This is the third in a series of podcasts that highlight the work of organizations forwarding equity in Southeastern Connecticut (full transcript below). The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme received a Partnership Grant from the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern CT (HIC) as part of the Collaboratives’ work funded by the Cross Sector Innovation Initiative Grant (CSII). This grant initiative is lead by the Center for Sharing Public Health Services (CSPHS) and Public Health National Center for Innovations (PHNCI), with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)
Transcript of Old Lyme Witness Stones Podcast
Marilyn Nelson: [00:00:02] How many? Dolly Partons make up for 500 ah let’s call them January 6th rioters?
Isabelle Barbour: [00:00:12] That’s Marilyn Nelson, a nationally recognized poet, author, professor. She’s also a past poet laureate for the state of Connecticut. I’m Isabelle Barber from Truth Teller Consulting. This podcast focuses on the Witness Stones project occurring in Old Lyme, Connecticut. It’s an opportunity to think about what it means to take a look at the history of enslaved people in a community that is mainly white. We’ll take a look at the successes and the challenges. Marilyn is one of three people that you’ll hear from today. To start us off, we have Reverend Laura Fitzpatrick, Nager, Senior Associate Minister of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.
Rev. Laura Fitzparick-Nager: [00:01:10] The project really emerged. A number of us have been aware of the Witness Stone’s project that emerged in Guilford back in 2017. The historian in town there, Dennis Culliton, who was inspired by the Witness Stones project that was undertaken out of Berlin, the Stolpersteine Project, where they were memorializing people who had been killed in the Holocaust.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:01:37] In the United States. The Witness Stone’s project focuses on excavating from the historical record the names and stories of enslaved people. The project is both about history and thinking about how history and slavery has shaped a community.
Rev. Laura Fitzparick-Nager: [00:01:55] And tossing around the idea of How might we do that here in Old Lime? And then with the tragedy, the the murder of George Floyd happened and we were intensifying our awareness and communal efforts as a as a church to try to address systemic racism and in our midst. And Carolyn Wakeman had been doing a lot of work on on local evidence of slavery here in in old lime. And so we talked about how could we make this happen? And so we were able to collaborate with other organizations in town, the Phoebe Griffin Library and the museum, Florence Griswold Museum, our church, and then the school system, Region 18 here in town. And it really unfolded from there.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:02:52] Essential to this unfolding was the work of Carolyn Wakeman. Carolyn is a retired professor from the University of California, Berkeley. Her family has lived in Old Lyme for 11 generations. Carolyn retired to Old Lyme and has been researching the fate of enslaved people in the region for over ten years.
Carolyn Wakeman: [00:03:15] Growing up here, I had no idea that there were ever enslaved persons or anyone African American living in a community which now and also when I went to school here in the 1950s, was almost exclusively white. So I realized when I came back, when I retired and came back after working in a lot of different communities and countries that I was looking at, a place that I thought I knew, but I was looking at it for the first time.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:03:43] So Caroline got busy. She scoured the historical record for personal details about enslaved people.
Carolyn Wakeman: [00:03:51] And it’s very hard to find those details. They exist in a number of places. We can find them in a few emancipation declarations, proclamations, statements, certificates that were issued by the town. And so it’s a matter of really scouring the documents, family letters and all kinds of of evidence from the past to try to see where we can find traces of those who were enslaved. So it’s not easy. It exists in lots of places, and it takes a lot of painstaking work to pull it all together.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:04:22] Some of the benefactors of Carolyn’s work were middle school students at the Old Line Public Schools.
Carolyn Wakeman: [00:04:29] We worked with 2 7th grade teachers, the social studies teacher and the language arts teacher, and together they put together a six week project that happened at the end of the school year that engaged those students in the curriculum materials that I provided, which were primary documents. So we were asking these young kids to take a look at a an emancipation certificate and read it for themselves and see what they saw. And out of that came this remarkable poetry contribution that the language arts students provided, which was a number of seventh grade students writing their own poems about the people who had been enslaved.
Singing 7th graders at the installation ceremony: [00:05:12] I want to be in that number. When the saints come marching in. . .
Rev. Laura Fitzparick-Nager: [00:05:17] We did the installation here in town last June.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:05:23] Let’s take a second to talk about what exactly was installed. Here again is Caroline Wakeman.
Carolyn Wakeman: [00:05:29] The Witness Stones are small four by four inch brass plaques inscribed with the name of an enslaved person and a few of the details that we’ve been able to gather about that enslaved person’s life. The brass plaque is attached to a cement cube, and that cement cube with the brass plaque attached, is installed in the ground level with the ground. So what you see when you look at a witness stone, is a small brass plaque. Hopefully it’s quite shiny and bright. And you see in the grass in front of you the name of a formerly enslaved person who lived here in this case and who lived and worked on the street that we now know as Lyme Street, which is the main street through our community.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:18] The installation ceremony took place on June 4th, 2021. It was well-attended by Old Lyme residents. The schoolchildren were there. Reverend Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager spoke. Carolyn Wakeman spoke. And Marilyn Nelson led the crowd in a call and response through the names of the enslaved people that were being celebrated on that day. We’ll be working through those names as well.
