‘We can’t have this’: Slavery connection prompts name change for West Hartford town green

View of West Hartford Town Hall in West Hartford, Conn., on Thursday Jan. 7, 2020.

WEST HARTFORD — Adrienne Billings-Smith gathered on the town green last June for the Pride flag raising ceremony when she learned the land they were standing on was named for a slave owner.

“I went home and wrote a letter and said, ‘We can’t have this,’” said Billings-Smith, president of Concerned Parents of Color West Hartford.

She said they can’t keep holding their Southern counterparts responsible for having places, symbols and effigy honoring the Confederacy and slavery when there are also elements of that here. Her letter made its way through various officials before reaching the reverend at First Church, which owns the green.

A year later, Goodman Green is now Unity Green and will be rededicated at 11:30 a.m. on June 20 as part of West Hartford’s weekend-long Juneteenth celebration.

West Hartford isn’t the only town trying to address its past by reexamining places’ names. Localities in Connecticut and throughout the country are renaming places or removing statues that honor people who oppressed others, such as owning slaves, fighting for the Confederacy or defending or advocating for segregation. The changes are also helping give people who feel their histories aren’t represented a chance to be better seen.

“It’s important that we consider that a lot of attention has been paid to monuments and renaming places/spaces in the South, but that we also need to face up to the reality that slavery played a role in shaping society and the economy of New England, and specifically Connecticut, as well,” said Jennifer McLaughlin, a history instructor at Sacred Heart University. “Acknowledging the links between white New Englanders and the enslavement of African Americans and Native Americans can be a first step toward educating the public about the past.”

Billings-Smith said she feels great about the change, especially since it was done alongside so many community members and the church with care and purpose. The congregation and Concerned Parents of Color had several virtual discussions before the congregation voted to change the name this winter.

“This is a community effort,” Billings-Smith said. “This is unity and this is what it looks like.”

The church, which has leased the land to the town since 1924, welcomed the new name.

“It was important to us to recognize the past, understand the present and be welcoming and diverse into the future,” Judy Schmitt, a member of First Church, said at a recent community conversation.

Billings-Smith said there are plans to make the space more welcoming beyond the name. This weekend’s Juneteenth celebration is just a start. Her group received a grant to add benches that will be dedicated to Black, Indigenous and people of color who had an impact on the community.

There are also plans to add signage and QR codes so people can learn about the town and state’s history, especially highlighting the voices Billings-Smith said are left out of history books.

“I think by this time next year you’ll see a big difference in what Unity Green looks like,” she said.

The green’s perception has already evolved.

“Most of us saw it as a green space and not much more,” Schmitt said. “Last year, that changed.”

It started with no official name, simply the town parade ground, when Timothy Goodman deeded the land to the church for that purpose in 1747.

“By 1896, that space was somehow named Goodman Green,” Schmitt said, referring to maps from the time. “Nobody knows who named it other than that was the person who deeded the property to the church.”

First Church was founded in 1713 and has been using its extensive archives to help the Witness Stone Project, which uses research, education and civic engagement to increase awareness about those who were enslaved and their contributions to West Hartford.

Church members dove into their archives this time for a more direct connection. One member, who acts as the historian, gave a presentation outlining the history of the area’s enslavement of Blacks and Native Americans. Enslaving Native Americans dates back to the colonists’ early settlements and the wars they had with local tribes, especially the Pequot.

Even their own church was connected to slavery. The first three ministers owned slaves and most likely the wealthy parishioners, Schmitt said.

“That was news to us,” she said. “It was uncomfortable.”

Schmitt said it’s contradicting to think of ministers preaching scripture, especially the story of Moses freeing the Jews from Egypt, yet owning slaves themselves.

“We had to learn to accept that,” she said. “I wouldn’t say we embraced it.”

Dottie Selden Stone, Goodman’s great-great-great-great granddaughter, grew up on stories of her family’s contributions to the town and the legacy her relatives left behind.

