s story. The educational initiative aims “to restore the history and honor the humanity” of enslaved people who helped build Connecticut. It’s one of several groups working with local school districts across the state.

For students, uncovering the stories of enslaved people more than 200 years ago is reframing how they think about themselves today.

“When we brought this out to light, suddenly it shows this whole new aspect of what the Neptune was and how they achieved their goal,” Thomas says.

“It allows me to understand things that I had not understood before, as a Black person myself. Once I understand my history, and I understand my background and I understand the background of those around me, I think it allows me to be a better person and be more of myself.”

Adrienne Joy Burns is a public historian with the Witness Stones Project, doing primary research outside of the university setting.

Working in the basement of his home, Dennis Culliton, the founder and executive director of The Witness Stones Project, prepares a witness stone for Tome, a man enslaved at the Deacon John Graves House in Madison, Connecticut. Culliton has made hundreds of Witness Stones in his basement as part of an “educational initiative whose mission is to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities.” Tome’s stone was placed at the Deacon John Grave house a few days later during a ceremony on December 05, 2023.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Working in the basement of his home, Dennis Culliton, the founder and executive director of The Witness Stones Project, prepares a witness stone for Tome, a man enslaved at the Deacon John Graves House in Madison, Connecticut. Culliton has made hundreds of Witness Stones in his basement as part of an “educational initiative whose mission is to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities.” Tome’s stone was placed at the Deacon John Grave house a few days later during a ceremony on December 05, 2023.

When students truly engage with history, she says they see the world differently.

“Because it tells us about how we get to the present, how history is made, why things are voted on today the way they are,” she says.

Dennis Culliton, Witness Stones’ executive director and a former middle school history teacher, says society struggles with defining who is “the other.” The goal of the project, he says, is to help students realize that many people – enslaved and free – helped build Connecticut.

“What if the other is us? What if we’re the same?” Culliton says. “We want kids to close their eyes and think of colonial Connecticut and colonial America as a place where many people are contributing, not just people with certain last names and from certain heritages.”

'They can’t imagine this actually happening'

Each Witness Stones project centers on one enslaved person and culminates with the installation of a small bronze plaque at a site where the person lived, worked or worshiped.

Henrik Sharpe, 14, a student at the Country School in Madison, recently spent time studying the account book of the family of Deacon John Grave.

Grave’s historic home, known today as the “Deacon John Grave House,” still stands in the coastal Connecticut town.

Several people were enslaved here, records show.

After a brief ceremony at The Deacon John Graves House, students from The Country School congregate around a freshly placed witness stone December 05, 2023, in Madison, Connecticut. The stone, the 200th made by Dennis Culliton and The Witness Stone Project, was placed in honor of a man named Tome, who was enslaved at the house and whose history was researched by Country School students.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
After a brief ceremony at The Deacon John Graves House, students from The Country School congregate around a freshly placed witness stone December 05, 2023, in Madison, Connecticut. The stone, the 200th made by Dennis Culliton and The Witness Stone Project, was placed in honor of a man named Tome, who was enslaved at the house and whose history was researched by Country School students.

In the late 1600s, the Grave family purchased a carpenter named Tome (pronounced “Tommy”) and kept an account book listing money they earned by renting him to neighbors.

Students at the school studied the book.

Sharpe says he understands some people shy away from learning this hard history.

“Because they can’t imagine this actually happening,” Sharpe says. “But this stuff did happen. It was awful. It did happen. It was real.”

For 14-year old Abby Calarco, learning about Tommy also led to personal introspection.

“My dad has light skin and my mom has dark skin. So I think it was always very important to me about where I came from,” Calarco says. “And now I’m wondering if there were any of my ancestors around here, maybe even in this house? I think that’s possible.”

'People were people'

Critical historical analysis and personal introspection are all parts of the Witness Stones process, says poet Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond.

McDuffie-Thurmond, who works with students researching the lives of the enslaved, says it’s critical to think about the gap between dry historical documents and a person’s inner humanity.

“These documents do not have a monopoly on truth, do not have a monopoly on reality,” he says. “And really important for younger folks, especially for children who are learning about slavery and the legacy and afterlives of slavery, [is] to resist this idea that people were property.”

“People were people – who were treated as property,” he says. “There were so many ways in which enslaved Black people in this country insisted upon and asserted their humanity.”

Poet Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, who works with students researching the lives of the enslaved, says it’s critical to think about the gap between dry historical documents and a person’s inner humanity. “People were people – who were treated as property,” he says. “There were so many ways in which enslaved Black people in this country insisted upon and asserted their humanity.”
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Poet Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, who works with students researching the lives of the enslaved, says it’s critical to think about the gap between dry historical documents and a person’s inner humanity. “People were people – who were treated as property,” he says. “There were so many ways in which enslaved Black people in this country insisted upon and asserted their humanity.”

Take the story of Lettice, a 6-year-old enslaved girl.

Twenty miles away in the town of Wallingford, students have been researching her story. They include 16-year-old Evelyn Reach and her brother, John, who’s 18. They were introduced to Witness Stones when they were in middle school.

They helped bring the effort to Choate Rosemary Hall. And they discovered that Lettice had been enslaved on land that is now the school campus.

Students examined records that show she was 6 years old when she died. And they learned that three months before her death, she had been baptized.

“Which we think may indicate that she was sick,” John says.

“We weren’t able to find as many documents on Lettice,” Evelyn says. “But we were able to find a lot more … documentation on the Atwater family, who had been her enslavers, due to the fact that they were so prominent in the Wallingford area.”

Sitting on the Choate campus today, just steps away from where Lettice was enslaved, the siblings reflect on Lettice’s life – enslaved and a child.

“It’s really impactful,” John says. “Like, would she have played in the woods nearby?”

Learning about Connecticut’s hidden history of slavery inspired John to look inward and to write a poem.

“Our forgotten are to be remembered,” his poem concludes. “They are eternal in time and history, but only if there is history. I pick up a pen: An unending journey rises from the resting dust.”

Uncovering a past this close, he says, makes it real.

“It takes history and it narrows it down to a point of just one life. And I think that’s powerful because it makes it personal and it makes it meaningful.”

Witness stones rest on the ground outside the Deacon John Graves House, December 05, 2023, in Madison, Connecticut. The stone for Tome was the 200th made by Dennis Culliton and The Witness Stone Project and was placed in honor of a man named Tome, who was enslaved at the house and whose history was researched by Country School students.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Witness stones rest on the ground outside the Deacon John Graves House, December 05, 2023, in Madison, Connecticut. The stone for Tome was the 200th made by Dennis Culliton and The Witness Stone Project and was placed in honor of a man named Tome, who was enslaved at the house and whose history was researched by Country School students.

Read more from Unforgotten: Connecticut's Hidden History of Slavery

Chapter 1: Think slavery wasn't in the North? Think again. Slavery has roots in Connecticut dating to 1600s

Chapter 2: ‘This is my country': A family learns their ancestors were enslaved in Connecticut

Chapter 3: An enslaved man told his story. Descendants are determined to keep Venture Smith's story alive

Chapter 4: A once-enslaved man’s music was hidden for centuries. Go on a journey to rediscover his melodies

Chapter 5: As CT learns more about its ties to slavery, students shape efforts to ensure the stories live on

About the series: Why we're reporting on Connecticut's history of slavery

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Share your thoughts on the stories in this series via email at unforgotten@ctpublic.org.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.