Project Honoring Enslaved Vermonters Asks State To Confront 'A Dark Side Of Our History'

Aug 27, 2020

As historical records shed new light on the lives of enslaved individuals who lived in Vermont, religious leaders are asking the state to confront its role in the sins of the nation’s past.

Ethan Allen helped found Vermont in the late 1700s, and his name remains part and parcel to the state’s identity.

For most Vermonters, Allen’s name evokes the state’s motto of “Freedom and Unity.”

Historical documents, however, have revealed a more complicated past: Members of Allen’s immediate family enslaved two Black people at a home in Burlington.

“The common myth in the state of Vermont is that this was a state in which there were no enslaved individuals,” Rabbi Amy Small said recently. “But in fact, there were.”

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Small, who serves at rabbi at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, is part of a new effort to commemorate the lives of Lavinia and Francis Parker, a mother and son enslaved by Lucy Caroline Allen Hitchcock, the daughter of Ethan Allen.

“And that’s a hard pill to swallow,” Small said. “But it’s part of the history that we have to recognize and repair.”

"We want people to stop and reflect that these were individual people who had agency, they had loves, they had lives and they made enormous contributions." - Paul Growald, founder of Stopping Stones

Vermont prides itself on being the first state to abolish slavery. In fact, according to Vermont historian Jeff Potash, historical records document numerous instances of forced servitude well after the state’s constitution partially banned the practice.

“There were probably 50-to-150 instances of slaves being brought to Vermont and being probably continuing within a condition of servitude,” Potash said.

The people who held them in bondage included prominent Vermont families like the Allens, according to Potash.

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Potash said Ethan Allen himself is known to have had Black servants, though he said it’s unclear from historical records whether they were formally enslaved.

“One of our great founding fathers and his family can basically be shown to be part of this larger … willingness on the part of Vermonters to look the other way, and to pretend as though slavery doesn’t operate within their midst,” Potash said.

The Allen family’s participation in the institution of slavery is recounted in a 2014 book by University of Vermont professor Harvey Amani Whitfield, titled "The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont."

More recently, Potash decided to pin down the precise spot where Lavinia and Francis Parker lived.

He combed Burlington’s historical records for a document that had the address for the Allen Hitchcock home. The street names were different back then, so Potash used an original 1830 map of the city to triangulate the home’s present day location.

Ethan Allen has become a ubiquitous namesake for buildings and institutions in Vermont.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

“Then-Main is now St. Paul and then-Lafayette is now Main, and effectively we were at the corner of St. Paul and Main Street, which put us at the location of the Skirack on that particular side, so [it was] just a matter of putting some pieces together,” Potash said.

Potash’s detective work wasn’t merely academic. He’s past president of the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, and the congregation wanted to honor the memory of Lavinia and Francis Parker by placing commemorative plaques at the last known location where they lived.

Those plaques are called “Stopping Stones.” And they’re part of a project founded by another Ohavi Zedek member, named Paul Growald.

“We want people to stop and reflect that these were individual people who had agency, they had loves, they had lives and they made enormous contributions,” Growald said.

Growald modeled the Stopping Stones project after an initiative in Germany, where brass plaques have been placed at the last known residences of victims of the Holocaust.

“In contrast to Germany, we’ve avoided and repressed and often denied the history of slavery in our own country,” Growald said.

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Growald has installed 30 Stopping Stones in five states so far. Next month, he’ll unveil brass plaques, set in Vermont granite, honoring Lavinia and Francis Parker outside Skirack in Burlington.

Rabbi Amy Small said the project is three years in the making. And she said in the beginning at least, Ohavi Zedek was running the show.

“And then in the middle of that process, one day I woke up and said, ‘Wait a minute, this is all wrong.’ We need the leaders of the African American community who will work with us to lead on this project,” Small said.

So she enlisted her friend, Rev. Arnold Thomas, who serves as pastor of Good Lutheran Church in Jericho.

Rev. Arnold Thomas began leading conversations about racism in America shortly after arriving at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in 2017.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

Thomas is the first African American person to serve as denominational leader for the United Church of Christ in Vermont. And in 2018, his congregation began hosting a series of community forums on racism in America.

“There have been opportunities for members of this church, members of this wider community, to address issues of racism and familiarize themselves with the problems, the dilemmas, what we might do to overcome the problem,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the Stopping Stones project was a natural progression of that conversation.

“It expands the narrative of Vermont’s history,” Thomas said. “And there is a dark side of our history that we have to accept, embrace. And knowing this, where do we go from here to address who we are today, to address the lingering elements of racism, and the lingering elements of segregation?”

By delving into that dark side of Vermont’s history, Thomas said the state can begin to undo the erasure of the African Americans who called this state home.

“For me, it resurrects the dead, you might say, to use religious language,” Thomas said. “It resurrects the lives of individuals who have long been seen as nonexistent.”

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By honoring the humanity of those individuals, Thomas said, Vermont sets the stage for a larger conversation about how to repair the harm that’s been done.

“We’re in this pit together,” he said. “And somehow, from knowing where we’ve come, and sharing that awareness, sharing that identity, we can together form ways of pulling ourselves out of this pit.”

Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and Good Lutheran Church will host an unveiling ceremony on Sept. 13 for the plaques that will commemorate Lavinia and Francis Parker.

Organizers are asking people to participate virtually by registering in advance.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld

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