Remembering Vermont's 19th Century Black Communities
A few years ago, Berlin resident Gale Harris was doing some research for a class she was taking at her local senior center. She wanted to find out if Black Americans were in Vermont in the 1800s.
Note: This story contains racist language.
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So Harris started Googling.
“And I ran into some stuff about Hinesburg and Braintree, and that we had had Black communities,” she said.
Harris had grown up in Vermont, and taken courses in Vermont history in school. Yet she had never heard of these Black communities.
“And I just got very curious about it,” she said. “I've been trying to find more.”
That curiosity spurred Gale to ask Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism project, this question:
“What's the history of Hinesburg, Braintree and other Black communities in the 1800s? How were they started, and are they being remembered?”
When we looked into it, we found a scrupulously researched history, unknown to many. A history that some, upon discovering, take great pride in — and others have gone out of their way to cover up.
For researcher and writer Elise Guyette, it all started in the early 1990s, when she was getting a master’s degree in history at the University of Vermont. She needed to find a subject for her thesis.
“At first I didn’t consider Blacks,” Guyette said. “‘Cause I didn’t think they were here. ‘Cause that's what I was told as I was growing up.”
The only story Guyette had heard was that formerly enslaved people had passed through the state on their way to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
“That was the story,” she said. “It was wrong.”
Guyette went on to publish her master’s thesis on the working lives of Black Vermonters around the turn of the 19th century. Since then, she’s gotten a doctorate, and continued to research and write on the subject.
The number of Black people in Vermont was never big, she said. “But in the early 1800s, the percentage of Blacks in Vermont was larger than it is now.”
In 1790, Vergennes was 7% Black. During the most recent census, the Black population was 0.2%. Bennington, Woodstock, Windsor and Ferrisburgh are all examples of towns with sizable historical Black populations, along with cities like St. Albans and Rutland.
According to Guyette, some Black people were enslaved to white families who came to farm the land. And yes, it was legal to enslave Black children.
“Even after the 1777 [Vermont] constitution, that constitution outlawed only adult slavery,” Guyette said. “Legally, women could be enslaved till they were 18, and men enslaved until they were 21.”
When children approached adulthood, Guyette said, enslavers were known to sell them out of state, or simply keep them as unpaid “servants for life.”
The age-caveat has persisted in Vermont’s constitution. It’s a subject some lawmakers hope to see change with a constitutional amendment.
However, Guyette said most of the Black folks in Vermont at the turn of the 19th century came from elsewhere in New England, as free people.
“I mean, the Abenakis were here,” she said. “The French had been here very early on. The Dutch had been here very early on.” But when newcomers started buying cheap land after the Revolutionary War, Guyette said, they were Black and white alike.
Some bought their own land to farm. Others found employment as servants and laborers.
In her book, Discovering Black Vermont, Guyette focuses on the lives of two families that settled a hill in Hinesburg known today as Lincoln Hill. First came the Clark family, at the top of the hill. Next, the Peters, at the bottom.
Today, a dirt road passes over the hill. Back then, Guyette said, it was wilderness.
“They came to virgin territory,” she said. “It was still old growth forests. The trees were like, six feet around.”
Just getting to the hill, let alone clearing the farmland, would have been back-breaking work.
But Guyette figures the place had two things to offer. First, the top got plenty of sunlight, which was good for farming. Second, it was remote. Elsewhere in Vermont, Guyette said, some white people menaced their Black neighbors.
“People would burn their hayricks, they’d tear down their fences,” she said. (A hayrick is an old-fashioned word for haystack.)
For decades, the two families prospered. They planted orchards, and raised sheep and cows. They tapped maples for syrup, made butter, and sold it.
“I find Almira Clark in a general store ledger,” Guyette said. “People wanted her butter set aside, so that they could come and buy her butter. Because she knew what she was doing.”
Over time, the families grew. They bought more land, and built more homes on the hill. The kids went to Hinesburg and Huntington’s public schools. The men voted in local and federal elections.
Guyette figures Shubael Clark, who was born enslaved in New Milford, Connecticut, died in 1834 in Hinesburg wealthier than 70% of the region’s farmers. The Civil War was still three decades away.
But these families’ success in the town of Hinesburg didn’t last.
“You can see the land starting to dwindle, and they don't have as much wealth as they had earlier on,” Guyette said, though she can only speculate as to why.
