Last fall, eighth grade students from East Ridge and Scotts Ridge Middle Schools honored the memory of two people who were enslaved residents of this town with the installation of two Witness Stones in front of the David Scott house, now home to the Ridgefield Historical Society.
As part of their unit on colonial history, the students studied early records of Ridgefield that mentioned the enslaved in this town. While the practice was not uncommon and the households of many prominent residents included enslaved people, the published historical record was limited. Uncle Ned’s Mountain by Jack Sanders (2021) was the first Ridgefield history to document a station on the Underground Railroad in Ridgefield and add details of the experience of both enslaved and free African Americans here.
The first two Witness Stones, which commemorate Lidia and Quash who once lived in the David Scott house, will be joined by two more this fall, sharing the names of Dinah and Peter.
The Witness Stones Project, which describes itself as “a nonprofit organization whose mission is to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities,” is collaborating with the Ridgefield Public Schools and the Ridgefield Historical Society to expand teaching of the history of slavery in colonial Connecticut.
The Project provides local archival research, professional teacher development, a classroom curriculum, and public programming to help students discover and chronicle the local history of slavery through essays and art. The final component of the work in each community is the placement of Witness Stone Memorials™ that honor enslaved individuals where they lived, worked, or worshiped.
Because the David Scott House, now home to the Ridgefield Historical Society, once housed as many as five enslaved people, it was selected to be the site of the first two Witness Stone Memorials™ in Ridgefield. Although the building is no longer in its original location on Main Street (at the south corner of Catoonah Street), it retains much of its original character as well as what may be drawings created by its enslaved inhabitants. Ancient shingles, which once were the house’s siding, were retrieved by architect David W. Scott when the Scott House was disassembled in 1999 and are now a treasured part of the historical society’s collection. On the smooth interior side of these shingles, which came from the house’s upper floor, are drawings, designs created with what’s believed to have been soapstone. Some of these images are similar to symbols used in West Africa, suggesting a connection to the African Americans who may have been living in that space.
The Witness Stones Project was inspired by the Stolpersteine project, which began in Germany. German artist Gunter Demnig created Stolpersteine or ‘Stumbling Stones’ to restore the memory of the Jews and others who were murdered by the Nazis. The stones are placed in the sidewalk before homes and apartments where people lived in Germany and more than 20 other countries.
With the blessing of the Stolpersteine organization, the Witness Stones Project began in Guilford, Connecticut, in 2017, and became a 501(c)(3) in August 2019. In its first five years, the Project partnered with 87 affiliated schools and civic institutions in 46 towns in 5 states. More than 6,600 middle and high school students and their communities participated in the Project.
Dr. Annie Tucci, grades 6-12 Humanities Curriculum Supervisor, East Ridge Middle School teachers Mike Hougasian and Steve Ruland and Scotts Ridge Middle School teachers Kiera Kowalzcyk and Tom Broderick are working with the students on this project, with assistance from Witness Stones Project founder and executive director Dennis Culliton and Witness Stones Project director of operations Liz Lightfoot.