Discovery Helps Slave Study Group

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The Suffield Historical Society sponsored an online class during the months of October and November in order to prepare a Witness Stones Memorial for Tamar, who was an enslaved woman who lived at least eighteen years of her young life in Suffield from 1770-1798. As reported in last month’s Observer, Solomon Smith, son of the famous African American colonial figure, Venture Smith, purchased Tamar from Luther Loomis in 1798 to be his wife.

Thirty community members joined the online class, and Dennis Culliton, chair and co-founder of the Witness Stones Project, shared methods to research northern slavery as well as the “Five Themes of Slavery” from the Project’s lesson plans used with school children to help students make meaning of the primary and secondary documents. Working asynchronously in shared Google Documents and utilizing Zoom time for sharing questions and insights, the class began to feel the community importance of putting together Tamar’s fragmented narrative. The class also wants to create an awareness that more discoveries can be made about her story as well as thirty-six other African Americans in Suffield according to the 1774 Colony of Connecticut Census.

Then at the end of October, Laurie Tavino, Suffield artist and SHS Trustee, reached out to historians in her network and discovered an 1810 newspaper advertisement written by Solomon Smith that disavowed his marriage to Tamar as well as any financial debts that she might incur using his name. Next the class shared this breakthrough with Dr. Karl Stofko, the historian for the Venture Smith family and East Haddam municipal historian. He was delighted to learn about a new document related to Tamar and Solomon, and following this new lead, he subsequently researched other records in East Haddam and discovered that another African American woman was living with Zacheus Loomis in East Haddam according to the 1820 Census. This might have been Tamar as Zacheus was also enslaved by Luther Loomis the same time as Tamar in the late 1700s.

The Suffield Historical Society and the class hosted a Zoom program on January 26 in which Elizabeth Normen, who is publisher of Connecticut Explored and author of Venture Smith’s Colonial Connecticut, spoke about the founding of Connecticut as told through the 1798 first-person narrative of Venture Smith. She also shared research by scholars that has added to Smith’s narrative and his later life in Haddam Neck, which gave attendees more context about Tamar’s life. The new discoveries about Tamar’s narrative were also published on the Atlantic Black Box blog, which is a public history project devoted to “uncover New England’s historical role in the slave trade and the business of slavery, and to recover the stories of our region’s indigenous and African descent communities.”

All thirty members of the online class better appreciate the challenges revealing African American history and understand Anne Farrow’s insight from her most recent book, The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory: “Slavery is the landscape that you learn to see.” The class has now broken into research groups to track leads and will report more information on the Suffield Historical Society Facebook page. Residents interested in joining this important public history project should email Bill Sullivan directly: These adult online learners also appreciate that Tamar’s story and other African American colonial contributions have been dark for too long and need the light of day so that we can all better understand our past and create and live in a more just future.

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