Author Talk with Elizabeth Normen, Venture Smith, Tuesday, (1/28), 7-8pm on Zoom

On January 26th, from 7:00-8:00pm, the Suffield Historical Society will host a free Zoom program with Elizabeth Normen, author of Venture Smith’s Colonial Connecticut, a new book for middle schoolers and about the founding of Connecticut as told through the 1798 first-person narrative of Venture Smith. She will speak about this new approach to understanding that the story of Connecticut’s founding is the story of three primary groups of people: Native Americans, Europeans, and African/African Americans. She will also share research by scholars that has added to Smith’s narrative, providing rich details about his later life in Haddam Neck and our understanding of the complexity of the colonial economy. 

The Suffield Historical Society sponsored an online class during the months of October and November in order to prepare a Witness Stones Memorial for Tamar, who was an enslaved woman who lived at least twenty eight years of her life in Suffield from 1770-1798. Solomon Smith, son of the famous African American colonial figure, Venture Smith, purchased Tamar from Luther Loomis in 1798 to be his wife.

Click on the Zoom link https://tinyurl.com/y5dt2fpb and join our community program. All Suffield Historical Society meetings are open to the public, and newcomers are most welcome. Email Bill Sullivan with questions: bsullivan@suffieldacademy.org American History Teacher, Suffield Academy; Trustee, Suffield Historical Society.

Elizabeth Normen is publisher of Connecticut Explored, the magazine of Connecticut history (ctexplored.org), and two books for students: Where I Live: Connecticut for grades 3-4 (whereilivect.org) and Venture Smith’s Colonial Connecticut for grades 5 – 8 (venturesmithcolonialct.org). She co-edited African American Connecticut Explored, a book of 50 essays by 30 scholars about 400 years of African American history in Connecticut published by Wesleyan University Press in 2014. She also contributes to Grating the Nutmeg, the podcast of Connecticut history (gratingthenutmeg.libsyn.com).

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How to Bring the Witness Stones Project to Life

This 2020-2021 academic year marks the third year that my students at Kingswood Oxford in West Hartford have participated in the Witness Stones Project and it’s been the most inspiring and meaningful work of my teaching career.  It’s also been the most doubt-inducing, time-consuming work as well. Teaching about race, conducting the slow, laborious historical research, finding ways to engage students with primary documents and help them see the threads from past to present, collaborating with local historians, and guiding students as they create their final projects is no easy task. But right off the bat, I can tell you it’s not only worth it, it’s essential work as social studies and history teachers. Inspiring our students to shift the narrative about the North’s role in profiting from and perpetuating slavery is one desired outcome. Additionally, engaging our students in conversations about race and inviting them to participate in “courageous noticing” and action when it comes to white supremacy and racial injustice is what our country desperately needs.

To sum up what the project entails, this past year all five sections of U.S. History students at Kingswood Oxford partnered with the West Hartford Witness Stones Project, led by retired West Hartford public school teachers Dr. Tracey Wilson, Liz Devine and Denise DeMello. The aim of the Witness Stones Project is to honor the humanity and contributions of the enslaved people who, in part, built this community in West Hartford. Every year, students are assigned one enslaved person to learn intimately about. This year, we had the honor of learning about the West Hartford man Peleg Nott.  Nott’s story is a fascinating one. He was enslaved by Col. Jeremiah Wadsworth and starting in 1775 when Wadsworth was appointed Commissar for the Connecticut militias, Nott drove the provisions cart for the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. In 1780, after his return to civilian life, Nott was elected Black Governor of Hartford. Later, Nott supervised Wadsworth’s 150 acre farm in West Hartford on the southwest corner of Albany Avenue and Prospect Avenue, just to the north of Elizabeth Park. Nott died around 1810 a free man, leaving his wife Rachel and son Henry behind.  At KO, for four weeks we delved into the historical context related to slavery in Connecticut, then narrowed in on Peleg Nott’s life, and finally made connections to today regarding the legacy of slavery.  With the nudging and inspiration of history teachers Bill Sullivan at Suffield Academy and Rhonan Mokriski at Salisbury, the final project this year was entirely a student led, Project Based Learning experience. This resulted in podcasts, historical marker proposals, letters written to the West Hartford Town Council arguing for a street named after Nott, numerous art pieces, and even a few students who opted to teach our Middle School students (thank you Peter Burdge for facilitating that!)

