Princes and Free Men Transcript
Back to the Princes and Free Men episode.
[Recitation of Bars Fight poem]
Shanta Lee Gander strides down Abijah Prince Road in Guilford, Vermont, reciting a poem. She’s wearing a white homespun blouse and a red skirt. It’s Fall.
[Bars Fight poem]
The poem is called “Bars Fight,” and it describes a raid by the French and their Abenaki allies on a European settlement in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1746. It is considered the oldest known work of literature written by an African American.
Lucy Terry Prince was the author of “Bars Fight.” She was born in Africa but ended her life as a Vermonter. Shanta has worked with the Brattleboro Words project to help Lucy’s poetry come alive.
Shanta Lee Gander: When we look at the roots of our country, it’s usually through the lens of white men and, you know, those who had power and land and slaves. I’m hoping that the story of Lucy and Abijah Prince helps shift the narrative.
It’s well-known that Vermont is one of the whitest states in the Union. And so the stories of African American Vermonters like Lucy Terry Prince can sometimes get forgotten, no matter how important they were to our state’s and our nation’s history.
Shanta Lee Gander: I think that it’s easy for things to get lost, for things to get buried. It’s like a bad game of telephone. And it makes it more complicated, if you’re African American or have that lineage, that certain information is just not recorded in a certain way. And I’m sure that there are other stories in nooks and crannies in this state, of history.
This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.
Today we’re going to examine the lives of several African American Vermonters who lived in our state before the Civil War. In two cases, before Vermont was even a state.
But we’ll begin with a black-and-white map on a table at the Vermont Historical Society in Barre. Head librarian Paul Carnahan tells producer Ryan Newswanger what we see.
Paul Carnahan: So this is a photostatic copy of a lotting map of the town of Sunderland. For the most part, the town is divided into very even squares. There are also other places within the town that don’t seem to have numbers or lines. So these could be bodies of water or maybe they realized that it was mountainous terrain.
Sunderland is in Bennington County, in the southwestern part of Vermont. Paul isn’t sure about the exact date of the map, but lotting maps like this were especially important before statehood. Competing claims on land in Vermont, granted by New York and New Hampshire, led to many disputes…more on that later.
Paul: On one of the lots is written the word “Negro.” It’s very faint and it appears to be in a different hand than any of the rest of the map. Most of the map only has numbers on the lots. So there’s just this one lot that someone has felt it’s significant to note that this was land owned by a Negro man.
Ryan: And do we have a sense of whether that was indeed the Prince family?
Paul: Well, I haven’t studied the Princes extensively, but people who have do believe that’s the land that they owned.
Lucy Terry Prince died in Sunderland when she was nearly 100 years old. But her life began in west Africa. She was captured as a young child and was purchased as a slave by a man named Samuel Terry around 1730, most likely in Boston. Maybe even where Faneuil Hall – sometimes called “the Cradle of Liberty” – stands today.
Shanta Lee Gander: The story of the Princes sheds light on what we understand or don’t understand about slavery in this region. At least growing up, I always understood slavery to be a Southern thing.
In fact, slavery existed in all 13 colonies until 1780, when the northern states gradually began to abolish it over the next 25 years.
Lucy grew to adulthood as a slave in Deerfield, Massachusetts, near the Connecticut River. She was part of a community of African Americans in the town. Some were free, while others were held in bondage by local families.
Lucy worked in a tavern, which is where she learned of the attack against settlers outside of town, on the “bars,” an old name for a meadow.
Shanta: She’s known for having amazing oratory skills. It’s also there that she possibly meets Abijah Prince who did some military service, who’s passing through. You’d have soldiers of color as well as white soldiers, as well as a lot of different individuals passing through where Lucy Terry Prince was.
Abijah’s life is as amazing as his future wife’s. He was born a slave in Connecticut. While still a slave, he enlisted in the army during the Seven Years War. His earnings as a soldier gave him some financial stability, and he eventually gained his freedom. After marrying Lucy in 1756, he was able to buy her freedom.
