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    Wednesday, September 27, 2023

    Redone Barn Island sign celebrates Venture Smith but remains controversial

    The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection held an unveiling Wednesday, May 31, 2023, for a sign commemorating Venture Smith at Barn Island Wildlife Management Area, where Smith purchased 26 acres of land after buying his freedom from enslavement. (Erica Moser/The Day)
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    Historian Chandler Saint stands by the sign marking the historic location of Venture Smith's farm in the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in Stonington Friday, May 1, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day, File)
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    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 exhibition for the first time. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Stonington ― After parking off Stewart Road, crossing the meadow, and turning right into the woods, a walker at Barn Island Wildlife Management Area will eventually come across a newly installed sign declaring the land Venture Smith’s Freedom Site.

    Born Broteer Furro, Smith was kidnapped as a child in Guinea in the 18th century. He described in his narrative being enslaved in Rhode Island, on Fishers Island and then in Stonington, where he earned money outside of his enslavement and purchased his freedom in 1765.

    In 1770, he purchased 26 acres of land in what is now Barn Island and built a home near where his wife and children remained enslaved. The memoir he dictated, “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America, was published in New London in 1798, a rare firsthand account.

    The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on May 31 held an unveiling of the new sign, purchased by Documenting Venture Smith Project co-director Chandler B. Saint. Along with Saint, people from the Town of Stonington, DEEP, the office of U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-3rd District), and the Denison Homestead spoke.

    Missing were descendants of Smith and historians who researched his connection to this land; they either learned of the event last-minute or after the fact. Also missing was acknowledgment that Saint had put up a sign more than eight years ago, but it was taken down after historians complained of inaccuracies.

    DEEP deferred to the State Historic Preservation Office on updated language. SHPO historian Todd Levine sought input from historians who complained, but several people who spoke with The Day said they still find the sign inaccurate.

    They issue is with the inclusion of a signature for Smith, who they say was not literate, and the assertion that he twice owned this land. Levine said he didn’t approve the part of the marker with the signature.

    Researching Smith’s land in Stonington

    “It’s a lot more complicated than somebody saying we need to honor Venture Smith. We need to do it the right way,” said Nancy Steenburg, a UConn Avery Point adjunct professor who in 2005 began researching Smith’s life in Stonington along with assistant Liz Kading.

    They examined land deeds in Stonington Town Hall, tracing the chain of title from the 1750s to when the state of Connecticut bought the land from the Stewart family in 1964. Kading pieced together more information using Google Earth.

    Researchers Marta Daniels and Nancy Byrne did further surveying and mapping to identify the proper site of the farm. Daniels told The Day at the time, “The Atlantic slave trade took away a person's identity, and when he could buy land, he was buying his identity back. We owe it to ourselves to hold this man up.”

    Another longtime researcher is East Haddam Town Historian Karl Stofko, who said he began tracing the genealogy of Smith’s descendants in 1972 and started Venture Smith Day in East Haddam ― where Smith also owned land and is buried ― in 1996.

    Stofko suggested to the Stonington Historical Society an exhibition on Smith, which opened at the Lighthouse Museum in Stonington Borough in February 2022.

    Executive Director Liz Wood said the museum “broke all records for visitation the first year the exhibition was open. But people have also said this is an extraordinary example that “doesn’t speak to the experience of thousands of other enslaved people,” and she agrees.

    The exhibition opened thanks to a $75,000 grant from the state. Steenburg said as part of this grant, the historical society paid for an extensive archaeological survey of the 26 acres; an archaeologist did test pits every 10 feet.

    The controversy

    At the other end of Connecticut, people may know Chandler Saint for the zoning disputes and lawsuits in his contentious effort more than two decades ago to reconstruct Harriet Beecher Stowe’s birthplace.

    But in 2005, he launched the Documenting Venture Smith Project with David Richardson, an economic history professor and founding director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery at the University of Hull in England. Saint is now an honorary research fellow at the Wilberforce Institute.

