Unearth pg 1 11-24-21

Unearthing the
rich history of
By Donna Dufresne
      It’s not easy digging into the understory of American history; those stories which have been buried deep between the lines of our national narratives, and sometimes deliberately omitted. However, it’s in the understory that we find the richness of our American soil (soul), the story of U.S.
Participants in the recent Waking the Dead series of workshops presented by Pomfret Historical Society, saw many facets to the lens of history. Experts in the fields of social history, archaeology and genealogy shared their research and techniques for interpreting the lives of disenfranchised communities such as poor, white laborers, Native Americans, enslaved Africans and free Blacks in the 18th and 19th centuries. The workshop series was funded by Connecticut Humanities.
Workshop participants learned how primary documents have informed the narrative of local history and how folklore inspired new research into the enslaved Africans who lived and worked in the region. They also learned from State Archaeologist Dr. Sarah Sportman that archaeology can inform the historical narrative through a more inclusive lens using scientific methods such as ground penetrating radar (GPR) and analysis of material culture. Archaeologist Dr. Nick Bellantoni reminded the audience that Native and African American cultures have been hidden in plain sight and sometimes deliberately excluded from written history, yet archaeological investigations throughout the state have revealed communities of color which thrived, and people who struggled for freedom and autonomy for centuries.
One of the goals of the workshop series was to repair and clean some of the headstones in the Randall/Higginbotham burial ground where the enslaved Randalls are buried in unmarked graves.
Oct. 23 and Oct. 31 Ruth Brown (New England Gravestone Network), Michael Carroll (Rediscovering History), and Keegan Day led workshops in cleaning, repairing, and identifying gravestone carvers. Participants learned that gravestones and burial grounds provide vital information as primary sources and material culture which help to widen the lens of history. They provide data ranging from spiritual beliefs and practices, geology, economy, social structure, and cultural evolution as well as individual genealogy.
The final workshop at Abington Congregational Church with genealogist William Fothergill was a perfect ending to the series. Nov. 6 the audience was reminded that researching Native and African Americans can be difficult, especially in the when documentation was sparse. However, like the archaeologists and social historians who spoke during the series, Fothergill reminded us that oral history provides an important starting point to search for grains of truth. Lois Boyd, who identifies as Native American, joined in the conversation reinforcing that oral history in disenfranchised groups who were sometimes omitted from written documents, can provide reliable sources along with DNA. Both genealogists, who are Native and African American, emphasized that THEIR story is OUR story, and that we share ONE history, regardless of our heritage.
Fothergill shared his research on Ebenezer Bassette, the first African American to graduate from the Connecticut Normal School (teacher’s college) which is now CCSU. Bassett, whose father and grandfather were both “Black Governors” in Derby in the 1840s, was the descendant of enslaved Africans and Native Americans. He was a friend and confidant of Frederick Douglas and was appointed as the first ambassador to Haiti by President Grant in 1869. But his story has only recently been brought to light, even though he was an accomplished educator, activist, and ambassador who spoke several languages.
Perhaps the greatest take-away from the Waking the Dead Workshops is that primary documents, artifacts, architecture, gravestones, and genealogy are the cornerstones of truth in our historical narratives. Historical research requires multiple perspectives, scientific analysis and collaboration with experts while investigating people who may have been hidden in the understory of American History. Yet the gems found in the more inclusive telling of history, reveal perseverance, hard work, resilience, and the forward motion of a people who want to better themselves, their family, tribal units, and their nation. Digging the understory reveals ONE history, OUR history in the story of US.


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