Farming was growing more industrialized, and because of this, she said, wealthy farmers were buying up more land, and consolidating.
At the same time, expansion had likely gotten harder for the Clarks and the Peters.
Black Vermonters, she said, had easily gotten loans and mortgages at the turn of the century. But by mid-century, she said, “it became more and more difficult.”
White lenders had stopped loaning money to Black people. It was part of a larger nationwide backlash to a growing class of free Black people.
“This was early redlining,” she said.
Whatever the reason, the two families had stopped farming on the hill by the start of the Civil War. The Peters stayed in their homestead, working as servants and laborers for white neighbors. The Clarks sold their land and left town. Some bought land in Williston, Burlington, and the Northeast Kingdom. Others left Vermont for Ohio, and South Carolina.
Today, moss grows on a few slabs of rock, which just barely stick up through leaves and pine needles at the top Lincoln Hill Road. This is the Clark family’s cemetery. Though you’d never know it, just passing by. There’s no sign, no fence, and nobody to clear leaves away from the graves.
Karen Henry is the great, great, great, great granddaughter of Shubael and Violet Clark, who settled at the top of the hill. She is African American, and says she only learned about her family’s history in Vermont when her husband, Dean, found Elise Guyette’s book online.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It was just amazing, really.”
Dean had been trying to piece together his wife’s family tree, and he knew Karen was descended from a freed man named Shubael Clark. Dean considers himself pretty educated about Black history, but he said he was surprised at what he learned.
“It was amazing to me that there were Black farmers in the early 1800s anywhere that amassed a lot of land, let alone Vermont,” he said.
Karen and Dean live in Pennsylvania. A handful of years ago, they took a trip to Vermont to see for themselves the land Karen’s family had owned and prospered on 200 years before.
There’s a picture of the two of them, standing next to a historical marker the state put at the bottom of the hill in 2010, after Guyette’s book was published. The trip was a big deal for both of them.
“It’s given me, personally, a sense of pride, but also a sense of more belonging in America...” Dean started.
“... Yeah, like we really are a part of this,” Karen finished.
But not all of the descendants from the hill share Karen and Dean’s pride.
“After this will be aired,” said Lori Atkins, “there'll be ramifications that we will both endure from this.”
Atkins and Cathy Stech are cousins, descended from the Peters family, which settled at the bottom of the hill. On a recent morning, the two proudly pointed out a house, still standing, which was among their family’s first homes on the hill.
Both women grew up in Addison County and stayed in Vermont as adults. But until they discovered Elise Guyette’s research in 2002, neither knew they had Black heritage. And they said confronting their family about it was painful.
“We were shamed by a lot of family members,” Cathy said. She said she continues to be left out of family functions.
Cathy said her mom, Norma, refused to talk about it until she was on her deathbed. That’s when Norma ?— who had blue eyes and blond hair, just like Cathy ?— explained that growing up in Hinesburg, her classmates made her sit in the back of the schoolbus, because they knew where her people came from: Lincoln Hill.
Although Cathy and Lori said that’s not what people called the hill back then, and say it’s not what longtime residents call it today.
“You talk to anyone in town and it's still ?—” Cathy started, hesitating to say the word out loud.
“N----- Hill.,” Lori chimed in. “To this day. And I live here. That's what it's referred to.”
When someone’s asking directions, Cathy said, “Some people say, Lincoln Hill, where's that? And then…”
Cathy hesitated again.
“Remember N----- Hill? Oh, yeah,” Lori said.
Racism in town has lingered in other ways, too. The historical marker Karen and Dean Henry posed under for a photo when they visited the hill was destroyed not long after the two returned to Pennsylvania.
Someone defaced it, Guyette said, drove it up the hill and threw it in the Clark family cemetery.
For the Peters family descendants, the racism is personal, and painful.
About 10 years ago, when her father found out his wife had Black heritage, Cathy recalled, “He said, ‘You know, had I known your mother had African American blood in her, I never would have married her, and I wouldn’t have had kids.’”
Cathy was shocked: “‘You're talking about me,’ I said. ‘How can you even say that?’”
For Lori, perhaps the worst moment came when she was still married to a man whose family has also lived in Hinesburg for generations. Lori attended a big family barbeque, and said she was excited to introduce her father-in-law to her beloved grandmother, Irene, for the first time. This was roughly 2002.
“And when he came out ?— I'll never forget it,” Lori said. “We introduced him, and he said, ‘I know her. She's one of the n----- from the hill.’”
