Connecticut church creates interfaith collaboration to learn the state’s slave history

Posted Jun 22, 2023

A witness stone describing the life of formerly enslaved man John C. Wally is ready to be placed at the Wilton, Connecticut, Historical Society thanks to research by three congregations to learn his story.

[St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church] During the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, Connecticut, began to explore the church’s complicity with racism since its founding in 1802. At its 2020 annual convention, The Episcopal Church in Connecticut adopted a resolution “to direct each Parish, Worshipping Community, and Intentional Episcopal Community to take steps to discover and document historic complicity in racism in their parish and communities.” Early research showed that founding members of St. Matthew’s were enslavers while later, many freed Black individuals had been active members.

Known as the “Georgia of the North” by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Connecticut was a key participant in the Triangular Trade that brought Africans to the Americas via the Middle Passage. Slavery existed in New England just as it did in the South in colonial times, with Connecticut finally abolishing it in 1848. Parishioners learned these facts alongside personal stories of people enslaved in Connecticut, which were collected from primary documents by middle school students and their youth leaders of congregations in three different towns in Connecticut during the first six months of 2023.

Working with the Witness Stones Project by designing a new hybrid, collaborative model, members of St. Matthew’s, along with members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Westport and St. Paul’s on the Green in Norwalk, met with middle school youth and adult leaders to study the history of enslavement in New England. Project coordinator Sharon Ely Pearson said, “As people of faith, no matter our doctrine or belief system, we all believe in the dignity of every human being.”

On June 10, members of the three congregations gathered at the Wilton Historical Society to commemorate a formerly enslaved person of Wilton who had deep roots in the community and whose story recently was discovered. The young researchers learned about a man known by his enslaver as “Lazarus,” born about 1800, who changed his name to John C. Wally upon his emancipation in the 1820s because of the Gradual Abolition Act of 1784. They discovered he was one of Wilton’s first Black property owners in the 1830s. Wally did a variety of work, including at St. Matthew’s, where he swept its floor, rang its bell and started its warming fire on Sunday mornings for an annual salary of $9. He died in 1859.

Other key collaborators in the project included the Wilton Historical Society and archivist/historian Julie Hughes, whose research uncovered over 200 individuals enslaved in the greater Norwalk area, 133 of them in Wilton. Those people were documented in an award-winning project, “Finding the Forgotten.” At the June 10 commemoration Hughes said, “While it is important that some of us here today have heard these names and learned as much as we can about who each person was, what they unjustly suffered, and what they accomplished in spite of the prejudice and imposed disadvantages they faced, this is not enough. I hope today can also be about acknowledging the descendants of Wilton’s enslaved and what we and the Town of Wilton owe them.”

Nathan Pawelek of the Unitarian Universalist congregation said, “There is an expression, ‘You can’t unring that bell.’ It’s an analogy used to suggest the difficulty of forgetting something once it is known. We can stop hiding [the enslaved in Connecticut] now. We need to point it out and talk openly about it when people question it, uncomfortable and terrible and embarrassing as it is. It is the only way to remember and restore the worth and dignity of the all-but-forgotten.” As he concluded his remarks, a town bell could be heard, tolling in the distance.

Since the time of John C. Wally, St. Matthew’s has moved to a different location. His home still stands, converted to a commercial property that recently sold for over $1 million. His story is now public, and his Witness Stone is located at the Wilton Historical Society, acknowledging Wally’s personhood along with that of the other enslaved and formerly enslaved individuals who lived in Wilton.