By Mary Coleman Forrester
... the project started from an empty page ...
In the spring of 2021, four students — juniors who were studying College- Level U.S. History at the time — applied for and were chosen for spots on a team of researchers for a History, Philosophy & Religious Studies Department initiative, as yet unnamed. In keeping with the department’s commitment to having students do the work of historians — work that would include reframing and raising new questions and seeking more fair and equitable historical narratives — the project would focus on the largely untold stories of 19 people who were enslaved by the Chaffee, Loomis, and Hayden families. Slavery & Loomis Chaffee: An Ethical History Project was born.
“For me, the project started from an empty page,” says Mercy Olagunju ’22, then a rising senior, who along with the three other rising seniors — Mariapaula Gonzalez, Stacey Zhang, and Rachel Cranston — worked together remotely during the summer of 2021 alongside three faculty members: Eric LaForest, head of the History, Philosophy & Religious Studies Department; Karen Parsons, history faculty and school archivist; and Elliott Dial, history faculty, dean of students, and associate director of diversity, equity & inclusion. Unable to work together in person during that second COVID summer, they Zoomed in from wherever they were — far-flung locations around the globe: Connecticut, Nigeria, Georgia, China, California, and Brooklyn, New York. And they began digging.
“Our students were excited about this, perhaps even more excited than we [the faculty involved] were. And we were pretty excited,” says Elliott.
Splitting into groups, the team started down two avenues of inquiry. One group would work to develop a contextual timeline outlining the “social, political, and economic contexts of enslavement,” according to Mercy.
The timeline would focus on important dates and events in the United States, but especially in and around Windsor, Connecticut, and in Charleston, South Carolina. That latter city was where 14 of the 19 people currently featured in this research were enslaved in the mid-19th century by the family of H. Sydney Hayden, husband of Abigail Loomis Hayden, one of the five Founders. What little concrete information can be garnered about these people can be found in the Charleston, SC, 1850 U.S. Census, which lists six males and eight females, ranging from 1 to 80 years old.
The other five people whose lives are being studied were enslaved by the Loomis and Chaffee families in Connecticut in the 18th and early-19th centuries.
An interactive version of that timeline was originally brought to life by Lillie Szemraj ’22, who programmed it in the Python programming language. Lillie joined the project in the fall of 2021 as part of her work on an independent study project she was completing with Director of Digital & Computational Learning Kate Seyboth. Since the timeline covered a large period of time and contained a lot of information, “the goal was to develop an interface that [would] engage viewers and [allow them] to click through and filter for a specific range of dates, geographic areas, or themes,” Lillie says. The work of continuing to refine the timeline has been taken up by current seniors Ignacio Feged and Calvin Pan, who joined the project in its second year in the summer of 2022, along with five other members of their class — Savannah Mills-Hall, Chinelo Osakwe, Sal Katz, Kaylie Tan, and Riley Fried. Current juniors studying College-Level U.S. History have written brief summaries of the events on the timeline, offering even more context for users.
Concurrently with the creation of the timeline, the second group in the original team began conducting research on the enslaved people, drawing evidence from multiple sources, including census records, church records, bills of sale, newspaper advertisements, court documents, and manumission papers, which document a person’s release from slavery by their enslavers.
And, with the little information that was available, and by using the context and study of material culture from the time, they started weaving together narratives of the lives of these enslaved people. The work is far from easy nor is it swift. It can be tedious, and the researchers have met with many dead ends. To a one, the student researchers say they were surprised by how little information there was in the historical record about the people they were studying.
“All we know about [a lot of them] is that they existed,” Calvin says. “We live in the Information Age, so it’s kind of hard to imagine that people in the past can have no historical footprint. If we hadn’t gone digging for [information about them], there would be essentially no trace of them.”
Looking for those traces is what sent a group of three of the team’s students to Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 2022 to do some boots-on-the-ground research alongside Elliott, Karen, and Eric. The group, which included Chinelo, Kaylie, and Riley, spent five days gathering background information and spending time in the archives of the South Carolina Historical Society at the College of Charleston, in the South Carolina Room at the Charleston County Public Library, with church records, and in the city itself, searching. In addition to a visit to the Charleston Museum, they visited the house that Abigail and H. Sydney Hayden had rented when they lived in antebellum Charleston, and they studied compelling evidence that slave quarters stood on the property.