“She was mortified,” said Cathy, who was also there that day “I’ll never forget her face.”
Lori and Cathy both grew up adoring their grandmother. They said they want to celebrate their family’s role as successful farmers and early settlers of Hinesburg in order to honor her.
But even today, the local school district doesn’t include this history on the hill in its curriculum.
“These children in these schools should be learning about the hill,” Lori said. “Newcomers who come move to Vermont, they should know about what's here. The wonderful stuff that's here.”
The fact that Hinesburg had a flourishing Black community that has been largely forgotten by its current residents does not make it unusual in Vermont. What’s unusual is that someone ?— Elise Guyette ?— took the time to do the research and tell the story.
Gale Harris, our question-asker, also mentioned Braintree in her question. In 1800, almost 4% of that town was Black. But when I called the town’s historical society, board chair Jackson Evans said early Black Braintree residents had not, historically, received much attention.
“It's really been underrepresented and understudied, you know, for a while,” he said.
Evans said there is one go-to history of Braintree. It was written by a Braintree resident named Henry Bass in 1883, and its descriptions of the town’s Black residents range from merely vague to explicitly racist. The whole thing is online.
Bass describes three “colored” families, all of whom moved to the town in its earliest days: The Dunbars, the Dolbes, and the Freemans. While many white families’ marriages, children and work are described in detail, these families get only passing references.
That is, except for a couple anecdotes that seem designed to emphasize the families’ hardships.
The most offensive is titled “The Last Public Whipping.” It features the story of a “colored boy” who received thirty lashes ?— naked ?— for allegedly stealing pork from a neighbor’s woodshed.
The only other anecdote about a Black resident featured in Bass’ hundred-page book follows similar racist tropes.
The Dolbe family, who Elise Guyette’s research shows was among Braintree’s earliest landowners, receives a passing mention alongside Zebedee and Samuel Dunbar, who Bass describes as likely owning a mill.
It’s Bass’ mention of the Dunbar family that Jackson Evans, the historical society board chair, grabbed onto after I reached out to inquire about Gale Harris’s question.
“I spent the next two hours just knee-deep in the history, and really just blown away by it, to be honest,” Evans said later that day.
Evans had learned Zebedee bought his land from his brother Samuel, who first moved to Braintree, Vermont with his wife Hannah, a woman Evans said was Native American.
According to Evans, Samuel “was born in 1762 and fought in the Revolutionary War as a very young man alongside his father, who was also a free Black man in Massachusetts.”
In fact, Evans said, Samuel bought the land from an original charter holder from Braintree, Massachusetts ?— the Vermont town’s namesake.
And while Samuel and Hannah eventually moved to Canada, Evans said, Samuel’s brother Zebedee stayed on in Braintree, where, presumably, he owned the mill known as Zebedee’s Mill.
All of this, Jackson learned just using genealogy websites from his home computer. Now, he and another member of that town’s historical society say they plan to keep researching.
“It's amazing what a little spark will do,” he said.
That spark is just what author Elise Guyette was hoping to ignite when she published her book back in 2010. During her master’s program, Guyette created a digital database listing all of the Black people in Vermont in U.S. Censuses between 1790 and 1870. It includes their ages, where they lived and what they did for work.
Guyette thought maybe someone would take the time to learn about other historical Black families who moved to other Vermont towns ?— like Ferrisburgh, or Woodstock.
“I'm still hopeful that someday, there will be people who take an interest and do want to do, research the history of their towns,” she said, “because the stories are there. They're just waiting for somebody.”
She said anyone who wants to access her database just has to get in touch.
Editor's note 07/04/20 8:33 a.m.
Readers looking for Elise Guyette's book, Discovering Black Vermont and other resources on the subject can head to the Vermont Historical Society's bookstore. The Historical Society is in the process of reprinting Guyette's book, and estimates it will be available the third week of July.
Thanks to Gale Harris for the great question. If you have a question about history, or anything else, ask it at bravelittlestate.org. While you’re there, you can vote on the question you want us to tackle next, and sign up for our newsletter. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @bravestatevt.
This episode was produced by Emily Corwin, with editing from Angela Evancie and Mark Davis. Brave Little State’s theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed; engineering support from Chris Albertine.
Special thanks to Elise Guyette.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and VPR members. You can support us at bravelittlestate.org/donate.