Below I offer a few suggestions and ideas to consider that might help get a project such as this off the ground. They are in no particular order.

  1. Start with a guiding question or two that you want your students to answer throughout the unit. While this may seem like a simple step, it really helped us teachers and our students frame the unit. There are so many directions this project can pull you, so it’s important to have a question that isn’t too limiting, yet can also anchor the learning. The question last year was “what story about slavery needs to be reframed and retold in order to make it part our local and national history and narrative?” This year it was “What is Peleg Nott’s story? Why should we tell his story?”
  2. Collaboration is key. For us, connecting with the Witness Stones Directors was an essential step, as they paved the way with research and made documents on databases and in the church, Historical Society and other hidden corners of our town accessible to our students online. Tracey Wilson (who is also my former High School History teacher!) and Liz Devine also joined our classrooms via Zoom two times. Their website, mini lectures, and collaboration with students in Zoom breakout rooms elevated the project to a new level. Additionally, working with the other two KO teachers, Trish Watson and Scott Dunbar, was energizing and helpful in dividing up tasks.
  3. Educate yourself/self-reflect on how to engage in conversations about race and prepare yourself for those conversations. Teaching about slavery is not like teaching about Industrialization. It’s relevant and potentially uncomfortable, yet an essential part to telling the story. Listening to Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries podcasts are a good start. For me, connecting with our Equity Director, Joan Edwards, to help me be aware of my white blinders were invaluable. I am truly so fortunate to have her as a friend and as a mentor.
  4. Start early. Plan ahead! We started in June for a project that we launched in November. Here is our day to day plan; feel free to use this for guidance.
  5. A will to move forward even if you have doubts. It’s an urge of mine (and it may be true for many of you) to have a unit neatly tied up and planned through where I have a large degree of control and understanding of where it will end up. Not so here. And that is completely fine. While not all of the final projects will be staggering (for me that was many of our student artwork… err, I need to partner with our art teachers next year for help!) some will awe you (here is a sampling from our students this year.) I was completely moved by two of my students’ proposal to rename a street in town after Peleg Nott. It was published in our town’s newspaper and my hope is they will be able to make their pitch to the Town Council in person soon.

Good luck as you move ahead or rethink this project. Just like history itself, it’s messy and evolving all the time.

Venture Smith: A hero’s story

Another post from a student from our class – RM

The Venture Smith story immediately stood out to me. Out of around 12 million African captives who embarked on the Middle Passage to the Americas; only about a dozen left behind first-hand accounts of their experiences. One man was Venture Smith. His story is truly remarkable – his defiance against the plague of slavery, his fight for freedom, and his success against all odds make him a hero to me. I want to share the Venture Smith story on a much wider scale.

My fall project was to create a webpage to start doing that. You can learn more about it here.

What was life like in the settlement Hangroot in Greenwich, CT? Did it fall victim to gentrification?

Late 19th Century Image. Hangroot resident


The majority Black settlement of Hangroot, in Greenwich, CT was proud home to many families who were descendants of slaves. The official records on African-Americans are not accessible for families in Greenwich because of slavery. One could conclude that there were African-Americans in Greenwich going way back to the 17th century. The earliest African slaves in Connecticut arrived at the same time as colonial white settlers this would make sense. The decline of the Hangroot community was caused by several events. Firstly, immigration starting in the early 1840s made the Irish, Scottish, and other white immigrants moving to Greenwich and taking the jobs held previously by African-Americans. Second, industrialization brought the railroad to Greenwich in the mid-1800s. The jobs in those industries went to the English, Irish, Scottish, and other Europeans. It would seem that at the forefront of these issues would be the arrival of the Rockefellers to Hangroot. This dramatically changed Greenwich by bringing NYC leisure class who then started to build massive country estates. It is evident that once massive houses were built, the property values in Greenwich started to rise. Then the process of gentrification begins because the people of hangroot could not afford the new prices for rent and other costs.

Driving Question:  Is their a monument or street dedicated to those who lived in Hangroot? Are their any descendants living in Greenwich?

