African American Heritage
Sometimes overlooked as part of Vermont's history are the African Americans who made Vermont their home. Over the centuries, they have had a profound impact on agriculture, owned businesses, held public office, fought alongside fellow citizens in major wars, and worked to make Vermont and the nation a better place.
Now visitors and Vermonters alike can learn about this history. The Vermont African American Heritage Trail explores their stories and those of some of their fellow Vermonters. The guide takes visitors to Vermont museums and cultural sites where exhibits, films, tours, and personal explorations illuminate the lives of African Americans for whom the Green Mountain State was part of their identity. Visitors meet teachers, storytellers, activists, ministers, and legislators who bring this important history to life.
Vermont's Underground Railroad
There are many stories about Vermont homes that once harbored escaping slaves. In 1995 a study examined scores of individuals and sites that were thought to have assisted in the transport of African Americans seeking freedom. Research identified 57 individuals, families, structures and buildings as being involved - or likely to have been involved - in the Underground Railroad.
Today the best documented site of them all – and open for visitors – is Rokeby Museum, where the Vermont African American Heritage Trail begins. Visitors can tour the home and farm of Quaker abolitionists Rowland and Rachel Robinson and the mulitmedia exhibit that introduces two fugitives from slavery who were sheltered at Rokeby in the 1830s.
To learn more about the documentation of Vermont Underground Railroad sites, download an excerpt from Friends of Freedom: The Vermont Underground Railroad Survey Report (State of Vermont, 1996.)
The Vermont African American Heritage Trail introduces visitors to just some of the stories of the people who made their homes in Vermont, including Lucy Terry Prince, America’s first African American poet. She was also a Vermont farmer and landowner who, in 1803, successfully appealed a land dispute before the State Supreme Court and won against the two leading lawyers in the state. There’s also Eliza Healy, who was born into slavery in Macon, Georgia, in 1846. Years later, while living in Vermont, she became the first African American mother superior of a Catholic convent.
And in 1909, Vermont’s population of 826 African Americans swelled to more than 2,000 when the all-Black 10th Cavalry – the Buffalo Soldiers – were temporarily stationed in Colchester and did much to dispel racism borne of ignorance.
Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity has assembled lessons plans, supplemental materials, interactive activities, and geocache coordinates for the Vermont African American Heritage Trail at www.vtafricanamericanheritage.net.
To learn more about Vermont’s African American history, check out these books and archives:
The Swift-Stewart Research Center at the Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury holds a rich collection of materials that highlight the history of slavery and freedom as debated and experienced by 19th-century Vermonters. Also in Middlebury are the Middlebury College Archives that houses the collected letters of abolitionists Rowland Thomas (1796–1879) & Rachel Gilpin Robinson (1799–1862), and the Vermont Folklife Center’s audio recordings of Daisy Turner (1883-1988.)
Books of note include: Daisy’s Turner’s Kin: An African American Family Saga by Jane Beck (University of Illinois Press, 2015); Discovering Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburgh, 1790-1890 by Elise Guyette (University Press of New England, 2010); and Vermont Women, Native Americans & African Americans: Out of the Shadow of History by Cynthia Bittinger (The History Press, 2012).