December 6, 2021

‘Witness Stones’ Celebration Highlighted Installation of Plaques Marking Sites of Enslavement in Old Lyme

Katie Huffman, Director of the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, welcomes guests to the ceremony, the inaugural event for the library’s new patio. All photos from the ceremony courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

OLD LYME – The Old Lyme Witness Stones Partnership held an installation ceremony last Friday, June 4, celebrating the town’s newly installed Witness Stones—historical plaques commemorating the lives of 14 individuals, who were once enslaved on Lyme Street.

The project expands the understanding of local history and honors the humanity and contributions of those formerly held in bondage.

The Witness Stone honoring Jenny Freeman at 32 Lyme Street, corner of Beckwith Lane.

Members of the Old Lyme community gathered on the lawn of the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library to honor these people, who collectively represent just some of the individuals once enslaved along today’s Lyme Street:

  • Cato
  • Lewis Lewia
  • Humphrey
  • Caeser
  • Jack Howard
  • Jenny Freeman
  • Luce
  • Crusa
  • Nancy Freeman
  • Temperance Still
  • Jane
  • Pompey Freeman
  • Samuel Freeman
  • Arabella.

This plaque commemorating the life of the enslaved Jack Howard is located at 5 Lyme Street, which is the parsonage of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.

The program included music, poetry, and words from community partners. World-renowned soprano Lisa Williamson sang the spiritual, Deep River, and the hymn, Amazing Grace.

The Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School Chorus, under the direction of Laura Ventres, contributed to the program.

Twelve members of the Old Lyme Middle School chorus, led by Laura Ventres, also contributed to the program.

Seated from left to right are soprano Lisa Williamson, poets Marilyn Nelson, Rhonda Ward, and Antoinette Brim-Bell ready to participate in the Installation Ceremony for Witness Stones Old Lyme.

Distinguished Connecticut poets Antoinette Brim-Bell, Marilyn Nelson, and Rhonda Ward read new works capturing the unheard voices of those enslaved in Lyme and Old Lyme.

Carolyn Wakeman, co-chair of Witness Stones Old Lyme and Historian, with Katie Huffman, Director of the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library.

These poems, by Antoinette Brim-Bell, Marilyn Nelson, Kate Rushin, and Rhonda Ward and created with support from a Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut (HIC) Partnership Grant for Racial Equity, brought vividly to life experiences, attitudes, and emotions long ignored and then forgotten.

Poet Rhonda Ward read her poem in honor of the life of one of the enslaved people.

Seventh-grade students from the Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School read biographical poems they wrote to tell the life stories of Jenny Freeman and Lewis Lewia. Using primary documents, the students researched these two enslaved town residents, making the story of local slavery tangible, personal, and relevant to their own lives.

Michelle Dean, Director of Curriculum for Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, introduces the seventh-grade student poets.

Lyme-Old Lyme (LOL) Schools Director of Curriculum Michelle Dean commented, “The collective level of engagement and discovery of the students on this project is something you don’t get to see that often.  They have done a wonderful job.”

Meanwhile, LOL Schools Social Studies teacher Health Saia, noted, “It has been thrilling seeing the a-ha moments the students are having as they go through the primary documents and meet Jenny Freeman and Lewis Lewia.”

Olivia Hersant, a LOL Schools Language Arts teacher,  added, “It’s been exciting. The students are learning and thinking deeply about topics that we didn’t learn about until we were adults.”

Pat Wilson Pheanious, Co-Chair of the Witness Stones Project’s Board of Directors, speaks at the ceremony.

Each Witness Stone on Lyme Street includes the name of an enslaved individual, along with important details about their lives and circumstances derived from land records, emancipation certificates, and other available historical documents.

These four Witness Stones are on the lawn of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.

The small brass plaques, embedded flush with the ground, have been placed primarily on the west side of the street for pedestrian safety.

 

An interpretive sign, pictured above, has also been installed on the lawn of the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library providing a map of the Lyme Street enslavement sites.

The Old Lyme Witness Stones Partnership’s goal is to expand the understanding of local history and honor the humanity and the contributions of those formerly enslaved in the community.

The partnership’s founding members include the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, the Florence Griswold Museum, the Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, and the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.

Community partners include the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, Lymes’ Youth Service Bureau, and the Old Lyme Historical Society.

Editor’s Note: For further information on the Witness Stones project, visit their just-launched website at this link.

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