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New generation of historians reveals untold stories in Old Lyme

Old Lyme — Though they are the town's youngest historians, they are among the first to reveal centuries-old stories of the people enslaved on Lyme Street.

Seventh graders at Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School this year pieced together the stories of Jenny Freeman and Lewis Lewia, two of the people held in bondage on the street once inhabited by wealthy sea captains, shipbuilders and merchants.

It's all part of the Witness Stones Old Lyme community partnership to install small plaques commemorating individuals once enslaved. A ceremony was held Friday after the first 14 stones were placed earlier this week.

Partnership committee member Liz Frankel said there are plans to install several more witness stones on the street next year. The group's research shows there were more than 200 people enslaved in the area between 1670 and 1820, 50 of whom lived and worked on Lyme Street.

The seventh grade students used primary sources, including church records, property transactions, federal census counts and grave markers, to learn about Freeman and Lewia in their social studies class. The work carried over into language arts as the students crafted poems to engage others in the untold stories, according to teacher Olivia Hersant.

Student Ben Goulding's poem focused on the treatment of enslaved people. He said the facts he discovered through his research left him "pretty horrified."

"I always thought of slavery as down South, but I never really thought of it as up here," he said. "When I learned about all this treatment, I was very surprised by the brutality of all of it, and it really made an impact."

One of the books they read in class was called "Fortune's Bones" by Marilyn Nelson, a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut and former state poet laureate. The book combined poetry and history through verse, historical text and graphics.

Hersant said it "seemed natural" to ask the students to turn their own research into poetry.

"The prospect of writing a three-to-five page research paper at the end of the year is not inspiring, and we had just finished a poetry unit, so the timing all worked. It's new, it's different. It's not the same old, same old," she said.

The confluence of education continued at Friday's ceremony, when Marilyn Nelson herself took to the new patio at the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library to read a poem inspired by Samuel Freeman, the last known person enslaved in the town and one of the 14 whose names are now remembered on witness stones.

Nelson and three other poets were commissioned by the local Witness Stones partnership with support from a $5,000 racial equity grant from the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut, according to the partnership.

Patricia Wilson Pheanious — a member of the Witness Stones Project board of directors, a former state commissioner of social services and former state representative — addressed the students at the end of a speech about how the Witness Stones Project unearthed her family history and changed her perspective about the country and her place in it.

"Thanks to this program, I know that America is mine because 300 years of my ancestors' blood, sweat and tears earned her for me," she said. "My people didn't inherit America, or get their rights as squatters or through land grants freely given to others. They earned their place in our history and in this land and they shaped and fought for America's existence and freedom at a time when their own was denied."

Pheanious thanked the students for recovering the lives of people who "were used up, brushed under history's rug and nearly forgotten."

"Memorializing their struggle makes them count. It begins to repair the untold damage done by the failure of some teachers and most textbooks to not acknowledge their existence," Pheanious said.

The ceremony, which included readings from students in addition to the commissioned artists, also brought together representatives of the Witness Stones Old Lyme founding partners: the school system, the library, the Florence Griswold Museum and the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.

Florence Griswold Museum Director Becky Beaulieu recognized a woman named Crusa was once enslaved in the same place the museum's boarding house now stands. Research through the Witness Stones partnership shows Crusa, who provided domestic labor in the house of William Noyes, was granted emancipation when she was 39 years old.

First Selectman Tim Griswold said it was "a terrific thing" that the middle school was such a big part of the project.

Describing Old Lyme as a town that cherishes its history, he said the effort will help restore the memory of those who were enslaved in town.

"We hope that these people will not be forgotten and these histories will be revealed," he said.

First Congregational Church of Old Lyme senior associate minister and Witness Stones Old Lyme co-chairman, the Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager, concluded the installation ceremony by saying the partnership will provide more learning opportunities, more programs and will place more witness stones.

"We hope that the Witness Stones partnership continues to engage us in ongoing and involving conversations, crucial and hard conversations, compassionate conversations," she said.

Michelle Dean, Lyme-Old Lyme schools' director of curriculum, said the district plans to continue teaching the Witness Stones curriculum to seventh grade students and is considering eventually expanding it to eighth grade.

Seventh grader Charlotte Antonino, who was visibly moved by the soaring voice of Lisa Williamson as the soprano performed the spiritual "Deep River," said afterward that the Witness Stones Project gave her in-depth knowledge about the history of enslavement in the area.

"I felt a lot of emotion," she said. "I care very deeply about it and I just think it's something that is a big part of history."

e.regan@theday.com

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