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:06:47] We have the opportunity to speak the names of 14 people who lived along this street. And worked right here and died right here. So I’m going to read each name and then ask you to repeat it: Louis Lewia,
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:07:17] Louis Lewia
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:07:20] Humphrey
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:07:23] Humphrey
Isabelle Barbour: [00:07:24] I had some questions for Reverend Laura and Carolyn Wakeman about what it was like to work on this project as white women in a mainly white community.
Isabelle asking a question: [00:07:35] As two white women, did you feel a sense of responsibility for this work or project, or how did your identity shape your thinking about it?
Carolyn Wakeman: [00:07:50] I worked with that. I thought about that sat with that and the most direct way in the last year was working with Marilyn Nelson and Rhonda Ward and and Kate Rushin and Antoinette Brim-Bell These remarkable women who have brought poetry and the arts to their own constituencies, their own lives, their own communities in ways that have been profoundly important and always to ask them the question of how they saw an individual, a situation, an enslavement circumstance that I might be about to write about, that I wanted to just be sure that they would view it, that I wasn’t viewing it in a way that would be different from their own, from their own approach or their own ideas. And through that collaboration. And again, Laura talked about that process of collaboration with organizations and institutions, but the collaboration with the with the poets is really terribly important, not just to not just to what it was that I wrote, but how we conceived of this entire project.
Marilyn Nelson: [00:08:51] I am Marilyn Nelson. I have been a member of Laura’s church for some years. I already knew a lot of the history of Old Lyme because I had written a chapbook’s worth of poems about the history of the church. So for me, it just seemed like turning and opening another door into into this very rewarding story. And then I thought, well, it would be kind of stingy of me not to share this story with other poets who would find it as rewarding as I’ve found it. So I contacted three other African American poets who live in the state and asked them if they would be interested in signing on to work together with me on this on this project, which I knew at that point very little about.
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:10:09] Samuel Freeman
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:10:10] Samuel Freeman
Isabelle Barbour: [00:10:10] Carolyn Wakeman helped to orient the poets by sharing primary research and taking them to places where some of the enslaved people were buried.
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:10:21] Cato
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:10:22] Cato
Carolyn Wakeman: [00:10:25] And the four of them work together with me with the information that I provided them about the people who had lived in this town and enslavement. And they wrote the most remarkable series of poems. Sometimes we may have just a death date, for example, about Cato, the young boy owned by Jonathan Parsons, the minister. That’s all we know. Just his death date and his age. The church records tell us that. So how do we imagine his life? And and it would be Marilyn and Rhonda and Kate and Antoinette who would be able to bring to that question something that I wouldn’t be able to do.
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:10:56] Temperance Still.
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:10:59] Temperance Still.
Marilyn Nelson: [00:11:01] In in the Witness Stones poems. For example, I wrote the first I wrote four poems about a woman named Temperance, who was born in about 1720. And I wrote the first two without before I knew anything about what happened to her later in the life, in her life. And for that, I was I was confronted with a copy of a document in which Temperance. Signed– A way – Her future. To be a slave. She was half Native American, so it was not legal for her to be a slave for life. No one could enslave her for life without her permission. So there is this document where she signs an X. Saying that she’s signed away all of her future, basically, and her children and their future in order to become the property of this man. I’m looking at this and thinking, what in the world could convince this woman to sign away her life? And I spent a lot of time thinking about that. And it finally. It occurred to me that it must have been this must be a love story. And that she had done this for love. There’s just no other way of of understanding it. And then I discovered after I had decided that, I discovered that there was another document in the church history in which the week after Temperance signed that document, she was married. To an enslaved man who belonged to the man who now owned Temperance.
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:13:21] Caesar.
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:13:21] Caesar.
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:13:22] Arabella.
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:13:24] Arabella.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:13:25] Old lime is 91% white. And has had a history of resisting approaches like affordable housing, which would have diversified the community. I had some questions for Reverend Laura, for Carolyn Wakeman and for Marilyn Nelson about what it was like to forward this project in this community. I asked specifically about any challenges and barriers.
Carolyn Wakeman: [00:13:53] One of the barriers was that we needed the consent of the historic district commission and of the property owners. And there was some dissent. We did have two people who spoke at the historic District Commission meeting about their concern about property values, that if there was a plaque placed in the grass in front of their house, one of the homes was historic homes was at that time for sale. The property owner was concerned and the real estate person was concerned that it might lower the property value.
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:14:25] Jack Howard.
