Introducing the Cesar Family

Five Black LivesAs I referenced in an earlier post,  I am piloting a class on slavery in Connecticut/New England. It is going to be entirely project-based learning. My only required text is Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank’s spectacular Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. At this inflection point, I feel fortunate to have a class where I can engage my students meaningfully in #HardHistory and give them a lens through which to view our country and our struggles.

I’ve spent the summer doing initial lifting to familiarize myself with some of the history in the area. I’ve already posted about James Mars. I’m also excited to learn about William Grimes, another remarkable formerly enslaved man and author of Life of William Grimes, The Runaway Slave.

There is so much synergy in this work.

Salisbury’s town historian, Jean McMillen, put me in touch with an African-American woman from Maryland, Katherine Overton. Katherine is an impressive genealogist and is also a remarkable historian. Katherine’s mother lived in an overwhelmingly white Salisbury until the 1930s. When she moved, she closed the book on at least 135 year of family history in Northwest Connecticut.

Here’s where the syncretism comes in. There are five published narratives of enslaved people from Connecticut: James Mars, Venture Smith, The Rev. G. W. Offley, James. L. Smith, and William Grimes. You can find the book here.

In one of my many conversations with Katherine this summer, she mentioned to me that her Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather, Timothy, had a daughter named Clarissa. Clarissa was married to the aforementioned William Grimes. (William Grimes deserves a post in his own right. Perhaps I’ll have my students write it).

So, from this tiny perch in my sleepy and mostly white country town, I can trace the roots of two vitally important Black men who helped build our country.

Katherine’s Cesar family’s American story has many spokes, and I look forward to having my students work with her to share more about the history of her remarkable family and their contributions to the building of our nation. Continue reading

Resources for The Witness Stones and #hardhistory

I recently had the good fortune to be on a planning committee with Dennis Culliton of the Witness Stones Project @witnessstones. He is one of the most dedicated, passionate, knowledgeable, and giving educators I have every had the privilege to engage. In that spirit, I asked him if I could share his works cited list with this community. Here it is:

Witness Stones Project
Annotated Works Cited


Asher, Rev. Jeremiah.  Incidents in the Life of the Rev. J. Asher, Pastor of Shiloh. Charles Gilpin, 1850.

This work was written by the grandson of Gad Asher who was enslaved in Guilford and fought in the American Revolution.  The author, Rev. Jeremiah Asher, was an abolitionist and the first African American chaplain in the army to die in service to the United States during the Civil War.

Bontemps, Arna, ed.  Five Black Lives: The Autobiographies of Venture Smith, James Mars, William Grimes, The Rev. G.W. Offley, and James L. Smith. Wesleyan University Press, 1971

This important source contains the autobiographies/slave narratives of two individuals held in captivity in Connecticut (Venture Smith and James Mars).  The originals can also be found in digital format online. Venture Smith was held captive in southeastern Connecticut; James Mars was held captive in northwestern Connecticut.

Brace, Jeffry. The Blind African Slave; Or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace. University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

This is one of three extant autobiographies/slave narratives of Jeffry Brace, a person enslaved in Connecticut.  He was held captive in southwestern New Haven County.

Caron, Denis R. A Century in Captivity: The Life and Trials of Prince Mortimer, a Connecticut Slave. University of New Hampshire Press, 2006.

This book details the life of Prince Mortimor who was held in captivity in Middletown, CT, and in prison at the (Old) Newgate Prison for a total of over 100 years. His story of servitude, agency, resistance, and resiliance predicts the lives of many people of color who followed.

Culliton, Dennis.  Slavery and Freedom in Madison and Guilford CT.  Guilford Free Library Papers, no. 7, 2017.

This work is a foundational research into slavery in Guilford, CT.  It  provides the evidence and materials used to create the Witness Stones Project and the “Five Themes of Slavery”.

Farrow, Anne, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank.  Complicity; How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. Hartford Courant Company, 2005.

The story of how Connecticut and all of the north benefited from slavery is documented in this book.  It includes details about slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries, the West Indian Trade, and the importation of ivory tusks from Africa for the piano industries.

Farrow, Anne.  The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory. Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

Using the slave ship log books kept by Dudley Saltonstall of Connecticut, the author uncovers the business and horrors of the slave trade emanating from our shores.

Griswold, Mary Hoadly.  Yester-Years of Guilford. The Shoreline Times Publishing,1938.

These are local anecdotes about historic houses and the persons who lived in them.  The author included the stories of those held in servitude during colonial and early American periods.