Shanta: As they are freed individuals and living in Deerfield and having children and starting their family, they start acquiring land. I think they, like some other African Americans at the time, were keen on the way to have something to pass on to your children and get resources is to get a hold of some land.
Abijah bought the right to 100 acres in Sunderland in 1760. He put in a similar claim in Guilford, south of Brattleboro, on the southeastern side of the state.
Thirty years before it became a state, Vermont was the frontier. It was also a bit of a mess. The governors of New York and New Hampshire had issued competing grants, sometimes for the same tracts of land.
In 1775, the Princes left Deerfield and moved to their Guilford property. There they built a small house, 20 by 30 feet. Soon, a neighbor arrived and built a far bigger house across the road.
Shanta: There is John Noyes, who arrives, we believe, from some part of Connecticut that had plantations. He’s looking over, and immediately you get a sense that he wants the land.
Noyes first bothered, then attacked the Princes. He hired men to damage their property and burn their crops.
Shanta: He uses resources to get other people to harass the Princes, to continue to terrorize them. He would put up bail for people. He’d sometimes represent them legally. I mean, he went to no ends to try to leverage and outmaneuver to get that land that he wanted, running them off and driving them away.
But the Princes didn’t back down. They took the problem to the local courts and won their cases. But the harassment continued.
Finally, in 1785, when she was sixty and her husband eighty, Lucy Terry Prince appealed to the highest court in the state, known as “the Governor and Council.” It met in Norwich. According to author Gretchen Gerzina, “It was probably the first time a black person, let alone an African woman, had addressed the highest officials in the state.”
Shanta: She goes and argues her case and talks about some of the financial impact, the ruins of property, the ruin of crops, all of these things. They not only find in the favor of the Princes, the governor also instructs the Guilford Selectmen at the time to protect the Princes, that they have been harmed.
Gretchen Gerzina suggests in her book, “Mr. and Mrs. Prince” that the attacks against the Princes might have been partially motivated by a dispute over competing land grants, and by religious differences. But race was a key factor as well.
Shanta: If I step back and look at where John Noyes may have come from, not being accustomed to seeing African-Americans being so self-possessed and not afraid to speak up for their rights, and they had the respect of the community, the Princes did.
Abijah died in Guilford. Lucy soon moved with some of her grown children to what they thought was their parcel of land in Sunderland, across the state. But they found that the man who had sold Abijah the original deed had tricked him, and the land was now occupied by one of the most prominent families in town.
Never ones to give up, Lucy and her sons fought the case in court for four years, eventually reaching the Vermont Supreme Court. They won a settlement of $200—over $4,000 today—and Lucy lived in the center of Sunderland until her death in 1821.
Shanta: It’s easy to tell the story of African Americans as victims. What’s fascinating is through the Princes we see victors and we also see an edit in the narrative.
Esme Kimber: When we say “Alexander Twilight” to a random person, they’re usually like, “Wait, who is that?” And so I guess we just want to make his accomplishments in life better known because he did some really great things.
This is Esme [ez-me] Kimber from St. Johnsbury, who is in the eighth grade. About a year ago, she and her friend Gabby Anzalone [Ann-zah-lo-nee] decided to create a project for Vermont History Day.
Every year, the Vermont Historical Society hosts a statewide contest where students make presentations about topics they’ve researched.
Esme’s mother, Julie, suggested that the girls study Alexander Twilight, who spent much of his life in Brownington, about a 45-minute drive north of St. Johnsbury. Aside from the fact that he had a great name, Esme and Gabby didn’t know anything about Alexander Twilight.
Esme: We originally thought that his life was going to be like, I don’t know, I guess simple.
Gabby Anzalone: Like boring.
Alexander Lucius Twilight was the first person of African descent to receive a college degree in the United States. He graduated from Middlebury College in 1823.
Esme: He actually had a sense of humor. For example, when he was teaching his classes at Brownington Academy and it would get a little tense, he would bring out laughing gas apparently.
Molly Veysey, the Director at the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, confirms this story.
Molly Veysey: This is documented. He apparently had one of his male students inhale laughing gas, to see what the effect would be on the larynx and the general state of the person.