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:14:27] Jack Howard.
Rev. Laura Fitzparick-Nager: [00:14:29] For many decades now, our church has had the opportunity to to stand up where we we feel called to do that, whether it has to do with South Africa or Palestine or Greengrass, South Dakota, or more locally with affordable housing and with. What is it about the fact that we we live in a town that has not only this history of chattel slavery and white supremacy, but that we continue to need to face the racial inequities right in our very midst. Nonetheless, we are on this journey to. Speak. I’ll speak for myself. But I think as a church to to be better allies. So our work in immigration, our work in doing what we can towards affordable housing so we can work on anti racism in every aspect of of what we’re doing three years ago, maybe a little longer than that. Affordable housing affordable housing project was struck down and voted against. And it it brought out a lot of division, ugliness, push back not in my backyard stuff that was was really hard to to face. And then last fall really for the past couple of years, this letter addressing addressing racism as a public health crisis.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:16:14] The letter that she’s talking about is a resolution declaring racism as a public health issue. This has been signed by many communities in Connecticut and some around the nation.
Rev. Laura Fitzparick-Nager: [00:16:25] Many have been working to try to pass that letter. And there was a meeting with the Board of Selectmen in town with a time for public comment, and it was a very painful evening.
Woman speaking at the Old Lyme Board of Selectman Meeting: [00:16:40] I don’t think this town is systemically racist. And I don’t think.[Crowd cheers and woman cannot be heard] We that are not racist should be labeled as such. And I think some people in this room are labeling people as being racist and they’re not. And they’re going to automatically label us racist because it’s the thing to do these days. I know someone who is on the board of selectmen, who has grandchildren that are black. So you can’t say they’re racist.
Lisa Williamson Singing at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme: [00:17:19] [Operatic song] We gather by the river where bright angels feet have trode. With it’s crystal tide forever. . .
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:17:23] Jane
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:17:54] Jane
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:17:55] Jenny Freeman
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:17:57] Jenny Freeman
Isabelle Barbour: [00:18:00] So is part of it –by naming things truthfully, by naming our history truthfully that we’re trying to bridge with other people? We’re trying to bridge with the people that live here now? I’m thinking about the witness stones in Germany and where this idea came from originally. Right. And kind of the idea of truth and reconciliation, the idea of being accountable.
Carolyn Wakeman: [00:18:27] So truth and reconciliation absolutely essential, underlies everything that we do. It’s it’s an underlying principle because we are telling the truth and we are coming to embrace a past that we never recognized before. So will this lead us forward? We can’t answer that question, but. But but I think I think the answer is yes. I think if we look back, we do see a steady change in understanding with all the backward steps that we’ve seen over the last especially in the last couple of years, which have been pronounced and and it dismayed so many of us. Nevertheless, we have to find a way to try to address the causes of of those of those what I see and what many people see as steps backward.
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:19:13] Luce
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:19:14] Luce
Marilyn Nelson: [00:19:16] All of American history can also teach people to do what Mr. Rogers’ mother said we should do, and that is look for the helpers. And it’s time that we start looking for the helpers and honoring the helpers, the ones who were not ordinary. It was ordinary to be evil. It’s always ordinary. It’s easy to be evil. That’s the banality of evil, isn’t it? It’s harder to stand up, even in small ways. You know, seeing a character that you think, well, gosh, I, I hope that if I were in a situation, I wouldn’t be the ordinary lemmings of running to the edge of the cliff. I would be one of the ones who saved somebody.
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:20:23] Pompey Freeman.
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:20:24] Pompey Freeman
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:20:25] Crusa
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:20:25] Crusa
Carolyn Wakeman: [00:20:29] I think Laura touched a little earlier on the importance of extending continuing, deepening the conversation. And that’s one way in which we’re trying to do this. How do we how do we keep the conversation going, going? How do we deepen it? How do we draw more participants into it? How do we make talking about racism easier and less confrontational?
Marilyn Nelson presenting at the installation ceremony: [00:20:54] Nancy Freeman
Crowd at the installation ceremony: [00:20:56] Nancy Freeman
Rev. Laura Fitzparick-Nager: [00:20:58] This is a multi year project and we are looking ahead to this coming June. We have permission from the historical district to for six more stones for right now. And so Carolyn and other helpers with the research are looking at who else will we be honoring in in this next phase. Hopefully conversation will continue around this in different ways that the witness stones doesn’t happen in isolation with what is going on right now currently in our in our country.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:21:42] The operatic song that you heard earlier was sung by Lisa Williamson on February 20th of 2022. It was recorded at a church service dedicated to the Witness Stones at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. You can find out more about the Witness Stone’s project in Old Lyme by visiting witnessstonesoldlyme.org
Lisa Williamson Singing at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme: [00:22:11] [Operatic song] The beautiful. The beautiful river. . .