Menta, John.  The Quinnipiac: Cultural Conflict in Southern New England.  Yale University Press, 2010.

This is a well researched monograph that shows the use of colonial courts to deprive the Quinnipiac, a southern Connecticut tribe, of their ancestral lands.  Debt, servitude, and confiscation of property were precise tools used to change ownership of the land and displacement of local populations.

Saint, Chandler B. and George A Krimsky.  Making Freedom: The Extraordinary Life of Venture Smith.  Wesleyan University Press, 2009.

This reinterpretation of the life of Venture Smith includes new details, maps, and a complete facsimile of the autobiography.

White, David O.  Connecticut Black Soldiers, 1775-1783. Pequot Press, 1973.

Before and other online sources, the author gathered and arranged evidence of the hundreds of free and enslaved African Americans from Connecticut who fought and served in the Revolutionary War. A great place to find evidence of local slavery and service.

Long Island, New York: Hayes, Katherine Howlett.  Slavery Before Race: Europeans, Africans, and Indians at Long Island’s Sylvester Manor Plantation, 1651-1884. New York University Press, 2013.

This historic archeological study of indigenous and African slavery and the West India trades is based on the exploration of a specific site on Shelter Island which is located between the fork on eastern Long Island. The archeological evidence at this site is unique and adds to the archival evidence unearthed by the author.

Massachusetts: Gerzina, Gretchen Holebrook.  Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend. Amistad, 2008.

The story of Lucy Terry and Abijah Prince is told through account books, property records, court proceedings, and anecdotes. Most of the story of their servitude takes place in western Massachusetts while much of their time in freedom is spent in Vermont. Interesting sources are used by the author to put flesh on the bones of the historical record.

Lemire, Elise.  Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

Using the home of the Transcendentalist movement in New England, the author uses multiple sources to tell the story of African slavery and the freedom in the town of Concord, northwest of Boston. In her story, she uncovers the realtionshiop of status and slave-holding. She introduced me to the term and use of gibbeting as a medieval method of execution.

Manegold, C.S.  Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Using the property that was home to generations of enslaved Africans and African Americans, the author creates the world for us where the products produced in New England are traded for sugar and molasses and other crops. Those items, created in an economy focused on enslaved labor in the West Indies in the 17th and 18th centuries made the economic world go round. Successive owners including the Winthrops and the Royalls populate this book, as do those that are held in servitude. The fact that there is still an extant “slave quarters” on the Royall House property in Massachusetts allows us to better understand the past.

Romer, Robert H.  Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts. Levellers Press, 2009.

Using extensive research of the area known as Historic Deerfield, the author, a retired physics professor, uncovered a story of slavery in this western Massachusetts community, one person at a time. His use of wills, probates, inventories, account books, church archives, and anecdotes provided me with a toolkit in my research to uncover enslaved persons who were held in captivity 100 miles away in southern Connecticut.

Rhode Island:

Clark-Pujara, Christy.  Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. New York University Press, 2016.

Rhode Island’s “dark” history associated with slavery started early with indigenous slavery but really did not get going until residents started to send ships to the west coast of Africa to bring enslaved men and women to the New World. The author not only details the economics of providing captive laborers to the West Indies, but also the economics of providing food and manufactured goods to the West Indies through the use of domestic slave labor.

DeWolf, Thomas Norman.  Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. Beacon Press, 2008.

Centered in Bristol, RI and West Africa, this book describes a family’s journey to understand their slave-trading past. It uncovers the author’s journey to understanding his white privilege, his community’s wealth, and what needs to be done to make things whole.

New England:

Calloway, Colin G. ed.  After King Philip’s War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England. University Press New England, 1997.

This collection of articles concerns tribes and tribal members in New
England who survived disease, warfare, land confiscation, and erasure. Details include debt servitude and the intersection of African and African American lives with the lives of local tribal members.

Control, Robert J.  From African to Yankee: Narratives of Slavery and Freedom in Antebellum New England. M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

This is a collection of New England slave narratives including Venture Smith,, Ellanor Eldridge, James Mars, William J. Brown, and George Henry.  These autobiographies tell the story of slavery and freedom in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Hardesty, Jared Ross.  Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England. Bright Leaf, 2019.

