St. Matthew’s aims to tell the story of Wilton’s forgotten enslaved people

Photo of J.D. Freda

WILTON — St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church is committing itself to educating the community and paying tribute to the enslaved peoples of Wilton.

The goal is to spend the remainder of the calendar year digging through historical land and personal records, with the help of the Wilton Historical Society, to tell a proper story of an enslaved Wiltonian whose history has been lost in time. When the research has been completed, the church community anticipates a permanent, physical memorialization, in the form of a stone, somewhere in town to pay tribute to that individual.

“They all had stories,” Rev. Marissa Rohrbach of St. Matthew’s said. “We have a responsibility, as far as we can within what’s actually possible given the way records were kept, for those people’s stories.”

Sharon Pearson and Rohrbach recently met with the Witness Stones Project to discuss the undertaking. The Witness Stones Project “seeks to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities,” according to its website.

Rohrbach called partnering with Witness Stones a “great, concrete first step” in telling these people’s stories.

Next, Pearson said the church will rely on help from the Wilton Historical Society to “really dig deep,” and look at primary documents, such as land and baptismal records.

“Really any early kinds of records and then learning as much as we can about that person,” Pearson said.

Through the historical society’s research, Pearson said the church is aware of a number of enslaved persons buried at the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church cemetery. “We don’t know where they are because most of them are unmarked graves,” Pearson said, “but there are records that say that certain people are there.” She added the church is aware of a number of its founders who enslaved people.

Candidly, Pearson acknowledged that there were very few organized personal documents kept on enslaved peoples as “they were considered property.” Most records acknowledging their existence, she said, are property records.

In addition to the church’s quest to personalize their stories and honor these individuals, the church and the Witness Stones Project will also be advocating for teacheing about the town’s past and its enslaved population to local middle school students who, Pearson said, will be putting together projects on the topic to further personalize their story.

Witness Stones will also be providing education to members of the church so that they may share that information with the rest of the congregation.

“This project is really about lifting up and recognizing the humanity of these enslaved peoples that perhaps have not been recognized,” Pearson said. “They were also big contributors to forming our communities.”

St. Matthew’s is currently the sole financial contributor to this project, but is actively seeking groups to join. Pearson said there is interest among other faith-based organizations they are speaking with in town.

The church anticipates the research to conclude towards the end of 2022, with plans to memorialize the individual in early 2023, possibly around the start of Black History Month in February.

A ceremony will also be held at the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church Cemetery, adjacent to Wilton Town Hall, on Sunday, June 19 at 11:30 a.m. to pay tribute to those enslaved peoples they believe to be buried at the grounds and across town.