Holocaust memorial plaques, known as “stumbling blocks,” can be found all over Europe – from Trondheim in Norway to Thessaloniki in Greece. More than 75,000 of these copper plates by German artist Gunter Deming were erected in front of the victims’ former homes. Their names are engraved on the tablets. Underneath are the words ‘Deported’, ‘Murdered’ and the date.
These “obstacles” inspired the American Witness Stones Project, which began in 2017 in Guilford, Connecticut. Here they are called “witness stones” and are supposed to remember the enslaved. The project’s mission is to “present the facts of history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our societies.”
Middle and high school students are supported in studying the history of slavery in the places where they live. The project works with 21 schools, mainly in Connecticut, but also in Massachusetts and New Jersey.
“We have to look at our own history of racism and inequality,” says co-founder and CEO of the project Dennis Coleton. The project’s second co-founder, Douglas Negrin, sees racism as an attack on American democracy. Whenever he appears, he says, it must be fought immediately, “otherwise it will grow rapidly.” As a clinic social worker, Negrin treats abused children, and sees his skills in dealing with trauma victims help in dealing with what he sees as the “national trauma of racism” resulting from ignorance and hate.
The “Witness Stones” are supposed to fight ignorance of the truth
Negrin hopes that the Stones of Witness will help fight ignorance of the truth and make clear that long-neglected black history is an integral part of American history. The American Witness Stones Project also revealed the extent of black enslavement in the northern United States.
This part of the story is often overlooked, and even forgotten, because most Americans associate slavery only with the South.
Two initiatives from the Connecticut Witness Stones Project—Guilford and Greenwich—recently helped educate the public about the history of slavery in these communities. Despite the exploitation of slave labor in Greenwich for generations, there was no memorial to the torturers.
That changed when this witness-stone memorial to five slaves was erected on the grounds of the Greenwich Historical Society on May 25. Students from two schools in Greenwich – Sacred Heart and Greenwich Academy – conducted research on the lives of these slaves and told their stories at the ceremony.
Racial extremism on the rise in the United States
Reverend Thomas Nines of First Baptist Church, one of the speakers at the ceremony, said some facts are hard to accept. The existence of slaves in Greenwich is one of those hard facts. Remembering the long history of American slavery and racism is especially important now to counter the blanket denial of systemic racism and the rise of racial extremism. The Connecticut Anti-Defamation League reported an alarming jump in the spread of Nazi propaganda.
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Patricia Wilson Vianius, former MP for County Windham and member of the Witness Stones Project Board of Directors, is a descendant of the ninth generation of Guilford slaves. She learned that Montrose and Phyllis, who were seventeen years old when they became slaves to the Guilford family in 1728, were her ancestors. This discovery cemented her deep American roots. “As with many black children, my story was either hidden or stolen,” she says. “And if you don’t know who you are and where you come from, you don’t know anything about your worth and identity.”
“In the past, black children were often told, ‘Why don’t you go back to where you came from,'” she says. “Today her answer is: ‘I came from here’.”
Don Snyder has worked as a journalist in the United States for six decades and produced the Today Show on NBC for nearly 20 years. He lives in Greenwich, Connecticut. (translated by Malte Lehming)