A thorough history of slavery in New England, this work exposes the legal, religious, and economic choices made to first control the lives and bodies of those enslaved and then provide emancipation and partial freedom in the post revolutionary world. The author helps us understand warfare and debt peonage as methods of enslaving the tribal members. He also shows the religious references of the “curse of Ham” and the legal idea of “following the mother” as underlying concerts on how slavery was justified. He elevates the economic reality of the New England household as a means of production and the use of slavery to increase that productivity.

Melish, Joanne Pope.  Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipaton and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860.  Cornell University Press, 1998.

This is the author’s seminal work on African slavery and freedom in New England as well as the dominant culture’s desire to forget its slave-holding past and central role in the slave trade. It informs all other work on New England slavery to follow. Her explanation of the white-washing of New England communities of African American citizens, as well as the history of slavery, shows the level of erasure that was used to oppose slavery and the slave-based economy in the South as the country approached the Civil War.

Newell, Margaret Ellen.  Brethren By Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. Cornell University Press, 2015.

Focusing on indigenous slavery in New England, the author cites the use of Indian Wars as a form of land and labor acquisition. The transformation of indentured servitude to chattel slavery for many of the tribal members paved the way to gain ownership of the indigenous servants and their children. The “follow the mother” rule is shown to be misapplied among children of indigenous mothers and African fathers.

Pierson, William D.  Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England. University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Using sources as varied as Rev. Lyman Beecher’s autobiography, descriptions of slave governor elections, census data, and local anecdotes, the author helps us develop an understanding of Black culture in New England. Identifying cultural practices brought with immigrants/captives from Africa assist in the reinterpretation of those practices identified in the past that relate to the lives of captive and free and Black in New England.

Witness Stones Project and Teaching Teachers Hard History

Witness Stones Memorials for Phillis and Montros adjacent to the Guilford, CT Green at 1 Park Street.

For all of the educators reading this post – have you ever questioned the fact that you can teach in front of dozens of students everyday and never be nervous, but when get up to talk to a room full of adults, the butterflies return, your throat dries, and that witty banter leaves the tip of your tongue and flies out the window? That happens to me when I step in front of a room of teachers to start my presentations.  Who am I to teach a room full of history teachers that what they learned in middle school, high school, and college was often wrong and painted a picture of America that whitewashed at best?  How can I expect to teach adults who have never been in my classroom before, each have degrees from different colleges or universities, and graduate from college from 1980 to 2020? I recently co-presented with Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries on a virtual workshop and I wanted to share with you some of my reflections.

Teaching teachers the hard history of New England and its involvement in the institution of slavery is a tough nut to crack.  It includes flipping the ‘memes’ of this region as an experiment in religious freedom, communal living, and freedom for all.  It requires us to unpack the history surrounding the acquisition of tribal lands, the subjugation of indigenous people, and the erasure of their societies.  It forces us to uncover the economic basis for settlement here including providing resources for Europe but more troubling, supporting the Sugar Islands in the West Indies that destroyed enslaved persons while wringing out violence inspired labor from their bodies.  It requires us to open the logbooks and account books showing New England ships and traders travelling to the West Coast of Africa and purchasing men, women, and children who were captured and enslaved there and then bringing those same enslaved persons to the Sugar Islands, the thirteen colonies for profit.

But before we can change our classrooms and what we teach, we have to change our own personal narratives, uncover the hidden history, and open our minds and hearts to new learning. We start doing this by reading.  

  • By reading early and often. 
  • By reading from authors whose voices seem radically different from what you know you know.  
  • By reading a slave narrative like Connecticut’s own Venture Smith’s:  
  • By reading “Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slaver.” by Ann Farrow, Joel Lange, and Jenifer Frank.  By reading “Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, by Christy Clark-Pujara. 
  • By ‘reading across the grain.’ When a story says that an enslaved man had “a combination of simplicity and cunning.”  What is meant? (I would ask students, “Could that be like you never seeing the sink full of dishes each time you go to the fridge, even though it is your responsibility to wash and wipe them?)  

Go to the 1619 project at the New York Times and the Teaching Hard History classroom resources at: And when you are tired of reading, listen to the Teaching Hard History Podcast hosted by Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries.

And then your job is to begin to teach what you have learned. See what works and what doesn’t work. Figure out what you need to learn more about so you will feel comfortable in your teaching.  Read some more, rinse, and repeat.  Teach with an open heart and open ears.  I was recently corrected for using the terms slave-owners and slave-holders.  I should have used the term enslavers, I took the hit, and moved on.  So did my audience.  (At least I knew enough not to use the term “master” even though the old books and manuscripts I read are filled with that term.)

