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Stonington slave's road to freedom to be celebrated in book form

By Judy Benson

Publication: The Day

Published February 25. 2013 4:00AM

Some 850 public libraries statewide will soon have in their collections an account of one of the most significant, compelling - and, until recently, widely overlooked - stories of life in colonial Connecticut and surrounding areas.

Today at 10 a.m. at the Capitol, five members of the state's congressional delegation will gather to announce a project to distribute copies of a book and audio CD to 250 municipal libraries and about 600 middle and high school libraries about the life of Venture Smith, an African slave who bought his freedom and became a prominent farmer and trader in 18th-century Connecticut.

The book, "Making Freedom: The Extraordinary Life of Venture Smith," and CD, which contains a reading of Smith's autobiography, will be distributed for free, thanks to Wesleyan University Press, which published the book at a reduced cost, the Connecticut State Library, which will handle the distribution, and a donation from Litchfield resident Peter Tillou.

"Having five members of the congressional delegation show up and say this story's important and belongs in the public domain means we now have a significant power group to push it further," said Chandler Saint, co-director of the Documenting Venture Smith Project and co-author of "Making Freedom." He is also president of the Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights in Torrington.

Saint, along with Robert Forbes, associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, rediscovered and began researching Smith's story about seven years ago, and have led efforts to make it more widely known through exhibits, conferences and other events.

Smith's autobiography, starts with his childhood in Africa. It tells of his capture, voyage to Barbados and Newport and time as a slave on the Mumford farm on Fishers Island. He was then purchased by Oliver Smith Jr. of Stonington, who agreed to let Venture buy his freedom and that of his wife and children by working in his spare time. From Smith, Venture buys and farms 26 acres at what is now part of the state-owned Barn Island Wildlife Refuge in Stonington.

Eventually, he bought another farm in Haddam Neck on the Connecticut River, where, by the time of his death in 1805 at age 77, he was a wealthy farmer, boatbuilder and trader.

The Haddam Neck property, Saint noted, is part of a 38-acre parcel acquired in January by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as part of the Salmon River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The property had been owned by the Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Co. In recognition of the recent acquisition, Rick Potvin, refuge manager at the Fish & Wildlife Service, will be among the speakers at today's events.

Because Smith's autobiography is one of the only 18th-century first-person accounts of an enslaved African brought to this country, "this is one of the dozen most important sites for African-American history in the whole country," said Saint. One of the original copies of the narrative, first published in New London in 1798, is owned by the New London County Historical Society, which sells reprints at its headquarters at the Shaw Mansion in New London. On the CD, the narrative is ready by Robert Hall, associate professor of African-American Studies at Northeastern University.

Saint said getting the Haddam Neck property into public ownership is a significant step in advancing preservation and knowledge of Venture Smith's story.

"We're at the start of a couple-year process for the Fish & Wildlife Service to understand what they have and get it interpreted," he said.

Lawmakers sharing the podium with Potvin at today's event will be: Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District; Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; Jim Himes, D-4th District; and Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District. Others on the speakers' list include descendants of Venture Smith; Connecticut NAACP President Scot Esdaile; Kate Dimancescu, descendant of one of Venture Smith's owners; and Suzanna Tamminen, director and editor-in-chief of Wesleyan University Press.

State Librarian Kendall Wiggin, also one of the speakers, said only about 25 municipal public libraries currently have a copy of "Making Freedom," and none had a copy of Venture Smith's autobiography.

"This is a great opportunity for people to learn about a significant character in our history," said Wiggin. "This is a great way to mark Black History Month. The Venture Smith story is a wonderful story, and for libraries, getting a free copy of a good quality book is important."

Two years ago, Wiggin worked with Saint and others on an exhibit about Venture Smith at the State Library. Recently, the exhibit appeared in London, and will go to Ghana and possibly other African countries next summer, Saint said. He hopes in the future to bring it to Mystic Seaport, and said the Smithsonian Institution has also expressed interest.

In a letter to librarians that will accompany the book and CD, Venture Smith's story is called "one of the great American freedom stories" that is being used in schools and as part of a worldwide campaign against modern-day slavery. The letter is signed by the state's seven-member congressional delegation. Along with the book and CD, librarians are also invited to request a program about the life of Venture Smith, put on by the Documenting Venture Smith Project.

j.benson@theday.com

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