Grace Farms to grapple with race, American identity
DNEW CANAAN — Dede Bartlett never could have guessed what she’d find when, nearly two decades ago, she began researching her ancestry.
Growing up an only child in New York City, Bartlett said she was surrounded by the history of her ancestors, who settled in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Delaware area and upstate New York, going back, in some cases, 400 years. Tales told by her parents about her grandparents and great-grandparents imbued Bartlett with the belief that she knew all there was to know about the Barletts who preceded her.
“My family’s apartment had a lot of antiques that had been in the family for hundreds of years. There were family trees, mahogany tables from the West Indies. We slept in 200-year-old beds. And there were a lot of grim-faced Danish West Indian portraits. I lived history,” said Barlett, a New Canaan resident.
A childhood spent immersed in history sparked a lifelong interest, which ultimately let to her decision to preserve in writing the history of her family for posterity. It was a decision that began a search into the past that would forever change the way she conceived of her ancestors.
“Things took a very interesting turn when I took early retirement in 2002. Suddenly I had a little bit of time on my hands. I did a simple query to the St. Croix Historical Society about some of my ancestors,” said Bartlett, a former executive at Philip Morris and an activist against domestic violence. “Suddenly, I get back a reply that was entirely different. I learned a secret that my parents didn’t know, that had been hidden in the family for 200 years.”
Barlett’s several-generations-back great-grandmothers, it turned out, were slaves of mixed heritage in St. Croix, a discovery she called one of the most “astonishing experiences” of her life. In the first of three histories of her family, she sought to document the lives of those women, whose pictures had been left out of family lore, whose gravestones didn’t exist, and who history had forgotten.
The Unexpected Journey of an American Woman
Friday, Feb. 17
Grace Farms Library
365 Lukes Wood Road, New Canaan
On Friday, Bartlett’s story, and her attempts to fill in history’s blanks, will kick off this year’s series of programs hosted by Grace Farms called “Race and American Memory.” Following a community dinner, Bartlett, along with Yale University poet Danielle Chapman, will present their personal family histories as part of an ambitious program at Grace Farms first conceived of by Grace Farms’ Foundation Arts Initiative Director Kenyon Adams in February 2016 as a way to celebrate Black History Month, but also to practice recovering memory, both personal and collective.
“We decided to look at what it is about black history that makes it so easy to forget. And to think about, if history can be negated, does that connect to how bodies and lives can be negated?” Adams said. “I’m excited for Dede and Danielle. I think both of them are kind of modeling what is necessary in terms of being a cognizant citizen and being American. Asking, ‘What is the larger history in which my personal narrative finds itself?’”
Chapman, who is working on a book of nonfiction and poetry about a family history passed down to her by her grandfather, has found herself wondering at times if parts of her story had been negated.
Since she was young, Chapman’s grandfather told her of his own grandfather, whose life was saved in a battle of the Civil War by a family slave named Robert Singleton. As the story goes, Singleton and Chapman’s great-great-grandfather were best friends, and ended up settling near one another after the war in Tennessee. Singleton’s home would eventually become the site of annual family reunions between the white descendents of Chapman’s great-great-grandfather, and the black descendants of Singleton, a tradition that survives to this day.
It was a happy family history, set against the dark backdrop of slavery, and one that stirred skepticism in the young Chapman.
“At first, I didn’t believe the story was true, but it really checks out. But it happened within the context of what was the sin, the genocide of American slavery, which was going on all around them,” Chapman said. Despite the happy anecdote of Singleton, Chapman found herself grappling with the knowledge that her family had been slave owners, confirmed by a notebook of one of her ancestors in which the names of hundreds of slaves are noted.
Similarly, while researching her father’s side of the family in upstate New York, Bartlett found a will — with a detailed appraisal of assets — of another overlooked figure in the Bartlett family heritage. The man died in 1691 and was a wealthy slave owner. Of his $7-million fortune (based on 2015’s dollar equivalency), slaves accounted for a startling $6.4 million.
“His most valuable possessions were the people he owned — That was hard,” Bartlett said.
The New Canaan resident said she is still processing the shock of the information that her ancestors were both enslaved and slave-owners, but she does not believe her family is unique.
All American families, according to Bartlett, have a story to tell. And all American families are tied together, in some way, by the national tragedy of slavery.
“My conclusion was that I don’t have any advice to give anyone. But I do know, through the history of my family in the Caribbean, in the South and in New York, slavery shaped every aspect of their lives,” Bartlett said. “I think it’s very useful to have gatherings that raise awareness and foster discussion. I believe that the discussions and the thought are the most valuable things to come out of this.”