Long-Ago Black Community Adds to the Picture of Early Vermont

Mark Bushnell, Times Argus (Barre, Vermont), April 25, 2010

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With these words, Vermont historian Elise Guyette begins the extraordinary story of a group of families living on a hill in Hinesburg starting in 1795. What makes these eight families noteworthy is that they were African-American.

Guyette’s description of their lives here enriches our understanding of what early Vermont was like. {snip} Far from being an exotic exception to the rule, argues Guyette in her new book, “Discovering Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburgh, 1790-1890, “these families and others like them were an important aspect of Vermont society from the very start.

True, blacks made up only 0.2 or 0.3 percent of all Vermonters between 1790 and 1870, but Guyette notes that they often lived in clusters that made them a much more visible part of some communities. In 1790, for example, they represented 7 percent of the population of Vergennes. Ten years later, they comprised about 4 percent of Braintree. In 1810, Ferrisburgh had the state’s largest black population with 48 residents, or about 3 percent of the population.

Guyette found in probate records that several of the Hinesburg families’ houses were clustered on the land of one family, a settlement pattern that might hearken back to African traditions. Indeed, some of the residents might have been born in Africa–birth records for many of the older family members don’t exist–before being kidnapped and enslaved in America. Some male African-Americans in Vermont gained their freedom in return for their service during the Revolution.

A hard place

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{snip} Although Vermont was the first state to outlaw adult slavery in its Constitution, in 1777, racism still lurked in the Green Mountains. In delving into the lives of family members, Guyette didn’t have anything as simple as a diary to work with. Instead, she had to rely on the experiences of other black Vermonters, as well as grand lists and pension and probate records, to get a feel for their lives. Other African-Americans in Vermont suffered vandalism, slander and lawsuits from their neighbors. The Clarks and the other Hinesburg families probably were not immune from such strife.

To understand the racism the families of the Hill (now known as Lincoln Hill) might have experienced, Guyette drew on the experiences of Charles Bowles. A black Free Will Baptist preacher who lived in nearby Huntington, Bowles learned that some whites objected to being preached to by a black man. When Bowles arranged to lead a group of parishioners to a lake in Hinesburg and baptize them, a gang of white men schemed to seize Bowles, tie him to a wooden horse and throw him into the lake.

Bowles got wind of the plan and announced that he would continue to sing and preach, even if he was attacked. According to Bowles’ biographer, the gang dropped the plan when the men realized the preacher refused to be intimidated.

Bowles also faced insults from community leaders. Once, he had been invited to tea and spoke amiably about religion in the parlor with the man of the house. When tea was ready, however, he was shown to the kitchen and served his tea alone.

Guyette also found evidence of trust between the races. For example, one black widow turned to a white neighbor, whom she had long known, to represent her in probate court when she could have asked a black neighbor to help. {snip}

Leaving the Hill

In general, however, it is unclear how much the families of the Hill interacted with people in the surrounding area. {snip} We do know, however, that the three adult males living in the Hill community in 1808 were paying poll taxes, which indicates they were making the trek into town to vote.

They took on other civic responsibilities as well. Men from the families fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

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But she [Guyette] found they [the blacks] couldn’t maintain their prosperity. Rising economic uncertainty and racism in the years preceding the Civil War played a role in the families’ declining fortunes. One by one during the mid- to late 19th century, the families would decide to leave the Hill, hoping to find better opportunities elsewhere. {snip}

Guyette believes that their story is integral to understanding Vermont today. Thinking of Vermont as one of the whitest states in the nation is misleading, she argues. It has always been more of a blend than most people realize.

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