Published: October 23, 2018
Review by Laura Beach
LITCHFIELD, CONN. – Peter Tillou is often described as a polymath. An antiques dealer since he was 14 and a force of nature, he has never lost the capacity for wonder that propels him forward, making him an authority on everything from coins and classic cars to American primitive portraiture, the passion for which he will forever best be known.
“One learning experience creates the foundation for other learning experiences…I’m still learning every day,” the dealer wrote. Of artists who were not part of the mainstream, Tillou, himself largely self-invented, explained, “The strong individualism and honest expression of these creative men and women drew me to their work.”
This in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Tillou has lately given his blessing and his name to the Peter Tillou – Venture Smith Book Prize, an honor he shares jointly with the formerly enslaved Connecticut man who, after buying his freedom, produced what some experts have called the first African American autobiography in a distinctive literary voice. The annual prize, to be presented on November 3 before audiences on three continents, recognizes work by an emerging West African poet, novelist or historian.
Tillou grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., but has lived in Litchfield since 1965. For many of the intervening years he has been friendly with Chandler B. Saint, co-director with David Richardson of the Documenting Venture Smith Project, an initiative of the not-for-profit Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights. Over coffee recently, Saint recalled with amazement Tillou’s striking displays at the Winter Antiques Show in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Saint, himself a former picker, could make $3,000 in an afternoon selling mostly brass and andirons to customers like Stair & Company.
Saint later gravitated to antiques restoration but eventually became interested in saving old houses. Robert Forbes – the eldest son of the late scholar-collector H.A. Crosby Forbes – and some others had asked Saint to look at an early house in Stonington, Conn., that had been in the Stanton family. Thomas Stanton, Saint learned, had purchased Venture, born in West Africa around 1729, in 1754. Venture was sold for the third time in 1760 to Colonel Oliver Smith Jr, also of Stonington, whose surname he took. By 1765, Venture was a free man; a decade after that he began accumulating land for a farm in Haddam Neck, Conn. Toward the end of his life, Venture dictated his life story, which The Bee of New London, Conn., published in 1798. He died in 1805 and is buried in East Haddam.
In 2004, Saint and Forbes brought the aforesaid publication, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, to the attention of the British academic David Richardson. “Richardson, then a visiting scholar at Yale, took one look at it and said, ‘this is the iconic story of the Atlantic slave trade,'” Saint recalls. The trio embarked on a research collaboration. The work took members of the team to Africa, where they more fully documented Venture’s origins.
Officially launched in 2005 on the 200th anniversary of the death of the former slave, the Documenting Venture Smith Project is a collaboration of the Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights, the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom, and the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. Forbes, a founding associate director of Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, is the project’s principal historian.
In the ensuing 13 years, the Documenting Venture Smith Project has produced three editions of the annotated narrative, most recently issued as Venture Smith: “My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal” by Chandler B. Saint with Robert Pierce Forbes, foreword by David Richardson. There is also a compact disk, a book of poems, a traveling exhibit, six programs on C-Span, a BBC documentary, five conferences and assorted published papers. The latest addition to the portfolio is the Peter Tillou-Venture Smith Book Prize.
“Peter was fascinated by this powerful story of how an African brought here as a slave overcomes persecution to become a Connecticut gentleman. He has supported this project since 2005,” says Saint. After the third volume came out, Tillou gave generously to ensure that the book was distributed to schools and libraries across Connecticut.
Earlier this year and after much discussion with Saint, Tillou, who has Parkinson’s disease, agreed that a book prize in his name would be a fitting legacy. Saint’s colleagues at the University of Cape Coast were meanwhile eager for opportunities to disseminate, at home and abroad, the work of West African writers. Ghana’s former president, John A. Kufuor, expressed hope that African children, too, might learn about Venture Smith, who was likely held in Annamaboe Fort in what is now Ghana before Rhode Island slavers carried him to the American colonies aboard the Charming Susanna.
Thus was born the Peter Tillou-Venture Smith Book Prize. The winner, to be chosen by a panel of distinguished scholars from West Africa, North America and the United Kingdom, will receive a cash award of $5,000 for travel to the award ceremony and promotion of the book, which will be produced by the Documenting Venture Smith Project and distributed internationally.
Bruce Schnitzer and Alexandra Champalimaud, part-time residents of Litchfield and longtime Tillou friends, are sponsoring the 2018 prize, to be awarded to Kwadwo Opoku‐Agyemang for Wise Eyes: The Anomabo Poems. Opoku‐Agyemang, a University of Cape Coast faculty member who completed doctoral studies in Canada and is influenced by modern American and African literature and jazz, writes expressly about the slave trade and its legacy.
Planned for Saturday, November 3, at 2 pm at the Connecticut State Library in Hartford and attended by the Tillou family, the awards ceremony will be hosted by Forbes and followed by a reception. Presenters will include Forbes, Schnitzer and State Librarian Kendall F. Wiggin. A live simulcast is planned at corresponding events in Accra, Ghana, hosted by former President Kufuor, patron of the prize, and at the Wilberforce Institute, hosted by David Richardson.
Peter Tillou’s friends and colleagues are invited to contribute to the prize fund, which as of a few weeks ago had grown to a sum in the mid-five-figures. Tax-deductible donations earmarked for the prize may be made to the Documenting Venture Smith Project, care of Robert P. Forbes, 2055 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT 06515 or telephone 203-915-4248.
“Peter loves powerful stories and bridging worlds. Supporting this prize is something we can do for him. We owe him a great deal. He changed the antiques business and has been good to many people,” Saint reflects.
Tillou the polymath may be known for his wide-ranging interests, but vitality, curiosity and essential optimism – all implicit in this prize – are what most distinguish him.
For more on the Documenting Venture Smith Project, go to www.venture-smith.org. For more on the book prize, call 860-480-0154 or 203-444-7758.
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