‘Discovering history:’ Sacred Heart Students unearth the stories of enslaved laborers in Greenwich

‘Discovering history:’ Sacred Heart Students unearth the stories of enslaved laborers in Greenwich

Below is an excerpt of an article originally published by the Greenwich Time.


For the past year-and-a-half, students, teachers and researchers in Greenwich have been poring over documents and digital records, looking into an often overlooked corner of the historical record in Connecticut.

The students and their advisers are working to fill out the biographical details and reveal the identities of enslaved laborers who worked at the site of the old Bush homestead along the banks of Cos Cob Harbor, now the campus of the Greenwich Historical Society.

Later this spring, four small stones will be planted around the grounds to recognize and memorialize their lives, which were on the margins and in the shadows of Greenwich’s early inhabitants for centuries. The markers are part of the Witness Stones Project founded by a Connecticut history teacher to shed new light on Connecticut’s history with slavery, which was not fully abolished in the state until 1848...

The students researched the stories of four enslaved people. Cull Bush and his domestic partner, Patience, who were not married due to prohibitions imposed by slavery, left behind a fair amount of documented history. The students also studied the history of Candice, whose surname is not known, and her daughter Hester Mead...

Besides filling out the narratives of their lives, the students have been learning about Connecticut state law that governed the lives of non-whites at the time. They were required to carry paperwork with them at all times, as permission to travel outside, and minor thefts were punished with 30 lashes from a whip, the law book states...

The local students have been slowly working their way through old sales deeds and documents that freed slaves from records at Town Hall and the Historical Society, as well as working with digital records to create a family tree.

“It’s great for students to study history where they live and go to school,” said Kelly Bridges, a teacher at Sacred Heart. “And because of the way we teach it, through primary source documents, they’re discovering history themselves. It really grabs their attention, they have ownership over it. It’s exciting for them, quite meaningful.”

It’s a benefit for the community, as well, said Bridges, a Greenwich resident. “I love the idea of bringing new information and awareness to the town.”

Bridges came to the Historical Society four years ago to fill out her segment on slavery, and the team of educators and researchers later partnered with the Witness Stones program founded by a Guilford history teacher.

The work and research has been something of a revelation for the students.

“I think I’d want the people to know how truly terrible this [slavery] is, and after learning about a specific family, I became more passionate for reducing inequities in the world, and educating others on the topic to spread more awareness. Hopefully, it will empower others to speak up and advocate for other topics and issues that they want changed,” Sacred Heart student Michaela White said in an email.

“If her story didn’t get passed on it would be sad. I want everyone to realize, like I did, how privileged, and lucky we all are,” added her schoolmate, Zarabella Gislason.

The idea of using stones to commemorate the lives of slaves in the Northeast seemed like a natural, said Dennis Culliton, executive director of the Witness Stones Project. Engraved stones have been used in Germany to memorialize victims of the Holocaust, and stone cairns are an old symbol of tributes to the dead. Culliton teaches other teachers to carry out the research that leads to the placement of stones, which has been done in Guilford, Madison and West Hartford.

“Our project has a unique way of documenting and telling stories that haven’t been told,” said Culliton, “And the students, they’re using historical documents and creating history themselves.”

The stones will be engraved with names, dates and a brief biographical description. A number of lectures are being planned by the Greenwich Historical Society to accompany the project, and the stones are set to be unveiled May 27.

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