St. John’s Episcopal Church, Essex, Pays Tribute to Enslaved Violet and Free Black composer Sawney Freeman – Saturday, October 29

Through story and song, the lives of two 19th century Black individuals who lived on the Connecticut shoreline are being celebrated on Saturday, October 29. A dedication service will be held at 9:00 a.m. in memory of runaway slave Violet, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex, (3 Cross Street), in collaboration with the Witness Stones Project, Inc., and the Essex Historical Society. Musical compositions by Black composer Sawney Freeman will also be performed. Following the ceremony at 11:00 a.m., participants will leave from the church and visit the Freeman Family gravesites in Riverview Cemetery. The public is invited to both events.

The Witness Stones Project, Inc., whose mission is to “restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities,” has installed more than 125 Witness Stones in Connecticut. Notes Executive Director Dennis Culliton, “Essex’s economy had unique access to the Connecticut River, Long Island Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean. Trade with the slave economies in the West Indies benefited ship’s captains, farmers, sawyers, and coopers in Essex. This made the use of slave labor in Essex and beyond profitable.”

Violet and Sawney, while contemporaries, lived very different lives. Violet, born in 1775, was enslaved by Captain Noah Scovell, a merchant and shipbuilder in Saybrook, Connecticut. Both Violet and Noah Scovell were members of St. John’s Church. When Violet escaped slavery in 1802, Scovell issued a $10 reward for her return. See Runaway ad).

Sawney Freeman, emancipated in the 1790s, was a composer of four- and five-part harmonies for bands and single instruments. A book of his compositions was sold at Isaac Beers & Co. Book Store in New Haven. Sawney, his wife Clarissa, and son James are buried at Riverview Cemetery.

Anthony Pandolfe, Music Director at St. John’s, who transcribed Sawney’s compositions from the original manuscripts, says, “Playing these 200-year-old compositions is like taking a step back in time to the simpler harmonies and genres that were the vernacular of that era. Sawney’s music is something tangible and brings his story alive as we attempt to see a window into his heart as he penned these compositions.” 

Notes Melissa Josefiak, Director of the Essex Historical Society, which supported the work of the Witness Stones Project through its research and programming, “Our walking tours of Essex Village and Centerbrook have addressed our community’s connection with and complicity in the West Indies slave trade, as well as the many contributions of enslaved labor to the shipbuilding industry.” She adds, “All stories deserve to be told. Our work with primary sources and collaborative partners helps us bring those previously unheard voices to life.”  

Rev. Kate Wesch of St. John’s adds, “The Episcopal Diocese has actively engaged congregants in storytelling about historical and present-day privilege and under-privilege. In our church there is a framed window of Jesus, The Good Shepherd, dedicated in memory ‘to those who have no other memorial in this church.’ The dedication of a witness stone for Violet and the performance of Sawney’s music is another way for us to demonstrate that the lived experiences of all of God’s people are worthy of remembrance.”

For more information: Contact Rev. Kate Wesch, St. John’s Episcopal Church, (860 767-8095).