Shortly before the Revolutionary War, an enslaved Connecticut man named Jeffrey Brace was beaten unconscious by his new owner, John Burwell of Milford. Burwell struck Brace with his fists, legs and a chair. In a written account years later, Brace recalled that one blow to his head during the beating was so hard it “pealed [sic] up a piece of my scalp about as big as my three fingers.” After waking up, Brace was subjected to two rounds of whipping and made to walk a quarter-mile barefoot in the winter.
Brace’s visceral, difficult-to-read account of the horrors of slavery in Connecticut is the type of story we don’t often hear about Northeastern states, says Dennis Culliton, a recently retired teacher at Adams Middle School in Guilford. In Connecticut, we’re good at “pointing our fingers south and saying how awful those people were,” he says. But when it comes to confronting our own past, we have more trouble.
Culliton is a co-founder of the Witness Stones Project, which remembers enslaved Connecticut individuals by placing stone memorials in their honor. It’s an attempt to come to terms with Connecticut’s past in regards to slavery, a history that is often glossed over, if not outright forgotten. One textbook Culliton has long used says something like “slavery was ended in New England soon after the American Revolution.” It’s technically true but it’s an oversimplification akin to saying that a few years after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Allies won the war.
Slavery in Connecticut began in the mid-1600s. At the start of the American Revolution, Connecticut had the largest number of slaves in New England. The Gradual Abolition Act of 1784 made it a law that those born into slavery in Connecticut would be freed in their 20s, but this gradual emancipation allowed slavery to continue in some form until 1848.
Culliton has done extensive research into slavery in Guilford and Madison. A few years ago he gave a talk on the topic that his friend Doug Nygren heard. Nygren was inspired by the talk and a trip he took to Germany where he learned about the Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) project, which began in Berlin and honored the memory of Jews and others murdered in the Holocaust by placing memorial stones in front of their homes. Nygren wanted to do something similar and recruited Culliton to help with the project in 2017. Within months, Culliton began working with students in Guilford to research the history of enslaved people in their town, and the first witness stone was put up in Guilford. In addition to placing a name on a witness stone, the students involved in the projects sketch historical biographies of each slave, in many cases recovering their stories from forgotten or overlooked corners of history.
Culliton, Nygren and the students they worked with placed witness stones in Guilford and Madison. Early press for the project attracted the attention of historians in West Hartford. Members of that community soon began working with West Hartford students on similar projects. All told, 18 stones have been installed in various locations in Guilford, Madison and West Hartford, and Culliton has even tracked down descendants of people who were enslaved in Connecticut. The stones are placed where they lived, worked or prayed. More are in the works — there is hope that one will eventually be installed for Brace in Milford — and Culliton would like to collaborate with schools and communities throughout the state.
According to the 1774 Census, Culliton says, in Connecticut “just about every community had slavery.”
First-person accounts written by former slaves like Brace are rare. Many of those who were enslaved are remembered only through records and the accounts of others.
Earlier this year, West Hartford schoolchildren worked with the Witness Stone Project and historians in town to research the story of an enslaved man named Prut. Owned by John Whitman Jr., a West Hartford farmer, Prut died while serving in the American Revolution during the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga, though it’s unclear exactly how. A slave serving in the war was not uncommon, as slave owners could send them to fight in their place. This may be what happened with Prut; records indicate Whitman ended up serving in the war a year after Prut’s death. In May, Prut’s name was added to the war memorial in West Hartford Town Center.
On a recent visit, the name stands out. It is noticeably newer than the others etched into the polished stone. Like the others, Prut served the U.S. and paid the ultimate sacrifice. But unlike the rest, he died not for, but because, of his country.