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UConn Class Explores Legacy of Slave-Turned-Merchant


It takes many kinds of narrators to tell the full story of slave-turned-merchant Venture Smith historians and scientists to uncover the story, actors and poets to bring it to life, his many living descendants who recall the legends of their ancestor, and, of course, Smith himself, who dictated his autobiography.

Last fall, a diverse chorus of narrators visited the University of Connecticut to tell that story in what is believed to have been the first academic course devoted entirely to the study of a man who was born a West African prince but was kidnapped and sold into slavery, one of the hundreds of thousands of people who sailed the Middle Passage in chains and one of the few to record his story.

The freshman honors class used Smith, whose life and legacy are being dissected by an international community of scholars and scientists, to explore the meaning of identity from a scientific, legal, philosophical, historical and artistic viewpoint, said genetics Professor Rachel O’Neill.

“What makes us who we are? Our DNA? Our experiences? Our personal will? These are issues we talk about in the study of Venture Smith, but they are at the heart of our everyday lives, too,” O’Neill said. “It is an especially timely debate for a group of freshmen, most of whom have just left home for the first time and are starting to wrestle with who they really are as individuals.”

The 14 students enrolled in Genetic Legacies: A Connecticut Slave’s Story, who included would-be science majors as well as those who dream of going into business or politics, learned about Smith and his descendants, the excavation of his Haddam Neck home and nearby grave and the genetic search for his long-lost African heritage.

Guest speakers ranged from State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, who led the dig of Smith’s East Haddam grave in search of any remaining DNA, to Linda Strausbaugh, the head of the UConn lab hunting for genetic clues to Smith’s African origin, to Professor Jeffrey Ogbar, the director of UConn’s Institute for African American Studies.

“The class is an extraordinary tour of the various sciences needed to really understand the Venture Smith story,” Bellantoni said.

Smith is one of the best-documented survivors of the Middle Passage. Born Broteer Furro around 1729, then kidnapped by slavers in West Africa when he was just a boy, he lived enslaved first in Rhode Island, then in New York and finally in Connecticut.

By chopping wood on his own time, Smith bought his freedom, his family’s freedom, and then a farm in Haddam Neck. In 1798, Smith told his story to a teacher, who published it. It is thought to be Colonial New England’s only surviving slave narrative.

The class also explored the modern-day implications of Smith’s story. The students discussed a legal challenge to the excavation of the East Haddam cemetery where Smith is buried and used it as a launching pad into a debate over who owns Mozart’s DNA. The DNA testing of Smith descendants led to a discussion of a French proposal to use DNA testing to verify bloodlines of would-be immigrants.

“This class would have made Venture Smith very happy,” Strausbaugh said. “It underscores his modern-day relevance.”

Katie Stewart, an 18-year-old freshman from New Milford, took the course because she plans to study genetics, but the speakers made her realize she could apply that knowledge in a range of fields, from law to history to government. “It’s something we all must understand now,” Stewart said. “It’s everywhere.”

O’Neill hopes UConn will offer the Venture Smith class again next fall.

–Associated Press

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