His father Ichabod had served with a New Hampshire regiment during the Revolutionary War. Alexander was born to Ichabod and his wife Mary in 1795, near Corinth, Vermont.
Esme: And Alexander’s parents, Ichabod was biracial, and then his mom we believe was white, and so he was about one quarter African American. But at that time period, if you have any bit of African American heritage, you’re considered an African American.
The popular narrative is that Vermont abolished slavery in its Constitution in 1777. That’s not necessarily true. It stated that male slaves must become free at the age of 21, and females at the age of 18.
The color of one’s skin could impact the trajectory of your life. Alexander Twilight was light-skinned and could choose to “pass” as white.
In the federal census of 1800, the Twilights are listed as “free people of color.” Ten years later, with the darker-skinned Ichabod no longer around, the census-taker categorized the family as “white.”
Alexander used this ambiguity about his background to his advantage. It likely helped him gain admittance to Middlebury College. After graduating, he landed a job as a teacher in upstate New York, where he met and married Mercy Ladd Merrill, a white woman.
Gabby: I think that is part of why he hid his race because Mercy’s parents were very well off and they were white and they were not very adapting to African American people and interracial couples.
Molly: It’s kind of a sad testament to our own country’s history that somebody of color wouldn’t necessarily have celebrated that fact about themselves, but maybe subdued it just to be able to succeed as much as he did.
In 1829, Alexander and Mercy moved to Brownington so that he could serve as preceptor of the Orleans County Grammar School. Over the next seven years, he designed and oversaw the building of a large granite structure for the school’s boarding students. He made the building a replica of Painter Hall at Middlebury College. It still stands today as the Old Stone House Museum.
Molly: And then in the Twilight Room in the museum, that room contains most of his personal artifact collections. His trunk and his reading glasses and his Bible, which is amazing, because he was such an enthusiastic preacher and he chewed tobacco that he spit all over every single page of his Bible. And it’s like spattered with, you know, spit everywhere.
Twilight became a selectman in Brownington and was the moderator at town meetings. He taught and preached at the local Congregational Church. He even served for one term in the state legislature.
Molly: He was revered around here. He was really well accepted. And I think that’s a testament to Vermont. There were biases in this part of Vermont, but they were honestly directed to other nationalities. French Canadians come to mind.
However, after a dispute with the school’s trustees and with the church’s deacons, Alexander left to teach in Quebec for five years.
Esme: He was a very driven man and he wouldn’t really take no for an answer. So his strong personality and the stubbornness definitely could have been the reason the trustees let him go.
With Alexander absent, the school closed. Eventually, the trustees convinced him to return to Brownington and re-open the school. He continued to lead it until 1855, when he suffered a stroke. He died two years later.
Twilight educated almost 2500 students during his tenure in Brownington. Almost 1000 of them were women.
Molly: That’s just a remarkable feat. And most of those people went on to be very prominent people in the business world and in the education world. A lot of the women went on to be lifelong educators who educated generations of people in this county. The legacy that he left was outstanding in our part of the world.
Gabby and Esme have become such fans of Alexander Twilight that they call themselves “The Twilight Girls.” They have given presentations about his life at a conference in Boston, and at libraries around Vermont.
[Sound of presentation at Blake Memorial Library]
Molly: This guy is on par with some of the national heroes that we have. He was a genius. And to be a person of color in the decades leading up to the Civil War, it’s a really compelling story. And it needs to be shared, especially in this time in our own social history that’s tumultuous and tricky.
Esme: Now I kind of relate all the history back to Alexander Twilight.
Gabby: I know. Yeah.
Ryan: How do you mean?
Esme: I think of a time, say something happened in 1835, and I’m like, “Oh, Alexander Twilight was doing this at that time period.”
Gabby: It’s honestly a force of habit now and just like, “Oh yeah, Alexander Twilight did that and that and that.” Yeah.
Professor William Hart: My name is William Hart: I’m a professor of history here at Middlebury College. I’m working on a biography now of Martin Freeman, graduate of the class of 1849.
Martin Freeman graduated from Middlebury College more than 25 years after Alexander Twilight.
