Middle school students join celebration of Venture Smith's life
By Kevin Hotary - Staff Writer
East Haddam - posted Mon., Sep. 19, 2011
Sixth-grade students at Nathan Hale-Ray Middle School got their year off to a great start this past Saturday, Sept. 17, as they were invited to take part in the town-wide celebration of one of East Haddam’s most famous residents, Venture Smith. Abducted from Africa and sold into slavery in the colonies around 1737, Venture Smith became a living legend, earning not only his own freedom, but that of his family as well, on his way to becoming a well-respected merchant and landowner in the area of Haddam Neck. His autobiography, “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture,” was published in 1798 and relates his successes and his fight for equality in an era when African-Americans were rarely treated as equals.
Smith is buried in the First Congregational Church cemetery with his wife, Meg, and two of their children. The legend of Venture Smith has been celebrated by town residents for 15 years with Venture Smith Day – a day of readings and lectures on his life and times, along with updates on the ongoing research projects examining Smith’s life.
“He had to do so much just to get food,” said Emily, one of the sixth-graders who started the school year with an in-depth study of Smith as an introduction to the science of archeology.
“The students learn through pictures and text,” said Andrea Pascal, the social studies teacher who led the students through their studies on Smith, reading his narrative, watching videos about the dig that occurred at his gravesite, and even performing a dramatization of a radio interview with some of those involved in the dig.
At the celebration, the students read two poems – “Farm Garden” and “Work Song” – from “The Freedom Business,” a book of poems written by former Connecticut Poet Laureate Marilyn Nelson as a parallel to the narrative of Venture Smith. In addition, each of the students chose a moment from Smith’s life that captured their imagination and illustrated that moment. Those illustrations – about 100 of them, according to Pascal – were hung throughout the area in which the ceremony was held.
“They look really nice all together,” said Pascal of the drawings. “The kids have been wonderful. They’ve been really interested.”
Although she had only a little more than a week to study, Elizabeth, one of the students at the ceremony, could recount in detail much of Smith’s life and adventures, marveling at how hard he worked to buy his freedom after so many years of slavery. Another student, Alexis, was captivated by his marriage to another slave and the fact that they were able to raise children.
“This is a wonderful school program she is running,” said East Haddam historian Karl Stofko, who led the ceremony and recited three stories about Venture Smith. “Hopefully it will spread to other schools throughout the state,” he added.
And the lessons learned by the students run deeper than just the facts of Venture Smith’s life, which to some students provided a new perspective on their own lives. When asked what she learned through the project, Emily thought for a moment, and said, “I learned to never take anything for granted.”