Source: http://radiantrootsboricuabranches.com/hangroot-was-our-hood-reclaiming-black-greenwich-history/

How Can We Learn More About The Last Enslaved Person in New Jersey?

Late 19th Century Image. John “Jack” Jackson

There were many laws for colonial slaves in New Jersey that I did not know about until staring this research. The colonial laws supported the institution of slavery. Likewise, free African Americans did not have many rights and were unable by law from owning land in the colony of New Jersey. From 1713 to 1768, the New Jersey colony operated a separate court system to deal with slave crimes. Special punishments for enslaved people remained on the books until 1788. Enslaved people were also prohibited to carry firearms when not in the company of their masters, and anyone who gave or lent a gun to a slave faced a fine of 20 shillings. African Americans could not gather on their own time or be in the streets alone at night. Controls were further tightened during the times of crisis. During Queen Anne’s War, any enslaved person found more than five miles from home without a pass was to be flogged, and the master was required to pay a reward to the person who had reported the infraction. During my research, I came upon an interesting story about John “Jack” Jackson. He was the last slave in the whole state of New Jersey and died 5 minutes from where I live, which was once a part of my town. This historical record is tremendously shocking and eye opening to even think these events actually took place near me.

Driving Question: Where is John “Jack” Jackson buried, Secaucus or North Bergen, and is his burial site marked with a cemetery stone or marker?

Source: https://www.hudpost.com/post/last-known-new-jersey-slave-lived-in-north-bergen

Van Cortlandt Park: a Closer Examination of this Historical Landmark Through the Years

The Van Cortlandt Museum, (ADD DATE)

This park is one of the most biggest landmarks in NYC and has been an important place throughout the history in the Bronx. The park now is used for recreational purposes: working out, hiking, swimming, skateboarding, volleyball, baseball, and many more fun activities that family and friends can attend. However, what people do not know is that enslaved peopled worked and lived in the colonial mansion. Built by Fredrick Van Cortlandt, this house is one of the oldest dwellings in the Bronx. In recent years, some historians have realized that this historic location continues to be a very important landmark for the Bronx. Professor Adam Anderson, who has a class at Manhattan College called “Slavery in the Bronx,” believes that the only way his students can learn well is if they see history with their own eyes. The Cortlandt house started out as a wheat plantation. This landmark is so important and the museum is now run by the parks department.

Driving Question: While the historical record shows that it was a plantation, are there records of enslaved people being sold here? Who were the enslaved individuals that lived here?

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Cortlandt_House_Museum

Source: https://manhattan.edu/campus-directory/adam.arenson

Did an Enslaved Person Live and Work in The Pettibone Tavern?

Abigails Grill and Wine Bar (Former Pettibone Tavern)

Currently, Abigails Grill and Wine Bar is an exquisite restaurant and a key part of the town of Simsbury. It is one of the most expensive places to eat in town, and most people make reservations weeks ahead to eat here. What people don’t know, is that Abigails was not always a restaurant. It happens that the building was originally called the Pettibone Tavern built in 1780 and belonged to Jonathan Pettibone Jr, whose father Jonathan Pettibone, had been killed in the fighting around New York in 1776. The tavern was then burned in 1800 by Indians but then was rebuilt in 1803. Later the tavern became the restaurant that we know today, Abigails. It was reported in a Hartford Courant article that both Abraham and Jonatan Pettibone were slave owners in the 1700s. Could it be that Jonathan Pettibone owned an enslaved person and had him/her work in the same place that we call Abigails today? Looking into 1790 Census records for Jonathan Pettibone corroborates the information in the 2002 Hartford Courant article. Another source that lists this enslaved person is from an Ancestry.com group. Click here to find Jonathan Pettibone’s record: http://sites.rootsweb.com/~ctahgp/hartford/1790/slaves.htm

1790 Census Record for Jonathan Pettibone from Ancestry.com

Driving Question: Does anyone have information about the enslaved person who lived with Jonathan Pettibone?

