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Searching for Slavery in Northwest Connecticut: Project-based Learning on the Hilltop
Kristina Miller
Searching for Slavery

History Faculty Rhonan Mokriski '90 and his students embarked on a project-based learning course this year entitled, "Searching for Slavery in Northwest Connecticut." The goal was to engage students as public historians in authentic tasks to discover and share the local contributions people of color have made to the building of our communities.  

To prepare, over the summer, Rhonan helped facilitate a Connecticut Association of Independent Schools webinar for educators on how to rethink lessons on racism and slavery. His program was featured in the New Haven Register, and enabled him to tee up a number of projects when the boys returned this fall.  

Project-based learning courses are designed to engage students in authentic tasks to learn by accessing, evaluating, and using different forms of material. Next, they must collaborate in the projection of an outward-facing project entirely of their own creation. Skills vary from using Ancestory.com to locate property/probate/census records to (successful!) grant writing. One group even practiced the teenage anxiety ridden and oft lost-art of speaking on the phone before a call with a library curator. They have also become adept at using the business focused Microsoft Teams platform to asynchronously collaborate with classmates – sometimes from across the country.  

One of the projects focused on a free black family who owned land in the Salisbury/Sharon area stretching back to the late 1700s. Timothy Cesar was a Revolutionary War veteran who served in the 6th Connecticut Regiment, and his son, Titus, bought land in Salisbury. The boys discovered a campsite on the Appalachian Trail named the Ceasar Brook campsite. Even though the spelling differed, work with census records definitively established the site as George Cesar’s farm (misspelled names of Black Americans plague modern historians), and over a series of Sunday hikes with a metal detector, the boys were able to discover George Cesar’s cellar. The family remained in Salisbury until 1936. Learn more about Rhonan's presentation, in collaboration with the Salisbury Association Historical Society and the Hotchkiss Library, on The Cesar Family: Noble African Citizens of Northwest Connecticut, A Black History Conversation with Cesar family descendant and historian Katherine Overton, and history teacher Rhonan Mokriski through The Atlantic Black Box Project.  

In a rough cut, you can take a virtual field trip and view the video: The Story of Elizabeth Freeman, Searching for Slavery in Salisbury produced by classmates Peter Mauthe '21, Jacques Barzun '21, and Alex Novak '21. Both the Cesar family group and these boys are partnering with documentary maker Ben Willis to produce more professional films to share these important stories with the world.  

The Searching for Slavery class is also currently partnering with the Norfolk Historical Society and the Norfolk Congregational Church Historical Societies to develop as well as work on a civic/public event in Norfolk, CT to memorialize the life of James Mars. Mars was born enslaved in Canaan, CT. He escaped into Norfolk, was recaptured, and manumitted at the age of twenty-five. He later became an author, deacon, and civil rights activist. The boys are designing a ceremony when Mars’s life will be commemorated with a Witness Stone.  

Conor O’Neil ‘21 and Declan Cooke ‘21 researched Connecticut’s specific role in the triangle trade economy. In addition to discovering the state’s role as the breadbasket for a lot of the Caribbean sugar colonies, they experimented with a wide array of graphic design platforms to design an infographic highlighting Connecticut’s complicity in the trade.  

Finally, some of the boys are collaborating on a global project to tell the story of Venture Smith. Smith was captured in Ghana, transited through Barbados, and ultimately enslaved in Connecticut. Through hard work and resilience, he bought his own freedom and contributed to a book on his life. This group is collaborating with educators from Suffield Academy along with other schools from the United States, the Caribbean, and Ghana to plan a curriculum that will tell the comprehensive story of the Atlantic Slave Trade through this remarkable man’s journey. Hurst Thompson '21 has pulled together this informative presentation on Venture Smith as part of his year-long project.  

In addition to these projects, the boys are required to share their stories on Venture on The Atlantic Black Box Project’s  blog.  

Most recently, The Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury hosted a Zoom event, which covered 300 years of Cesar family history, and attracted 100 viewers, including Cesar family descendants from throughout the nation! Full details on the event can be found here

We are fortunate to have such deep and fascinating history in the roots of the Northwest Corner that our Knights can fully explore in project-based learning on the Hilltop.