Students share hidden history

Tino Harper, Zach Walsh, and Duke Gentzler presented on William Grimes.

Patrick L. Sullivan

Students share hidden history

SALISBURY — Three teams of students from Salisbury School made the initial presentations of their local history projects at the Scoville Memorial Library Thursday, Feb. 15. The presentations were also streamed online.

Salisbury School is an independent boarding school for boys in grades nine to 12.

Teacher Rhonan Mikriski opened the presentations, noting it would be the first run-through. The final presentations will be included at the Troutbeck Symposium May 1-3 in Amenia.

Mikriski said the students are delving into forgotten corners of local history, particularly when it concerns marginalized groups.

The first group — Jasper Nadal, Derrick Dellea and Will Mumby — took a look at the treatment of mental health in Northwest Connecticut and the Hudson Valley.

The students made the point that institutions varied greatly in the quality of the care they provided, and in their philosophies. Were the institutions there to cure patients, or to simply house them?

The students touched on the Lakeville Home for Imbeciles, on the sprawling Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center in Dutchess County, and on the methods used to treat mental illness.

The latter category reads like a horror movie script. The techniques used included prefrontal lobotomies, insulin shock, hydrotherapy (immersion for long periods of time in cold or hot water, sometimes in sequence), and electroshock treatment.

The next group — Jack Kennedy, Judd Phillips, DJ Duntz and Parker Reynolds — took as their starting point the painting “The Last Moments of John Brown” by Thomas Havendon.

The painting shows Brown being escorted to the gallows for his actions in the infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. He is pausing to kiss a Black infant.

The local connection is this: The painting was commissioned by the Battell family of Norfolk. The group found the painting to be a conscious attempt to rehabilitate the image of Brown, who was widely considered to be a terrorist for his anti-slavery activities.

Brown was also a native of Torrington.

The group also included a clip from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” noting the film is famous for its technical sophistication and infamous for its blatant racism. The clip showed Black legislators during Reconstruction drinking alcohol and otherwise clowning around while on the floor of a legislative chamber.

The final group focused on William Grimes, a slave who escaped and made his way to Connecticut in 1814.

He became a successful businessman with barbershops in Litchfield, New Haven and Bridgeport. He married and had a large family.

Grimes was subsequently tracked down after nine years of freedom. He wound up turning his businesses over to secure his continued freedom.

He also wrote a book about his experiences, “Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave,” published in 1825.

The group noted that when Grimes was tracked down, slavery had not yet been abolished in Connecticut.

The students also suggested that the choice of barbershops as a business was in part a way to get around laws that prohibited large gatherings of African Americans.

And they discussed the cultural and social significance of African American hairstyles.

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