‘The history is with us’: Remembering New England’s forgotten role in slavery
Drive down Main Street in Old Saybrook and you pass the General William Hart House, a local landmark.
The property is owned by the local historical society. Back in the 1760s, William Hart built the stately home with wealth he’d amassed as a merchant trader in the West Indies.
He prospered by enabling New England’s slave economy.
When we think of slavery in the U.S, we rarely think of the North. But in Connecticut, slavery began in the mid-1600s and did not officially end until 1848.
After Hart married, he purchased a child: 7-year old Rose Jackson. Rose’s family would serve the Harts for three generations.
On a sunny day in late May, people gathered outdoors on the Hart House property as Old Saybrook held a ceremony to honor Rose.
It’s time to restore the town’s history, First Church of Christ Pastor Todd Yonkman said.
“Today, we can say that the institution of slavery was and is a violation of God’s will for humanity,” Yonkman said. “We are also beginning to recognize that the practice of enslaving people created a social and racial trauma in our community that has continuing impacts to this day. The history is not passed. The history is with us.”
In the crowd were local residents, teachers, parents and students from Old Saybrook Middle School. This year, eighth graders used primary materials – probate records, classified ads and wills – to learn more about Rose’s life.
The documents were provided by the Witness Stones Project, an organization that helps communities discover and chronicle their local history of slavery.
Witness Stones, in its words, “seeks to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities.”
Researcher Liz Lightfoot addressed the crowd in Old Saybrook, describing an important paper she discovered inside a box that belonged to the family of William Hart.
“I found what I think is the quintessential document,” she said. “It’s a bill of sale. And attached to it is a little handwritten document. It says Rose, daughter of Tamar and Cato. And it gives her birthdate. Then it gives her younger brothers’ names and their birthdates.”
As part of the ceremony, students read essays and poetry they’d written.
“Can you imagine slaves in Old Saybrook?” Emerson Cooke asked. “According to the 1782 census, the number of enslaved people at the time was 50. Furthermore, Rose Jackson was one of the last six slaves to be freed in Connecticut.”
Another student, Elizabeth Bubello, wanted to move beyond facts and figures to try and imagine Rose’s feelings.
“The hard truth is that we will never know the real Rose Jackson,” she said. “We may know when she was born or when she died. But we lose meaning as we search the documents for the who, what, where, when and why.”
The school chorus sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and there was an unveiling of a ‘Witness Stone’ – a memorial to Rose.
Similar events are taking place in towns and cities across Connecticut. Witness Stones, which began in 2017 in the Guilford schools, now partners with dozens of schools and civic institutions in five states.
Working on the project is a meaningful way for towns to discover and acknowledge their history of slavery, said Robert Labriola, a social studies teacher.
“And have students recognize somebody who worked, lived and prayed in their community and contributed to their community,” he said.
“Someone who was otherwise invisible.”