STONINGTON — Nancy Steenburg and Liz Kading stood inside Stonington’s Lighthouse Museum one morning last week, next to a huge life-size portrait of Venture Smith, the man whose life they have been studying for more than 17 years .
It was the opening day of a new exhibit called ‘My Freedom is a Privilege Nothing Else Can Match’, about Smith’s life and slavery in Stonington, an exhibit created by the Stonington Historical Society, which owns and operates the Water Street Museum.
The two women – who have given numerous talks and presentations on Smith over the years and are the authors of ‘The Venture Adventure’ – wore expressions of joy, satisfaction and relief as they reviewed the stories- boards and posters hung on the walls and chatted with Maddie Mott-Ricci, director of advancement for the historical society.
“I feel like Venture led us,” said Steenburg, a longtime history professor at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point Campus who served as project historian for the company’s Venture Smith project. .
“It’s been years and years,” added Kading, a researcher who worked alongside Steenburg going through old records and acts, and often turning dead ends into new discoveries. “I’m thrilled. … I’m really excited. I hope a lot of people come to see it.
“It’s a story that needs to be known,” Steenburg added thoughtfully.
As the two researchers – who painstakingly found evidence of Smith’s stay in Stonington – looked around at the photographs and posters, and chatted with Mott-Ricci, they pointed to photos, stories and certain words of Smith, taken from his first-hand account, his biography which he dictated to a Connecticut schoolteacher.
“He actually left an autobiography,” Mott-Ricci explained. “A day-to-day account…which is really unusual. It was later published in The Bee newspaper in New London.”
Her account, she added, is one of “the most comprehensive pictures of slave life in Connecticut in the 18th century” and “one that illustrates how deeply rooted slavery was in early prosperity. of Stoneton”.
Published in 1798, “A Narrative of The Life And Adventures of Venture: A Native Of Africa, But Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America” is considered the first narrative of slavery in the United States.
“I was born in Dukandarra, Guinea, around the year 1729,” the story begins. “My father’s name was Saungm Furro, prince of the Dukandarra tribe.”
Visitors to the exhibit will receive copies of the booklet, neatly stacked on a table near Smith’s life-size portrait, along with postcards and copies of “The Story of Freedom: Venture Smith’s Colonial Connecticut,” by Venture Smith and Elizabeth J. Norman, with illustrations by Michael Borders.
The exhibit, which was made possible by a $54,000 “Good to Great” grant from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, will be permanent, Mott-Ricci said.
On the exhibit’s first panel, visitors learn that Smith was kidnapped from Dukandarra, part of Guinea, when he was 8 years old, and “with other captives he walked more than 400 miles to the coast where he was imprisoned and then sold.”
“He was purchased early by Robertson Mumford, a steward aboard the ship Charming Susannah and renamed Venture. The price of his life was ‘four gallons of rum and a piece of calico,'” the panel states.
Smith was brought first to Rhode Island, then to Fisher’s Island, then, Steenburg said, to Stonington, where he spent much of his life.
He belonged to two Stonington families, including the Thomas Stanton II family, before buying his freedom for $13,500 and later that of his wife and children, she said.
They were “pretty cruel to him,” Steenburg said.
“A lot of people don’t realize that,” Mott-Ricci said. “But Venture was clear – he was beaten and robbed.”
As heartbreaking as any part of history may be, she added, “it is our duty to preserve and remember.”
Another part of the exhibit shows that in 1756, 18% of Stonington’s inhabitants were black, native or colored. Many of them would have been slaves. In 1774, there were 219 slaves in Stonington, according to the exhibit.
In another section of the exhibit, a small modern photograph of the Annual Venture Smith Day, taken at First Church Cemetery in East Haddam, shows a number of people gathered around Smith’s headstone where he was buried, alongside his wife Meg and other members. of their family.
Smith lived in East Haddam from 1775 to 1805 as a freeman, Steenburg said, noting that an East Haddam dentist and historian named Karl Stofko honored Smith’s life there for many years.
Smith has more than 300 descendants, Steenburg said looking at the photo. “That makes it all the more real.”
Exactly, Kading said, nodding.
“It’s not just a fairy tale,” Kading said. “It’s not a Paul Bunyan tale. It’s true.”
Smith’s story is also the story of family triumph, perseverance and heroism, Mott-Ricci said.
“He was a shrewd businessman,” Steenburg said. “He won the respect of many and he owned 110 acres of land and 10 boats.”
“Today we marvel at the many ways Venture made money,” Normann writes in “The Story of Freedom: Venture Smith’s Colonial Connecticut.” “He was a businessman. He was his own boss. He was a merchant, a farmer, and a fisherman. That’s a way he was typical of many small landowners in colonial Connecticut.”
“Furthermore, he bought other slaves and left them buy their freedom,” Kading noted.
“If you look out that window and towards Stonington Point,” Mott-Ricci said, “you can actually see the land he bought on Barn Island.”
Finding the exact spot where he may have lived was a “eureka” moment, Steenburg said as she and Kading explained the story of the find.
“The experiences of Africans in early America, and especially New England, are often not well documented, which is why Venture Smith’s autobiography is such an important story to share,” said Elizabeth Wood. , executive director of the historical society. “Our mission at the Historical Society is to preserve and interpret all parts of Stonington’s history and we are delighted to honor Venture’s legacy with this permanent exhibit.”
Admission to the museum is free in February. The hours are Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The museum will close at the end of the month and reopen for the season on May 13.