Stories to tell: Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail
Daisy Turner told a lot of stories before her death in 1988 at 104. A native of Grafton and one of 13 children born to former slaves, Daisy was known for her tales about her family’s history, which could be traced back three generations to Africa. Now Turner is a central figure in the newly opened statewide African American Heritage Trail.
Folklorist Jane Beck, former director of the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, spent two years in the 1980s visiting Turner to record and videotape her family memories. “Her stories,” Beck says, “capture two centuries of black American history at a critical time.” The video “On My Own: The Traditions of Daisy Turner” is on view at the center, a stop on the Heritage Trail, along with the Grafton Historical Society.
“We’ve brought together a broader story in our trail exhibit that includes wider family lines,” Patricia Ellis, society president, says. “We want to tell the story of Daisy’s family and what they did in this community in order to bring forward a sense of place.”
The Heritage Trail comprises 11 sites including nine museums with exhibits featuring video, audio, and guided, or self-guided tours.
Not far from Grafton, the Old Constitution House in Windsor, originally a tavern, marks the site where the constitution of the “Free and Independent State of Vermont” was adopted on July 8, 1777. It was the first constitution in the country to prohibit adult slavery and establish universal “manhood” suffrage without the requirements of property ownership or specific income for voting rights. It was also the first to establish a system of public schools. Today the “Birthplace of Vermont” reveals the original tavern as it looked more than 200 years ago and exhibits recount how the state’s constitution came to be written.
Vermont’s commitment to public education is significant in the story of the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington. Alexander Twilight, the first person of black ancestry to graduate from a US college (Middlebury, 1823) and to serve in a state legislature, became headmaster of the Orleans County Grammar School in 1829. He built the Old Stone House, dubbed “Athenian Hall,” in 1836 and for nearly 25 years it was home to young scholars, both male and female, from near and far.
According to Peggy Day Gibson, the museum director, Twilight “was an innovative, well-respected, and much-loved educator, preacher, builder, and man of vision. Oddly, the thing he is most famous for today is his race, which seems to have been immaterial to him and those around him.”
In a sermon delivered in July 1853, Twilight said, “Man has no right to the service of his fellow man without his own consent unless it is a forfeited right. Freedom of action and freedom of conscience go hand in hand and cannot be separated.”
The Ferrisburgh home of Roland Thomas Robinson and his wife, Rachel, was on the Underground Railroad. The Robinsons welcomed fugitive slaves in their Federal-style house overlooking the Champlain Valley. Two of them, Simon and Jesse, are featured in the Rokeby Museum’s new exhibit, “Free and Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont.” In a 15-minute “object theater play” visitors learn the story of how Robinson advocated with Jesse’s North Carolina owner for a reasonable price so that Jesse could purchase his own freedom. Another visual exhibit traces the history from slavery to abolition.
Robinson helped found the Vermont and Ferrisburgh Anti-Slavery Societies and along with Rachel promoted the boycott of slave-made goods. Their home, now the Rokeby Museum, offers a unique way to understand the Underground Railway. “We want to put fugitive slaves in the spotlight and reveal them in a fuller way. We connect people to the human experience of slavery and make these people real,” says director Jane Williamson.
A different kind of railway experience is exhibited at Hildene, the summer home of Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, built in Manchester in 1905. This 412-acre estate was home to three generations of the president’s descendants. Now a museum, it houses an outdoor exhibit of the 1903 Pullman palace car called Sunbeam that rolled off the line during Robert Lincoln’s tenure as president of the Pullman Co. At the turn of the century the Pullman Co. was the largest employer of African-Americans in the country, offering employment as Pullman porters to former slaves.
The Sunbeam exhibit, “Many Voices,” shares a 100-year timeline from 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation to the 1963 civil rights movement and March on Washington. It highlights the voices of the Pullman Company’s wealthy passengers, including two US presidents, and the porters who provided the impeccable service that made them famous. Guided by its mission, “Values Into Action,” Hildene uses Sunbeam “to present a history that is illuminating and challenging in its content, one that raises questions and is intended to stimulate civil discourse.”
The Heritage Trail was inspired by Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. Reed was mindful of the changing demographics in Vermont and across the country and wondered “to what degree we were prepared as a state to fully engage the challenges of being multicultural.” He was also thinking about how to “expand the economic pie of the state” and how to “make the Vermont brand attractive to the multicultural marketplace.” So he took the idea to the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, which seized on the opportunity.
“It’s crucial to the long-term health of tourism in Vermont that we welcome visitors with diverse backgrounds,” says Megan Smith, Vermont Commissioner of Tourism and Marketing. “There was no better way to launch this initiative than by bringing attention to the accomplishments of Vermont’s early African-American residents and historic places that chronicle eras, people, and events significant to the journey of all African-Americans.”
Elise Guyette, author of “Discovering Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburg, 1790-1890,” also speaks to the importance of the trail from a historical perspective. “It anchors the stories of African-descended Vermonters to our landscape and, as such, does a great service in helping to change the history of our state from a predominantly white story to what it has always been from the beginning, a multicultural endeavor.”