African American Heritage
Explore Vermont's Black History
Sometimes overlooked in Vermont's history is the Black community which calls Vermont home. Over the centuries, Black Vermonters 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 Black history and heritage in Vermont. 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 ROKEBY MUSEUM STEWARDS UNDERGROUND RAILROAD HISTORY
Ferrisburgh’s Rokeby Museum is a stop along the African-American Heritage Trail, and celebrates Vermont’s history on the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people find their way to freedom. Visitors can tour the home and farm of Quaker abolitionists Rowland and Rachel Robinson and the multimedia exhibit that introduces two fugitives from slavery who were sheltered at Rokeby in the 1830s.
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.
Among those Vermonters who sheltered fugitive slaves were Quakers, free Black Vermonters, clergy members and a Secretary of State.
The phrase “Underground Railroad” began surfacing in Vermont newspapers and written correspondence as early as 1840. Evidence seems to indicate Underground Railroad efforts in Fugitives were helped between houses by word of mouth and the strength of Vermont communities, often carrying letters explaining where they came from and what they needed. Many settled in Vermont for good, enriching the state’s communities and economies.
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 Daisy Turner, a black woman who fought for justice for her father in court and painstakingly recorded her family's black history.
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.) The Clemmons Family Farm, among Vermont's oldest and largest Black-owned farms, stewards a collection of storytelling and history of the African diaspora in Vermont.
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).