Source: https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-2002-09-29-0210075138-story.html

Source: http://sites.rootsweb.com/~ctahgp/hartford/1790/slaves.htm

Samuel Peters Estate: Cesar and Lowis Peters

Peters’ Estate: Image Captured By Author: 12/15/2020

The African American slaves, Cesar and Lowis Peters, lived in Hebron, Connecticut, at the end of the 18th century. They were enslaved by Reverend Samuel Peters, the local missionary from the Anglican Church. Due to Peters loyalty to the British Crown, he was alienated from the Congregationalist town of Hebron and eventually fled to London leaving his family of slaves behind to maintain the estate. The town shortly after confiscated his land and rented it out to white tenants leaving Cesar and Lowis abandoned. However, they successfully squatted on nearby lands and were able to maintain their status again on his property after the tenants had left the property in poor shape. Once they gained their land back they began repairing the buildings and returning the farm back to its previous ways. Although their time in this estate was short-lived. In 1787 a group of 6 slave traders, 2 of which appointed by Samuel Peters himself, were sent to confiscate the slaves and sell them down in South Carolina. The men forcibly took the Peters family captive and had made their way to Norwich, but when a large posse of men made the plan to arrest the slaves in order to take them back from the slave traders, Norwich was as far as they got. Afterward the men were still trying to capture the family, but with the help of Cesar’s good friend Elijah Graves, the sentence his family served for their alleged arrest was two work for two years under Graves, preventing the slave traders from taking them captive. In 1789 the General Assembly was able free Cesar and his family after receiving multiple petitions and depositions requesting their freedom. After the state emancipated them, the family moved to Colchester and later Tolland, where Lowis passed away in 1793. Cesar ended up remarrying in Coventry before moving back to Hebron in 1803. He passed away in Hebron on the Fourth of July in 1814.

Driving Question: What new sources are out there that can help us understand the story more?

Source: https://hebronhistoricalsociety.org/hebron-slavery.html

The Cesar Family Project

I signed up for this class to engage in something different. It was a chance to break free from the normal classes I had and an opportunity learn about valuable history that had barely been touched. On the very first meeting our teacher asked us to name 5 famous black people who lived before 1950. I raised my hand rather quickly thinking I had a bunch lined up to recite to the class. In reality, I froze at 3. I felt awful. I felt ignorant. I also felt so disappointed in my education.  

I had always learned that the information we were being fed was the absolute truth. However, what I was taught was far from the truth. My first realization of this was when we learned about Christopher Columbus. In school we were taught to celebrate him as the man who discovered America and set forward the movement of European settlers towards the Americas. While there is certainly some truth in that, he was also a man who decimated Indigenous populations for his own personal gain and created a legacy of distrust of settlers from Native Americans.  

History is always kind to the people that write it. That is why I never learned about the Trail of Tears, or Wounded Knee, or the Tulsa Massacre. Even my education about slavery was skewed. We were taught that the people of the North were the good guys. They were anything but. While the North did not have plantations on the scale of the South, they were certainly complicit and profited greatly from the labor and the economy of slavery in the South and the West Indies.  

This fall, we chose a topic that related to race or slavery in our own backyard and do a deep dive into the topic. Some of my classmates and I selected the Cesar family, a long line of free black people who lived in our town for more than two hundred years. It was exciting to study people who walked the streets of the town well before we had. In many ways, we were writing a first draft of history. Our inspiration was Katherine Overton – a descendant and the Cesar family historian. Without her excellent work and passion, we never would have been able to learn these stories.  

That is a fact. Black Americans lived valuable lives, but because they were born to a systemic disadvantage, many of their stories were lost. However, it is vital that Americans do not let this happen. Their stories need to be told in order to learn about the struggles African Americans faced in a country that used them to grow economically. If the country continues to forget what it did, we normalize the idea that what America did to African Americans in this country was okay, not only by enslaving them but also by making Black People afterthoughts in the telling of our American history. America can denounce white supremacy and slavery, but until we start paying attention to black history, and especially, local black history, our journey towards a just and equal nation will never be complete. That is why Black History Matters. – Caleb May

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While I learned about slavery and the horrible toll it took on the African American community, I was never taught about individual people and families who were affected by the wrath of slavery, whether they be enslaved or free. The information that I have learned about the Cesar family and their history made me feel close-minded and ignorant, but it now fuels me to strive to dig for everything I possibly can about this family and others like them who were affected. The amazing truth about the free Cesar family is the fact that during the era of slavery, the Cesar family helped build the communities of Sharon and Salisbury. – Colin D’Arcy

