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This op-ed was written by the ministers of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme:- Rev. Steven R. Jungkeit, Ph.D. (Senior Minister), Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager (Senior Associate Minister), and Rev. Carleen Gerber (Associate Minister.)
As the death of George Floyd, and now Daunte Wright, once again dominates the news cycle, so too local communities throughout the United States are called to continue the work of addressing the inequities and injustices caused by systemic racism. Thankfully, in many places, that work didn’t begin with the death of Mr. Floyd – it has been happening all along. Still, the horrific footage of that event, together with the killing of Daunte Wright, underscore both the urgency of the work, and the sheer scale of it. The roots of systemic racism run deep, and they are pervasive. Those roots run deep throughout the entire country, but they are especially pervasive in local communities. Old Lyme, Connecticut, is not an exception.
To say that a community (or a country) is afflicted with systemic racism is not the same as attributing racist behaviors to individuals. While it might be true that some individuals do exhibit racist behaviors, and while it is also true that most people possess unconscious biases in need of examination, systemic racism is far more subtle. It has to do with who benefits most from our economic system, our educational institutions, and our business practices. It has to do with the availability of health care, and the location and availability of housing. It has to do with transportation and environmental resources. Countering systemic racism involves discovering where blockages toward racial justice exist, and then doing the hard work of reshaping and reforming those structures in order to create communities that are inviting, fully responsive to the diverse needs of those who live there.
Old Lyme, along with the entirety of the Connecticut Shoreline, has a long history of systemic racism that has gone largely unnoticed and unaddressed. Historical research discloses that the wealth of the town was built through trade with the West Indies, islands where slaves were worked to death on sugar plantations. Barrel staves were made in Old Lyme, which were then shipped to Barbados from the Lieutenant River and the Connecticut River. Molasses, converted from the cane sugar harvested by enslaved Africans, came back in those barrels, which was then converted into rum. Communities all over Connecticut supplied the West Indies with agricultural products, which were then converted into molasses, and then rum, and then the purchase of human beings. Old Lyme, together with other Connecticut towns like Old Saybrook, Wethersfield, New London, and many others, played its part in that global relay system.
But Old Lyme didn’t simply profit from a slave society that was far away. It was a slave society. We can document as many as 160 enslaved people – and likely more – that lived in this town alone. Many, if not most, of the towns along the Connecticut Shoreline have similar numbers. The first minister of the Congregational Church in Old Lyme owned at least one enslaved person, named Arabella. A prominent member of the town in the early 18th century sold a three year old child, named Jane, away from her mother, writing in the deed of sale that she was sold in order to have and to hold, to be possessed and enjoyed. The largest slave holding family in New England, the DeWolfs, built an integrated empire of slaving in Bristol, Rhode Island in the 18th century, but they got their start in Old Lyme – one of the early family patriarchs is buried in the Duck River Cemetery. At least three enslaved people lived on the site where the Congregational Church now stands. At least five enslaved people lived in the house that now serves as the parsonage. Several more lived on the site of the town library. More still lived at the site of what is now the Florence Griswold Museum. That’s merely a handful of the human beings who were enslaved in Old Lyme.
But it’s not only enslavement that occurred in Old Lyme. Redlining did too. Property records exist from the mid-20th century that prohibit the sale of houses or land in Old Lyme to people of color. Such records raise questions about precisely what is meant when contemporary residents deploy language about “preserving the town’s historic character.” What does “character” mean, precisely? Can that “character” be separated out from the history of systemic racism that took place in Old Lyme? Given the evidence of systemic racism in Old Lyme, are there not aspects of the town’s “historic character” that we might wish to address, change, and overcome?
The Resolution on Racism as a Public Health Crisis currently before the town’s Board of Selectmen is a way of publicly acknowledging the ways structural racism adversely affects the bodily, emotional, and spiritual well-being of people of color, an acknowledgment that should not be controversial. Passing it would acknowledge that structural racism exists throughout our country, including in places like Old Lyme. It would send a clear message to the people of color and minorities who do live in the town that local leaders actually care about their well-being. It would do the same for the people of color who work in town, but live elsewhere. But more than that, passing the resolution would send a signal to those living in other communities that Old Lyme understands the conditions that far too many people face in Connecticut and in the wider United States. Finally, it would help to acknowledge this town’s complicity in the very formation of structural racism, a complicity in which it is not alone. Sadly, failing to affirm that Resolution declares the opposite: the desire to retain the town’s “historic character,” together with all that phrase implies.
Passing a resolution is a largely symbolic activity. Still, we believe such passage would be a substantive step toward lasting change. But clearly more work is needed if we are truly to address the inequities that have existed in Connecticut, and in Old Lyme. That work would include a public education program to learn the history of enslavement in Old Lyme. It would include building a curriculum that would teach that history to our children. It would include an active campaign to invite people of color to live in our community, and to take part in our educational system. And it would include a commitment to building affordable housing, which, it should be noted, would also benefit many within this community who already face precarious housing.
We believe it is time for Old Lyme to lead on issues surrounding structural racism. The murder of George Floyd and the murder of Daunte Wright, together with the public reckoning that such violence has unleashed, has created an opening toward greater honesty, empathy, compassion, and justice. Mr. Floyd’s death, and Mr. Wright’s, is nothing short of a tragedy. Indeed, it is more than that – it is a national emergency. With that tragedy and with that emergency, we have an opportunity to work toward a greater and more inclusive public good, one in which towns like Old Lyme become the hospitable and welcoming communities that we most deeply wish to be.
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