NEW MILFORD — On a chilly Sunday in December, the New Milford Historical Society opened the doors to its new exhibit: The Black Experience in New Milford. It marked one of the first times that the more than 300-year-old town had crafted a permanent space for local Black and Indigenous lives in its historical archive.
The special event included roughly 65 residents and local leaders, including the families of those honored in the displays. Resident Victoria Smith, born and raised in New Milford, sang two spirituals at the gathering, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “We Shall Overcome.”
The exhibit officially opens to the public on Tuesday.
“I felt extraordinarily proud of New Milford,” said Richard Peagler, whose family has a long history in town including several celebrated war heroes. Peagler and his wife drove down from Cortland, N.Y., for the special unveiling and to visit his mother, who still lives in town.
“To have that done in a small town like New Milford is extraordinary,” he said.
The final result has been a year in the making.
In early 2021, curator Lisa Roush gathered museum volunteers and New Milford residents to form an exhibit committee. Inspired by the summer of the Black Lives Matter protests, the historical society decided to join the national conversation about race, and began to research, plan, and install the permanent exhibit in the Boardman Store building gallery.
Ray Smith, a descendant of New Milford’s famous Heacock family, and son of Frances L. Smith, a longtime historian who has written extensive books covering African American history and the town, joined the committee in May. At the time, he said he felt a sense of duty to join the project, and hoped it would help educate New Milfordites on important Black history.
Roush said she was honored to be presenting the new exhibit to the community.
“This new permanent exhibit will remain here so that future generations can learn about the significance of the Black community not only in our New England town, but in America and the World,” she said.
The exhibit begins with Indigenous history before moving on to slavery, then the Revolutionary War, then Reconstruction and on to the World Wars. Each display brings to light the rich contributions, stories and images of Black New Milfordites who shaped that moment in time.
Yet, the displays capture not just faces, names and dates, but historical documents, objects, and voices.
This includes: a list of houses noted to be on the Underground Railroad; a shining purple heart medal given to Richard Peagler’s uncle, Second Lt. Robert Peagler, Jr.; The Rev. Stephen Heacock’s wood pulpit from the first African American church in New Milford; a long list of Black Civil War veterans; the number of soldiers on the “Honor Roll of Litchfield County” for fighting in the Revolutionary War; a photo and description of Martha Minerva Franklin, a pioneering Black nurse from New Milford who founded National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.
The list goes on.
On one wall, the museum has created a “photo album” with pictures contributed by local families. Eventually, the board wants to gather enough material for a file on each family represented there.
Next to these photos stands a lone computer on a tall stand. The screen, when turned on, plays an oral history project centered on the lives of Black residents. The videos include seven interviews with Black residents who talk about growing up Black in New Milford. Peagler was one of them.
Norm Cummings, a former News-Times editor who sits on the board of trustees, conducted the interviews and said he hopes to continue this project.
Another wall is filled with quilt squares that tell the story of the Underground Railroad.
The entire exhibit was a community effort — from quilt squares stitched by the senior center, to the oral histories cut and produced by the Youth Agency, to the research, stories, and photos contributed by local families and the historical society board members.
“The community was thinking about us as a group of people, and that is phenomenal,” Peagler said.
The board and curators had one major goal: to educate and start conversations.
As she walked through the displays, Victoria Smith said she learned more about the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, one of the Native American tribes who were some of the first people to live in the area.
Peagler received very little Black history in grade school. But he said his hometown has made a remarkable commitment to representing Black history.
In that way, completion of the exhibit didn’t mark the end of something, but rather the beginning, explained Anita Regan, a board member at the historical society.
“I will tell you that the feeling that we had on Sunday with all of us together in that room, it was pretty powerful,” said Regan. “And it gave me hope.”
Danielle King, a history, non-western cultures and English professor at Western Connecticut State University, knows how important education is when it comes to Black history. She teaches a class called “African American Studies: The Black Experience,” and watches in real time as her students — Black, white, Hispanic— learn, at times for the first time, about essential Black history.
“This is tremendously important because, as we know, African Americans have been economically, emotionally, physically, spiritually disenfranchised mainly because their history has always been withheld,” said King.
Since the Black Lives Matter protests and George Floyd’s murder, she has witnessed some change across the country when it comes to recognition and celebration of Black history. New Milford is another example of this.
“I’m thrilled,” King said. “I can’t wait to visit. I can’t wait to see it, because it makes us look for the pieces that have been omitted from history.”
Peagler said the opening ceremonies brought tears to people’s eyes.
“I kept thinking,” board member Kathy Kelly said, “if every little museum all across the country put up a display like this, what a difference that would make in the world.”