They found Abigail’s name in the church records, but there were many leads that turned into dead ends or wandered away from the questions the researchers hoped to answer. “It was frustrating at times,” says Chinelo. “We had to exercise patience, reminding ourselves that we were going to answer some questions with more questions.”
This kind of shoulder-to-shoulder work within the team and with faculty was what appealed to Savannah when she applied for the project as a junior. “The key thing that stood out for me was that students and faculty would be equals in this project,” she says. “They weren’t assigning work for us to complete. We were all approaching the subject with questions, all working together.”
“Just calling them slaves instead of enslaved people is denying them humanity.”
As they have collaborated to tell new stories and shine new light on these enslaved people’s experiences — “which often go unheard and unrecognized,” notes Mariapaula — it has been important to the team to place their subjects at the center of their stories and to avoid re-inflicting violence and dehumanization in the re-telling of the subjects’ stories. “It’s very important to analyze each story with the same level of attention and respect that we give to (the Founders). We can’t have an accurate and informed interpretation of our history without looking at the lives of these enslaved people,” Chinelo says.
“Just calling them slaves instead of enslaved people is denying them humanity,” Calvin says. “We are trying to reverse that, making sure that they are recognized as actual human beings with their own individual stories to tell.”
“We should pause and see people in the past as more fully human,” as Eric puts it. “That’s what we mean by not perpetuating the violence of the archive.”
The intention is not to take away from the story of the Founders, according to the team, but to tell a fuller, more inclusive story. “We have this great school, and our school’s Founders were super generous and had a vision for equitable education for everyone,” Savannah says. “But I think it’s important to complicate the narrative and talk about how the systemic racism we still see in America is rooted in enslavement and how that still plays out today in so many ways.”
Loomis Chaffee is certainly not the first institution to take a hard look at the history of slavery as it relates to the school’s own history, but Loomis is one of just two secondary schools, along with Phillips Andover Academy, that has joined the more than 90 institutions of higher learning comprising the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium, which began at the University of Virginia.
In addition to ongoing research, next steps for the project include finding ways to share these stories — and the lessons that the team has learned — with the larger community. The team is working to create a website that will allow them to disseminate their work well beyond campus. When it launches this year, the site will share 19 biographies, which have been written by the team. Because so little documentary evidence is available, the narratives are, according to Eric, “frustratingly uneven and incomplete.” Some are fuller, including the one for Nancy Toney, about whom, relatively speaking, more is known. Nancy, who was moved to Windsor in 1785, was bequeathed in 1821 to Abigail Chaffee Loomis, mother of the five Loomis Founders. While working to put Nancy “at the center of her own story,” as Karen says, the group also is working to dispel the persistent myth that she was “the last or one of the last slaves in Connecticut. Being able to see Nancy’s life outside the confines of slavery was revelatory,” Karen told the Board of Trustees when she, Eric, Elliott, and several of the students made a presentation about the project in the spring of 2022. “And it suggested that other information may have been obscured by that unquestioned narrative.”
“... the manumission process asked an enslaved person to state their desire to be unenslaved.”
The students also composed a narrative for Betty Stevenson, born in 1791. Connecticut laws of the day determined Betty’s identity at birth as enslaved because her mother was enslaved at the time. Betty was enslaved by Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee Sr., grandfather of Abigail Chaffee Loomis. Betty’s emancipation in 1810 at age 19 is documented in the property transfer records in Windsor’s Town Hall, where they remain to this day. “A document concerning a person’s freedom is still considered chiefly a matter of property,” Eric notes. According to the biography for Betty that the team compiled, the manumission paper “also notes that Betty signified ‘her desire to be made free.’ While this may seem obvious to us, it is important evidence of the time period that the manumission process asked an enslaved person to state their desire to be unenslaved.”
The team is planning a series of discussions with groups on campus, including the student multicultural group PRISM, along with a virtual conference with other schools that are working on similar projects to share tips, tools, and best practices for doing this kind of research.
Stacey has taken what she learned through her involvement in the project with her to Amherst College, where she is a freshman and where she plans to major in history. “[It] strengthened my belief that history has a purpose in a modern sense. [It] left me unsatisfied, but in a good way. I want to learn more,” she says.