History teacher Katie McCarthy’s Form 5 class addressed our nation’s complicated and painful history of slavery by participating in the Witness Stones Project which “seeks to restore the history and to honor the humanity and contributions of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities” according to the Noah Webster House website.
Over the course of several weeks, KO students learned of Prut, an enslaved man who was owned by John Whitman, Jr. of 208 North Main Street in West Hartford and who died during the Revolutionary War at Fort Tigennderoda in New York. Very little information exists about Prut, and McCarthy said that the more the students researched the man, the more questions arose about him.
In an installation ceremony at the First Church on May 31, McCarthy said, “So from a history teacher’s perspective, how do we make this history memorable for our students? From a broader view, how do we make this history memorable for the public? What can we do to reinforce this memory? Part of the answer lies in repetition. We need to tell this story about Prut and slavery in our town. And then we need to retell it.”
McCarthy led her class on a journey of discovery starting with a TedTalk by Titus Kaphar who examines the historical painting Beyond the Myth of Benevolence which features a wealthy white family in the foreground and a slave in the background. Kaphar takes a broad paintbrush onto the canvas and covers up the images of the family, leaving only the slave within the frame. He asks us to shift our gaze and perspective to wrestle with the stories of those who have been diminished and not told in our history. The point is not to erase our history but to amend it and include the forgotten.
KO students researched church records, runaway ads, and manumission papers. They have interviewed ministers, teachers, town leaders, and many here on the KO campus. They have made connections to today that involve racial bias, including police brutality, housing/school inequalities, and mass incarceration. By examining historical documents and taking a closer look at manifestations of racism today, KO students had an honest and humbling reckoning with our past and present.
During the ceremony at First Church, Jocelyn Ram ’20 reflected on the impact of the lesson. “This project pushed our class discussions to new levels as we were able to talk about both historical and modern issues of race in a way where everyone’s voice was respected. We were pushed to talk about subjects that were difficult to talk about. But these are the conversations students need to have with one another. Slavery, being one of the hardest topics to teach and learn in the history curriculum, could either be skimmed over in the textbooks, or we could dive in deep. Our class definitely took that dive, and every time we left the classroom, we were all pondering over new ideas about what we can do to make a difference. We were able to link slavery to modern events and notice where our country may be taking steps back and repeating past mistakes. Even though we did not have all the same opinions, everyone’s voices were heard. Having these conversations pushed everyone in our class out of their comfort zones and encouraged us to learn more about our local history.”
Following the speeches and presentations by KO staff and students (Avi Shastri ’20, Jackie Ouellette ’20, Dean of Students Will Gilyard, emcee Rohan Naik ’20) and Renbrook students, the group headed to the West Hartford war memorial where the students viewed Prutt's name added to the Revolutionary War plaque. On May 14, Renbrook students petitioned the town council to engrave Prutt's name in the plaque. After viewing his name, the students traveled to the Old Center Cemetery where they saw the temporary markers of the other enslaved people in the town.
KO students prepared podcasts as a culmination to this project. The podcasts will be shared with the public, and address the question: "what story about slavery needs to be reframed and retold to make it part of our collective memory and history?"
As McCarthy stated at the end of her speech, “until the story of Prut and the other enslaved individuals have made their way into our town’s memory and local narrative, we have more work to do. So onward we go.”