“These stories made me feel proud and really connected to West Hartford,” she said.

While growing up, she said she never heard stories of slaves working on Goodman Farm or in West Hartford.

“That was quite a blow,” she said. “‘How could that be?’ I’m saying to myself. I was really shaken by it.”

But she drew on her recent trip to the lynching memorial in Alabama and a talk she heard while there from its director, Bryan Stevenson, about changing the narrative to share the stories of all people and their contributions. She said the name “Unity Green” will do that, making it a more inclusive place that all West Hartford residents will be able to see themselves reflected in.

Earl Exum, president of West Hartford African American Social and Cultural Organization, commended the congregation.

“I find that story to be totally inspirational because it shows how dealing with these uncomfortable truths doesn’t have to be something we should be ashamed of but can instead be something we build upon,” he said at the community conversation.

Yale University came into the national spotlight several years ago when it renamed Calhoun College, though it originally announced it would keep the name after protests first broke out. John C. Calhoun was an 1804 Yale graduate, who served as vice president of the United States and was a staunch defender and advocate of slavery.

In February 2017, Yale President Peter Salovey announced the college would be renamed for Grace Hopper, a Navy admiral and computer scientist.

Christopher Columbus statues were also removed in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk last year.

“It’s undeniable that there has been a recent uptick in revisiting monuments, statues, and even the naming of things like town greens,” said David Thomson, an assistant professor of history at Sacred Heart University. “The horrific events by white supremacists in Charlottesville in August 2017 helped to accelerate some of these decisions although some events predate this certainly.”

He said localities’ responses have varied in both the North and South, including removing statues, leaving them in place and leaving just the bases.

“Such actions have a tremendous opportunity to contextualize our nation’s past and inform the public,” Thomson said.

There is also public outcry to change military bases named for Confederate generals.

The opposite is also happening where places are trying to bring more awareness to the past with a name change, not necessarily because the original namesake was problematic.

A private school in Washington, changed its name from the Gunnery to the Frederick Gunn School, to better honor its founder. Gunn was a noted abolitionist and avid outdoorsman, credited with founding recreational camping in the U.S.

There was also a push last summer to rename New Haven’s Wooster Square Park in honor of William Lanson, a Black engineer and developer who laid the foundation of the modern-day park. Wooster Square was named for a Revolutionary War general who was born in Stratford and fatally wounded and buried in Danbury during the Battle of Ridgefield.

Carina Bandhauer, Western Connecticut State University’s social sciences department chair, said the changes are part of a national movement.

“It’s a time of real change in the United States,” she said. “This was true even prior to the murder of George Floyd, but the blatancy of his murder truly did lead to a more concerted effort to dislodge racist symbols and practices.”

She said the effort predates this, including when Bree Newsome, scaled the flag pole outside the South Carolina State House in 2015 to remove the Confederate flag. The switch has also been documented in several books and articles in the past decade.

“Can you imagine just for a minute how insulting and traumatizing it would be if we celebrated someone who had enslaved, robbed and violated your family or a family in your community?” Bandhauer said. “It would be like living in the ‘Twilight Zone.’ Why would you celebrate someone who not only participated in white supremacy, but who openly benefited from it?”

She said it’s important to not deny what happened in the past, but learn the true history and face it head-on.

“We have much to reckon with in our past as a nation,” Bandhauer said. “We will be a much better and stronger nation if we be truthful about our history.”

Thomson said there are some interesting options to commemorate slavery’s legacy within Connecticut with the Witness Stone Project, which started in Guilford but has spread to other places, including West Hartford. It’s inspired by the Stopersteinein Germany, which recognizes the legacy of the Nazis and the Holocaust.

“By acknowledging the history of enslavement in Connecticut, we see a start at rectifying our state’s past,” he said. “Every town and city will address this in their own manner, but needless to say we are still in the early phases of this reckoning.”

Connecticut Media Group