I signed up for this class to engage in something different. It was a chance to break free from the normal classes I had and an opportunity learn about valuable history that had barely been touched. On the very first meeting our teacher asked us to name 5 famous black people who lived before 1950. I raised my hand rather quickly thinking I had a bunch lined up to recite to the class. In reality, I froze at 3. I felt awful. I felt ignorant. I also felt so disappointed in my education.
I had always learned that the information we were being fed was the absolute truth. However, what I was taught was far from the truth. My first realization of this was when we learned about Christopher Columbus. In school we were taught to celebrate him as the man who discovered America and set forward the movement of European settlers towards the Americas. While there is certainly some truth in that, he was also a man who decimated Indigenous populations for his own personal gain and created a legacy of distrust of settlers from Native Americans.
History is always kind to the people that write it. That is why I never learned about the Trail of Tears, or Wounded Knee, or the Tulsa Massacre. Even my education about slavery was skewed. We were taught that the people of the North were the good guys. They were anything but. While the North did not have plantations on the scale of the South, they were certainly complicit and profited greatly from the labor and the economy of slavery in the South and the West Indies.
This fall, we chose a topic that related to race or slavery in our own backyard and do a deep dive into the topic. Some of my classmates and I selected the Cesar family, a long line of free black people who lived in our town for more than two hundred years. It was exciting to study people who walked the streets of the town well before we had. In many ways, we were writing a first draft of history. Our inspiration was Katherine Overton – a descendant and the Cesar family historian. Without her excellent work and passion, we never would have been able to learn these stories.
This is a fact. Black Americans lived valuable lives, but because they were born to a systemic disadvantage, many of their stories were lost. However, it is vital that Americans do not let this happen. Their stories need to be told in order to learn about the struggles African Americans faced in a country that used them to grow economically. If the country continues to forget what it did, we normalize the idea that what America did to African Americans in this country was okay, not only by enslaving them but also by making Black People afterthoughts in the telling of our American history. America can denounce white supremacy and slavery, but until we start paying attention to black history, and especially, local black history, our journey towards a just and equal nation will never be complete. That is why Black History Matters. – Caleb May
While I learned about slavery and the horrible toll it took on the African American community, I was never taught about individual people and families who were affected by the wrath of slavery, whether they be enslaved or free. The information that I have learned about the Cesar family and their history made me feel close-minded and ignorant, but it now fuels me to strive to dig for everything I possibly can about this family and others like them who were affected. The amazing truth about the free Cesar family is the fact that during the era of slavery, the Cesar family helped build the communities of Sharon and Salisbury. – Colin D’Arcy
The product of our research so far was a documentary-style short video where we took the viewers through our investigation of the family. We were excited to learn that a campsite on the Appalachian Trail in Sharon, Connecticut was named Ceesar Brook Campsite. Ms. Overton and primary documents showed us it was in the same exact area where George Cesar owned land. We filmed ourselves doing research, meeting with Ms. Overton, and hiking on two expeditions to the site, where we conducted a mini-archeological dig. The hikes also included cinematic views of the beautiful nature surrounding it. – Parker Ward
Throughout this semester we have devoted a lot of time researching the Cesar family and finding a bunch of information out about their history. We have decided that we are going to keep working on the Cesar family by partnering with a documentarian and doing a more comprehensive documentary. For this go-around we have invited Isaac and Kasia who are the great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren of Timothy Cesar 6th who was a free Black man in mid-to-late 1700’s and fought in the Revolutionary War. Isaac and Kasia are excited to work with us on this next project and we hope to make it more professional and more detailed. – Josh Bank
