Opinion: New memorials first to acknowledge difficult truth of slaves in Greenwich

Memorials to victims of the Holocaust, known as “stolpersteine” or “stumbling blocks,” are found throughout Europe from Trondheim, Norway to Thessaloniki, Greece. More than 75,000 of these brass plaques, created by German artist Gunter Demnig, have been placed outside the former homes of the victims, whose names are engraved on the plaques. “Emordet”— “Murdered” — appears under their names.

These “stumbling blocks” have inspired the American Witness Stones Project that began in 2017 in Guilford. These Witness Stones, placed as markers, memorialize enslaved individuals. The project’s mission is “to restore the history and honor the humanity of enslaved individuals who helped build our communities.”

The project provides support to middle and high school students as they study the history of slavery in the places where they live. The project has worked with 21 schools, primarily in Connecticut, but also in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

“We have to look at our own history of racism and inequality,” said project co-founder and executive director Dennis Culliton.

Project co-founder Douglas Nygren views racism as an assault upon our democracy. It must be countered immediately, he says, or else it will rapidly grow. Nygren, a licensed clinical social worker, treats abused children. He sees his skills in treating victims of trauma as helpful in addressing what he considers the national trauma of racism that results from ignorance and hate.

Nygren hopes that the Witness Stones will fight ignorance with truth, and make it clear that Black history, long neglected, is an integral part of the American story.

Will the German stolpersteine initiative work in this American context?

“It will work in the United States,” said Malte Lehming, a respected commentator for the widely circulated Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. “But American slavery cannot be compared to the Holocaust,” he said. “The stolpersteine program must be viewed as a tool to think about the past of another country with a completely different history.”

The Witness Stones Project has revealed the extent to which Black people were enslaved in the North, something often ignored, forgotten even, because most Americans associate slavery only with the South.

Two recent initiatives of the Witness Stones Project in Connecticut — in Guilford and in Greenwich — have served to educate the public regarding slavery in these communities.

Although slave labor was exploited in Greenwich for generations, there has never been a memorial for the hundreds of Greenwich slaves. That changed with the placement of Witness Stones as memorials to five slaves on the grounds of the Greenwich Historical Society on May 25. Students at two Greenwich schools — Sacred Heart and Greenwich Academy — researched the lives of these slaves and recounted their stories at the May 25 ceremony.

Some truths are hard to accept, said the Rev. Thomas Nins, pastor of the First Baptist Church, one of the speakers at the ceremony. That there were slaves in the Town of Greenwich is one of those difficult truths.

Remembering the long history of American slavery and racism is especially important now to counter the pervasive denials of systemic racism and the rise of racist extremism. The Connecticut anti-Defamation League reports an alarming jump in the circulation of White Supremacist propaganda.

Patricia Wilson Pheanious, former Connecticut state legislator from Windham County (D-53), and Witness Stones Project board member, is a ninth generation descendant of Guilford slaves. She learned that Montros and Phylis, who were 17 years old when they became the slaves of a Guilford family in 1728, were her ancestors.

This discovery strengthened her deep American roots.

“Like many Black children, my history had been hidden, or stolen,” she said. “And if you don’t know who you are and where did you come from you don’t know anything about your value.”

That knowledge, she said, made her feel “not beholden” as she had been made to feel. She believes the tool of the stolpersteine, as adapted by the Witness Stone Project, has unearthed her long connection with America.

“They used to tell Black children ‘why don’t you go back to where you came from,’” she said.

Her answer now: “I came from here.”

Greenwich resident Don Snyder is a retired producer at NBC News.