The Witness Stones Memorial in Guilford, CT to remember Dinah/Dinah Gardner who was held there in captivity.

For all of the educators reading this post: Have you ever questioned the fact that you can teach in front of dozens of students every day and never be nervous, but when get up to talk to a room full of adults the butterflies return, your throat dries, and that witty banter leaves the tip of your tongue and flies out the window?

That happens to me when I step in front of a room of teachers to start my presentations. Who am I to teach a room full of history teachers that what they learned in middle school, high school, and college was often wrong and painted a picture of America that was whitewashed at best? How can I expect to teach adults who have never been in my classroom before, each have degrees from different colleges or universities, and graduated from college sometime between 1980 and 2020?

I recently co-presented with Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries on a virtual workshop and I wanted to share with you some of my reflections.

Teaching teachers the hard history of New England and its involvement in the institution of slavery is a tough nut to crack. It includes flipping the “memes” of this region as an experiment in religious freedom, communal living, and freedom for all. It requires us to unpack the history surrounding the acquisition of tribal lands, the subjugation of indigenous people, and the erasure of their societies. It forces us to uncover the economic basis for settlement here, including providing resources for Europe—but more troubling, still—supporting the Sugar Islands in the West Indies that destroyed enslaved persons while wringing out violence-inspired labor from their bodies. It requires us to open the logbooks and account books showing New England ships and traders traveling to the West Coast of Africa and purchasing men, women, and children who were captured and enslaved there and then bringing those same enslaved persons to the Sugar Islands or the thirteen colonies for profit.

Before we can change our classrooms and what we teach, we have to change our own personal narratives, uncover the hidden history, and open our minds and hearts to new learning. We start doing this by reading.  

  • By reading early and often. 
  • By reading from authors whose voices seem radically different from what you know you know.  
  • By reading a slave narrative like that of Connecticut’s own Venture Smith.
  • By reading Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery, by Ann Farrow, Joel Lange, and Jenifer Frank. 
  • By reading Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, by Christy Clark-Pujara. 
  • By reading “across the grain”; for instance, when a story says that an enslaved man had “a combination of simplicity and cunning,” what is meant by this? (I would ask students, “Could that be like you never seeing the sink full of dishes each time you go to the fridge, even though it is your responsibility to wash and wipe them?”) 

Go to the 1619 project at the New York Times and the Teaching Hard History classroom resources at: Tolerance.org. And when you are tired of reading, listen to the Teaching Hard History Podcast hosted by Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries.

And then your job is to begin to teach what you have learned. See what works and what doesn’t work. Figure out what you need to learn more about so you will feel comfortable in your teaching. Read some more, rinse, and repeat. Teach with an open heart and open ears. I was recently corrected for using the terms “slave-owners” and “slave-holders.” I should have used the term “enslavers.” I took the hit, and moved on. So did my audience. (At least I knew enough not to use the term “master” even though the old books and manuscripts I read are filled with that term.)

Be brave, admit that you don’t know everything, and try your hardest to incorporate your new learning into your classrooms. Allow your students to share their own ideas and prejudices so that they can be part of unwinding them as needed. Start with ideas and resources that are accessible but don’t shy away from challenging ideas or resources.

Here is an annotated works cited from my own research into New England History and slavery.  It is not complete, but many of the books listed have helped me get to the beginning of my journey: Witness Stones Annotated Works Cited. If you are interested in a project to engage your students in restoring the history and honoring the humanity of individuals enslaved locally, please visit us at WitnessStonesProject.org.

Be confident that your work is important. We, our students, and society cannot begin to reconcile the issues of racism, segregation, and inequality without knowing the truth. This is our opportunity to find the truth and to create ways to share the truth that we and our students find.

In my next blog post, I will share the history of the Witness Stones Project and how we have reached over 2,000 students and worked in six communities to restore the history of those enslaved locally.

Dennis Culliton

Founder, Witness Stones Project

2 thoughts on “Witness Stones and Teaching Teachers Hard History

  1. Your honesty and encouragement at the workshop (and in this blog) are most welcome. I’m looking forward to sharing this work with you and your colleagues.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You were brave and excellent, Dennis. This is hard history! We are fortunate to have you, Dr. Jeffries, and Dr. Dibble help show us the way to do it. Rep. Wilson-Pheanious was also a brilliant key-noter!

    In case you are interested, here are the links to the workshop:
    Day 1: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1tu-UEyaNdUbXTVVWEGjbii-b90KA4tGc/view
    Day 2: https://atlanticblackbox.com/2020/08/06/witness-stones-and-teaching-teaches-hard-history/

    Liked by 1 person

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