The layout of the Cesar property was quite interesting. Towards the bottom of the property, there was a substantial rock wall adjacent to the road. As we walked up this road to the house, it slowly turned away from the creek. This allowed the house to have a slight set-back giving it some privacy. Before we reached the house, the large rock wall stopped abruptly. When we reached the house, we noticed fill dirt that had been taken out of the ground looked and as if it had been placed in front of the house, perhaps giving the house a front porch that would have faced westerly towards the brook. Cutting the porch in half was what looked like stairs to enter the house. Continuing up the road, we came to the barn. When I examined the foundation rocks, I noted a concise difference between two sections of the barn. They must had been built at separate times and at different speeds because the of the shapes of the rocks used. The smaller section used rounder rocks, so it looked like it had been built quicker. When I looked at the rest of the barn, the rocks looked as if they had been cut square to fit together better. We were never able to find the trash pile. We hunted below the house, but it was likely higher – with the barn situated above. This would logically be the location for the trash pile. – Jim Glamos
Taking this class was an integral part to me realizing that it is important to know that African American families who have lived here have been here since at least the early 1800s. Black Lives Matter. Black History Matters. Local Black History Matters. Up until now, black people have been invisible citizens. They get left out of histories. As Americans, we all need to know our history. – Jake Brink
Tracing the ancestry and life of African Americans during that time period is a strenuous task. This is because much of the documentation, such as birth records, death records, tax records, land deeds, were less complete than they were for White Americans. Some of the few resources available that recorded the Cesars were the census records. The Cesar family appeared on the census for many years. The most complete documentation was in 1850. In it, George Cesar was listed as a Marketman who owned 800 Dollars’ worth of land. George Cesar was recorded living with Titus Cesar. Many other Cesars were listed in separate but adjacent households. The Census lists George L Cesar age 31, Eleanor Cesar age 27, next household Titus Cesar 70, Margaret Cesar age 65, Jane A Cesar age 38, and finally in her own plot of land Dinah Cesar age 73 a black female landowner! – Nicholas Gray
4 thoughts on “Cesar Family Project”
Thank you for sharing this.
Katherine Overton is my sister and she has been diligent in researching information about our family: the Cesar family. I hope the research continues. Black lives truly matter! We should be able to to trace our roots.
As I read over the comments that Mr. Mokriski’s students posted early on in our collaboration on the Cesar Family Project I am moved to comment on how beautiful it is to see how much they have already learned about the “hidden history” of not only my family, but of other black people whom they never knew about before. I admire their enthusiasm for taking on the challenge of learning about and honoring families who came before them, but also for wanting to share this new found information with the local community where my family actually lived and died.
I also very much appreciate Mr. Mokriski for his dedication to enlightening his students on the importance of learning more about Black History and for allocating time and resources to make this project a reality as part of his curriculum this semester; and especially for inviting my two grandsons the opportunity to work with his students on the next phase of producing a documentary that will be the pinnacle of this amazing project!
I am very grateful and sometimes overwhelmed to see this all coming together. I see it as a spiritual connection between the past and the future… not only a family history project but a family legacy project.
On behalf of my family and myself I thank all of you! You represent the best future of America!
Cesar Family Historian
As a result of the student’s research, the Connecticut Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club which maintains the Appalachian Trail and campsite on George Cesar’s old farm, have officially changed the name of the campsite to “Cesar’s Brook Campsite” and updated the sign to reflect this change.
To Mr. Liptack and the Connecticut Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club:
On behalf of the Cesar Family I would like to thank you for approving the correction of the trailhead sign from “Caesar Brook Campsites” to “CESAR Brook Campsites” in recognition of the research work that the Salisbury School boys did under the guidance of their visionary teacher and now family friend Rhonan Mokriski this past year.
It took extraordinary effort and perseverance on their part to complete their mission of uncovering this local history and restoring the true origins of the campsite on Sharon Mountain and my 3XS Great Grandfather George L Cesar homesite to it’s rightful place in this history.
This is a mission I have been on for over a decade which reconnects a missing link in our family heritage as free African American citizens and property owners with deep roots in the Salisbury/Sharon communities.
The research that the Salisbury School boys and their dedicated teacher put into bringing this project to completion is a dream come true for me and my family living now and a precious gift to our posterity.
And to the wonderful boys who decided to take on this project with no idea of how difficult it would be I want to say:
Thank you for Listening…
Thank you for Caring…
Thank you for Believing…
Thank you for Daring!
You are our Super Heroes for life!
Ms. K Overton and the Cesar Family
Aug 23, 2021