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The product of our research so far was a documentary-style short video where we took the viewers through our investigation of the family. We were excited to learn that a campsite on the Appalachian Trail in Sharon, Connecticut was named Ceesar Brook Campsite. Ms. Overton and primary documents showed us it was in the same exact area where George Cesar owned land. We filmed ourselves doing research, meeting with Ms. Overton, and hiking on two expeditions to the site, where we conducted a mini-archeological dig. The hikes also included cinematic views of the beautiful nature surrounding it. – Parker Ward

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Throughout this semester we have devoted a lot of time researching the Cesar family and finding a bunch of information out about their history. We have decided that we are going to keep working on the Cesar family by partnering with a documentarian and doing a more comprehensive documentary. For this go-around we have invited Isaac and Kasia who are the great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren of Timothy Cesar 6th who was a free Black man in mid-to-late 1700’s and fought in the Revolutionary War. Isaac and Kasia are excited to work with us on this next project and we hope to make it more professional and more detailed. – Josh Bank

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The layout of the Cesar property was quite interesting. Towards the bottom of the property, there was a substantial rock wall adjacent to the road. As we walked up this road to the house, it slowly turned away from the creek. This allowed the house to have a slight set-back giving it some privacy. Before we reached the house, the large rock wall stopped abruptly. When we reached the house, we noticed fill dirt that had been taken out of the ground looked and as if it had been placed in front of the house, perhaps giving the house a front porch that would have faced westerly towards the brook. Cutting the porch in half was what looked like stairs to enter the house. Continuing up the road, we came to the barn. When I examined the foundation rocks, I noted a concise difference between two sections of the barn. They must had been built at separate times and at different speeds because the of the shapes of the rocks used. The smaller section used rounder rocks, so it looked like it had been built quicker. When I looked at the rest of the barn, the rocks looked as if they had been cut square to fit together better. We were never able to find the trash pile. We hunted below the house, but it was likely higher – with the barn situated above. This would logically be the location for the trash pile. – Jim Glamos  

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Taking this class was an integral part to me realizing that it is important to know that African American families who have lived here have been here since at least the early 1800s. Black Lives Matter. Black History Matters. Local Black History Matters. Up until now, black people have been invisible citizens. They get left out of histories. As Americans, we all need to know our history. – Jake Brink  

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Tracing the ancestry and life of African Americans during that time period is a strenuous task. This is because much of the documentation, such as birth records, death records, tax records, land deeds, were less complete than they were for White Americans. Some of the few resources available that recorded the Cesars were the census records. The Cesar family appeared on the census for many years. The most complete documentation was in 1850. In it, George Cesar was listed as a Marketman who owned 800 Dollars’ worth of land.  George Cesar was recorded living with Titus Cesar. Many other Cesars were listed  in separate but adjacent households. The Census lists George L Cesar age 31, Eleanor Cesar age 27, next household Titus Cesar 70, Margaret Cesar age 65, Jane A Cesar age 38, and finally in her own plot of land Dinah Cesar age 73 a black female landowner! – Nicholas Gray

New Connecticut Triangle Trade Infographic

I’ll share some of my students’ first trimester work on here – RM

For our project we decided to produce an infograph, that depicted the trade between Connecticut and the West Indies. We focused on specific towns in Connecticut because our School (Salisbury School) is in Connecticut and is not far from where many of these towns are. From past classes’ textbooks, we had seen the familiar images that depicted the triangle trade between, the United States, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, but over the course of this fall we were surprised to learn about the Connecticut’s complicity in this pitiless trade.

We discovered that Middletown, New London, Hartford, Norwich, and Wethersfield, were major players and traded many products with the West Indies such as Red onions, cattle, lumber, horses, and vegetables. Likewise, we learned about what countries in the West Indies were responsible for shipping what molasses, sugar or sometimes even humans back to Connecticut.

Our project forced us to learn how to use different programs to create what we had envisioned. Ultimately, our familiarity with Microsoft Power Point led to our decision to use to create our infograph. Designing it was very tedious and required lots of patience to complete. While it may not have been professionally done, we were pleased with the result because, as far as we can tell, a Connecticut based info-graph was not something that existed. – Conor O’Neil and Declan Cooke