Be brave, admit that you don’t know everything, and try your hardest to incorporate your new learning into your classrooms. Allow your students to share their own ideas and prejudices so that they can be part of unwinding them as needed. Start with ideas and resources that are accessible but don’t shy away from challenging ideas or resources.

Here is an annotated works cited from my own research into New England History and slavery.  It is not a complete works-cited, but many of the books listed have helped me get to the beginning of my journey.  Witness Stones Annotated Works Cited. If you are interested in a project to engage your students in restoring the history and honoring the humanity of individuals enslaved locally, please visit us at

Be confident that your work is important. We, our students, and society cannot begin to reconcile the issues of racism, segregation, and inequality without knowing the truth. This is our opportunity to find the truth and create ways to share that truth that we and our students find.

In my next blog post, I will share the history of the Witness Stones Project and how we have reached over 2,000 students and worked in six communities to restore the history of those enslaved locally.

Dennis Culliton

Founder, Witness Stones Project

Searching for Slavery in Northwest Connecticut

James and Jupiter Mars’s graves: Center Cemetery, Norfolk, CT

I teach at an independent school in the sleepy Connecticut town of Salisbury (pop 3,598 in 2018). I have been living here for 24 years. My lens has been largely focused on world history – particularly China – so beyond the normal US survey idea of slavery, this is a topic that I knew relatively little about. Until really recently, I was always of a mind that slavery happened “down there.” Since I’ve been engaged in the work, I’ve been amazed at how steeped Connecticut generally, and the Upper Housatonic River Valley region specifically, is in this history.

To start, I need to tip my cap to Anne Farrow and the Hartford Courant team for opening my eyes. Complicity is a must read and should be a mandatory US History textbook for New England students. Her The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory is also an amazing book.

When I began to research in my own backyard, I quickly discovered that there has been some great local work done on this front, but there is not a lot of it. An early “discovery” was that an enslaved boy from the neighboring town of Canaan escaped and was hidden for months in the basements of townsfolk in bordering Norfolk before he was recaptured and sold again to a man in Salisbury. I know this, because the young man, James Mars, wrote a book about it after he earned his freedom: Life of James Mars: A Slave Bought and Sold in Connecticut. Though I fancy myself a historian and have lived in town for 24 years, I never knew this! James’s father, Jupiter, was even a Revolutionary War Veteran. My daughter and I visited their graves, and we were pleased to see that Jupiter’s properly memorialized his service. Imagine how many other stories like James’s and Jupiter’s that are just waiting to be told.  

This fall, my students and I are going to start searching together in a new project based course called Searching for Slavery in Northwest Connecticut designed to engage us in local public history to learn about how our community benefited from the work of enslaved people. More importantly, we will learn the names of the enslaved and research and tell their stories. Ultimately, we will honor their lives by placing a Witness Stone in a place where they have lived, worked, or worshiped. Finally, my students will use this space on the Atlantic Black Box to share our discoveries.

Where to begin? Can you find your 1619 place?

So where do you begin as a teacher? And how do we teachers embrace and lean into this tumultuous time in our American culture? How can we commence local history with a new lens and embrace the fact that “America is experiencing a racial justice reckoning the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1960s,” as was one of several insights from Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries recent Washington Post Op Ed. As an educator, you may be asking yourself where to begin and more importantly why to begin before you ask your students these same questions. In that spirit, why not celebrate a national historic insight and bend the focus on your community? Leverage your local history focus with the racial justice reckoning occurring in our communities as well. Using such a lens will help you develop a stronger sense of place for where you live, and turning your students into poets of place will have immeasurable and powerful long term benefits because you will make them future preservationists who will research and write about the contributions of all citizens.

Can you locate your 1619 actual place in your town? Can you locate a bill of sale from your local archives? Maybe this document is in an archive and not yet on the Internet. There is good work to be completed by your students. Having them look for and find these materials will actually allow them to do the history, which will equip them with future skills. And when they have to explain what they discovered and how they discovered the documents, that educational process is the ultimate “formative assessment” any educator can design. Providing your students authentic deeper learning opportunities like this will provide them memorable learning experience and help them contribute to “racial justice reckoning” that is happening right now in our culture. The 1619 Project that began in August of 2019 is still ongoing and is an important public history chapter you and your students know or have research steps in place to discover. In other words, can you facilitate your students’ inquiries and contribute to The 1619 Project—this authentic and timely public history project? Might this local history work provide your students an authentic opportunity for active citizenship?