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    Saturday, December 03, 2022

    New exhibit explores the life of Venture Smith, enslaved in Stonington

    An illustration of Venture Smith, left, at the entrance of the exhibit on his life Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, on display at the Old Lighthouse Museum in Stonington Borough. Kirby Williams, background, a member of the Stonington Historical Society board of directors, visits the exhibit for the first time. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Stonington — For years the Old Lighthouse Museum in the borough has featured exhibits on the town's Colonial history and fishing fleet and events such as the 1814 Battle of Stonington.

    Now a new exhibit that opens Friday in the renovated museum at Stonington Point tells the story of Venture Smith, an African man who was captured and sold into slavery as an 8-year-old boy. He spent much of his life owned by two Stonington families before he purchased his freedom for $13,500 and later that of his wife and children.  

    The permanent exhibit also shines light on the story of slavery in Stonington and across New England. Called "My Freedom is a Privilege that Nothing Else can Equal: The Story of Venture Smith and Slavery in Stonington," runs through Feb. 27. Its opening comes as the nation celebrates Black History Month.

    "This is part of the Stonington story. It's interesting that so many people don't know about slavery in New England so this is an important story to tell," Elizabeth Wood, the executive director of the Stonington Historical Society, which operates the museum, said Tuesday during a tour of the exhibit.

    One part of the exhibit shows that in 1756, 18% of the people in Stonington were Black, Indigenous or people of color. Many of them would have been slaves. An accounting of slavery in the region in 1774 shows there were 219 enslaved people in Stonington. 

    "Our responsibility is to present all history and all narratives. We can't pretend this didn't happen or sweep it under the rug," added Maddie Mott-Ricci, the historical society's director of advancement.

    Wood said the exhibit has been in development over the past three years and was suggested to the society by Karl Stofko, an East Haddam dentist and historian who she said has been celebrating Smith's life for a long time. Smith lived in East Haddam from 1775 to 1805 as a free man.

    The society, which received a $54,000 grant for the exhibit from the state Department of Economic and Community Development, also researched town and other records to tell the story of Smith and slavery in Stonington. Wood said the research is continuing, as the museum tells a more diverse story while an outdoor component of the exhibit is now being planned.

    The museum also used artifacts from its own collection, such as shackles and manacles, a tool from land where Smith lived in town and a Bible from a Stonington family that had written the names of their slaves and information about them in the back. One entry refers to "Chloe my Negro woman" who died in 1822 aged 57.

    The exhibits opens with a life-sized portrait of Smith based on written descriptions of him. It the adjacent room are panels that tell the story of the different periods of his life. 

    There is information about his early childhood in Africa after he was born in 1729 and how he was sold to a crew member before the slave ship reached the 13 British Colonies in America, his later childhood in Rhode Island and on Fishers Island, his short-lived escape, the advertisement seeking him as a runaway slave and the 21-year period from 1754 to 1775 when he was owned by Thomas Stanton and Oliver Smith in Stonington. It was from Oliver Smith that Venture Smith purchased his freedom. He later bought land on Barn Island and on the windowsill in the room is a photograph of where Smith's land is. Visitors can look out the window across Stonington Point to see the actual location.

    Each visitor to the museum will receive a copy of "A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa but resident above sixty years in the United States of America," which he related, or dictated to a writer, in 1798.

    Admission to the museum is free during February. Hours are Thursdays 1 to 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. The museum will close at the end of the month and reopen for the season May 13.

    j.wojtas@theday.com

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