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Professor Kate Rushin’s poetry brings to life the stories of Connecticut residents born into slavery in the 1700s.
By Amy Martin
bout 15 miles from the Connecticut College campus, in picturesque Old Lyme, the house where Jack Howard was born in 1795 still stands. It was built in 1790 by a wealthy shipping merchant named Samuel Mather Jr. and, like so many historic New England homes, it features a plaque near the front door that bears the date of its early post-Revolution construction.
But closer to the sidewalk, in the grass near the walkway that leads to the house, there’s another plaque—this one for Jack.
“Son of Janny,” it reads. “Born here enslaved.”
There are dozens more of these small brass plaques embedded up and down leafy Lyme Street, which, with the exception of power lines and a few parked cars, still looks much like it would have in the late 18th century.
Cato. Enslaved child servant of Rev. Jonathan Parsons. Died here 1734. Age 10.
Caesar. Mariner. Born enslaved 1762. Ran away 1784 [at] age 22 from John McCurdy.
Crusa. Daughter of Jenny. Born here enslaved 1778 by William Noyes. Emancipated 1817. “Desirous of her liberty.”
Jane. Born enslaved 1726 by Joseph Peck Jr. Sold for twenty-five pounds 1729 [at] age 3.
The plaques, called witness stones, are part of a growing educational and community initiative to restore forgotten local history and honor the humanity and contributions of enslaved individuals in Connecticut and surrounding states. Modeled (with permission) after the Stolperstein project, which commemorates victims of Nazi persecution in Europe, the Witness Stones Project partners with schools and civic organizations to help them research the histories of enslaved people in their own communities and bring those stories to life in a variety of ways.
In Old Lyme, that includes through poetry by Kate Rushin, professor of English and poet-in-residence at Conn, and three other distinguished Connecticut poets.
“I’m very interested in history and especially in African American history. I grew up in Lawnside, New Jersey, the first incorporated African American town in the state; I breathed this history growing up,” says Rushin, who traces her family’s arrival in that area to her great-great-grandfather Davie Arthur, who escaped from a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the 1840s and, with the help of abolitionist Quakers, used the Underground Railroad to get to and settle in the fledgling community.
“I want everyone to appreciate all the work that formerly enslaved people put into building our communities, our states, our nation,” she adds.
The author of the poetry anthology The Black Back-Ups, a Lambda Book Award Finalist, and the widely anthologized work “The Bridge Poem,” Rushin often composes persona poems, which are written from the perspective of the poem’s subject. In 2021, Witness Stones Old Lyme Committee Chair Carolyn Wakeman invited former Connecticut Poet Laureate Marilyn Nelson to the project, and Nelson in turn invited fellow poets Rushin, Antoinette Brim-Bell and Rhonda Ward to join her in creating work that captures the unheard voices, life experiences, attitudes and emotions of those who lived and labored in the community.
Using information drawn from land records, town reports, church records, property transactions, probate papers, county court proceedings, federal census counts, regional newspapers, grave markers, emancipation certificates and other primary sources, the Old Lyme Witness Stones Project has pieced together details from the lives of more than 50 enslaved people who lived along Lyme Street.
To create personas for the three, Rushin combined the stories uncovered by the Witness Stones researchers with her own knowledge of history and enslavement, as well as her own experiences and emotions.
“I’m drawn by certain details. With Crusa, I was drawn to her name—the sound of it, the possible meanings of it,” Rushin says. “After she was freed, she left; there’s no more documentation. It’s interesting to me that she left, when other people in her family stayed. I imagine this person as fiercely independent. I imagine what her inner thoughts and her life might be. And I did want to focus on her inner life because it’s easy to forget that people in terrible circumstances have inner lives.
“I even unconsciously avoid using the word ‘slave,’ because it covers up a lot,” she continues. “It’s grandparents, parents, grandkids. It’s people—it’s actual people—it’s individuals who were captured in a variety of ways and had a variety of experiences, and they came from different places and had their own responses to their circumstances.”
Rushin regularly reads her poems at Witness Stones Project events and other local celebrations, including for the annual Juneteenth holiday. Her favorite to read is “Fishing for Shad,” in which 14-year-old Jack compares himself to the ray-finned clupeid fish plentiful in northern America but disparaged by English settlers.
“While doing research on the Florence Griswold Museum website, I came across a note that early some European settlers did not eat shad. They used it for fertilizer or shipped it to the West Indies,” Rushin said. “I connect emotionally to shad and shad roe because my grandfather liked it; the dish became part of the Easter tradition in our family. I’ve also learned that shad fishing has been part of Connecticut indigenous traditions for generations.”
In “Meditations on Generations,” Rushin deals head-on with the harsh realities of the slave trade, asking why someone would sell a woman away from her baby (“And who would buy?”). And why, a few years later, a man of means would pay a large sum of money for the very young child. (“Why was a ‘molado’ toddler girl worth so much in colonial Connecticut? Who has the stomach to ponder such a question? Who has the heart?” she writes.)
Rushin sometimes finds it challenging to present the entire poem before an audience. “I don’t always want to go into the painful details,” she says.
Instead, she reads the last stanza:
I do not know, yet, where you lived, who took care of you, how you lived your life.
I do know that you were loved. You were named after your grandmother.
I’ll remember you, Jane. You were here. I will honor you, respect you; hold you in my words.”