    Also working with Saint is Robert Pierce Forbes, former associate director of Yale’s Gilder Lehman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, and more recently an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University.

    Saint has made more people aware of Smith’s story, speaking in museums, libraries and classrooms. An associate director at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History in 2016 said Saint made a convincing case Smith’s story should be included in the museum.

    After Saint put up the sign at Barn Island in 2015, State Historian Walter Woodward wrote DEEP a letter citing objections over accuracy from Steenburg, Daniels and John Wood Sweet, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina.

    Daniels also commented last week that descendants, researchers, and the Stonington Historical Society “should have been consulted in the original drafting of any sign, and that a private individual should not be the source of a sign.”

    Levine said the sign was taken down in November 2015 while issues were addressed, and Saint said he let the issue go for a while. But after DEEP got a new deputy commissioner, and “at the request of several significant political figures in Connecticut” ― whom he declined to name ― Saint asked last year for the sign to go back up.

    Levine said last summer, DEEP asked the State Historic Preservation Office to review new language from Forbes and Saint. After further discussions with them, the other historians, and Smith descendant Susi Ryan, he submitted refined language to DEEP at the end of March.

    Levine said “much of the language in the sign refers to the story of Venture Smith’s Narrative biography as the source. Rather than state the information provided to us through the biography as fact, the sign simply shares the story of the Narrative.”

    He added, “Venture Smith’s story is complicated, and inspires many passionate people. Our role is to help that story be told in the most accurate way possible.”

    Steenburg, Daniels, Sweet, Wood, Stofko and Ryan still have issues with the sign, in part due to the inclusion of the signature and the wording that Smith “was the first African American to write and publish his own autobiography.” They said Smith was not literate, and Steenburg and Wood said documents in the historical record have an X for his signature.

    Saint does not claim Smith physically wrote his narrative, because he was going blind, but said “to write your autobiography is not saying you actually were moving the pen.” Forbes said in a 2010 talk to the American Historical Association that “we should not assume that he was illiterate.”

    The two said they never claimed the script on the sign was Smith’s signature. Rather, Forbes said, it’s on a copy of the Narrative in a library at Yale. Stofko said he has researched another 15 or 20 manuscripts at libraries around the country and no others have this signature, and that anybody could have put the signature on the cover.

    Steenburg also objects to the description on the sign, “Two times, according to his Narrative, Venture Smith owned this farm, now part of the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area. Between about 1761 and 1765, while still an enslaved person, he came into possession of the land through a surrogate.”

    She said there’s no legal record of Smith owning land in Stonington from 1761 to 1765, and “as a historian, you’ve got to have documentary proof.” And there is other evidence for a lot of Smith’s statements.

    Forbes said the key thing for him is viewing Venture’s narrative “as a legitimate historical document in its own right.” Saint frames pushback from historians as them trying to take ownership over Smith’s story.

    Stofko said he is “not totally happy” with the sign but thinks it’s important for it to be there, and “even though there are some mistakes at the bottom, I can live with them.”

    So, why should people care about the wording on a sign in the woods?

    Smith descendant Susi Ryan said “as a Black woman and keeper of the family history in my own personal family, and knowing that Black history in many parts of the country right now is being torn apart and left off and discredited,” she wants information to be accurate. Steenburg said accuracy is important “because so many people dismiss history.”

    Sweet said in an email statement that Smith’s land “tells a story of sorrow and cruelty of slavery and a story of the courage and perseverance of a remarkable husband and father,” which is well established in the historical record.

    “There is no need to confuse the facts with speculation, to conflate what happened here with other less well-documented events,” he wrote. “And there is no need to invent a signature for a man who, although deprived by his enslavers of the opportunity to learn to write, overcame so much and left us with such a powerful life -- a story that, more than two hundred and fifty years after the events that make this site so important, remains so moving and so urgent.”


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