Professor Hart: His grandfather, Pearson Freeman, is from Connecticut and like a lot of Vermonters moved up here from Connecticut either during or after the American Revolution.
Pearson had fought in the Revolution for the patriots. He settled in Rutland, where his grandson Martin was born in 1826. William Hart describes Martin’s childhood.
Professor Hart: I think he had warm friendships that he cultivated as a kid but also, I think he was the victim of harassment, of racial harassment, some kind of abuse. He says that routinely his white school friends would often inflict “outdoor teachings” on him. By that I’ve got to think bullying, perhaps coming and going to school maybe students threw things at him or called him names.
Martin would soon find himself at the center of the national debate about slavery. Specifically, abolitionism versus colonization. Abolitionism you likely know about. But colonization was another anti-slavery idea that took hold in the early 1800s.
Professor Hart: Most Vermonters and most Americans who supported colonization believed that the United States was no place for free blacks to live. They understood that racism, discrimination, was so deeply embedded in the American society they said, “There’s no way that free African-Americans can live lives of dignity and equality in the U.S., so why don’t we help them move to Liberia where they can found their own republic, live a life of dignity, create their own nation in their own image?”
The idea may sound noble. But it sometimes had other, more sinister motivations.
Professor Hart: A lot of Southerners who supported this and a lot of people in the northern urban areas like Boston, New York, Philadelphia may have framed it as, “We’re doing God’s work through colonization.” But what really underlay their motivation was, “This is a good way of getting rid of this detritus in this new republic.”
Professor Hart’s research suggests that more Vermonters were in favor of colonization than abolition. In any case, the debate about slavery dominated political life in the 1840s.
Alexander Twilight had indeed graduated from Middlebury, but his racial background was unclear at the time. Some Vermonters wanted the college – and its president – to take a stronger stand.
Professor Hart: Local abolitionists said to President Labaree and to the corporation (the board of trustees), “You claim to be anti-slavery. How come you don’t enroll any Black students here supporting your outrage over slavery? Why aren’t you educating and uplifting Black men to match your philosophy over slavery being a sinful practice?”
And here’s where Martin Freeman comes in. Labaree worked with leaders in the Rutland community to bring Martin to Middlebury College in 1845. And they planted an idea in the young student’s mind.
Professor Hart: The whole time he was here, the President Labaree and others kept saying to Martin, “Martin, your future lay in Liberia. There’s no future for you here in the United States.” He virtually responded, “But I’m a Vermonter. I want to stay here. This is where my roots are,” which is how most African-Americans felt.
Martin excelled at Middlebury, graduating as the top student in his class.
Professor Hart: After he graduated in 1849, he couldn’t get a job. All of his classmates either went on to higher education or they became teachers, or they went into business, studied for the law. Martin could not get a job. Could not even become a tutor to white abolitionists’ families to tutor their children.
He eventually found work as a teacher in Pittsburgh. It was there that he encountered overt, persistent racism. And where he met black leaders like Martin Delany and Frederick Douglass.
The era was one of the darkest periods in American history. The Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in 1857 ruled that slavery could be legal anywhere in the United States. African American leaders began to make plans.
Professor Hart: So Martin R. Delany mounts his own African civilization program that Martin Freeman is a part of. “We will establish our own colonization project somewhere in West Africa because obviously life in the United States is not going to be good for free blacks.”
The Supreme Court decision helped lead to the Civil War. After the war started, Delany and Douglass turned their efforts to secure permission for African Americans to fight as Union soldiers. But Martin Freeman decided to go to Liberia.
Professor Hart: When he was asked the question, “Why are you leaving? Why are you going? You’re a smart man with all these options.” He said, “In order to be a man.” What he meant by that was, “In order to realize my citizenship which I can’t realize or enjoy here in the United States.”
Liberia was established as a country in West Africa in 1822. By 1850 10,000 free blacks had moved there from the United States.
Professor Hart: Whoever went, almost 100% had to endure something called the “acclimatizing fever.” Malaria.
Martin moved to Liberia with his wife and children to be a professor in 1864.
And sadly, conditions for him in Liberia did not improve over the next 25 years. For comfort, Martin turned to a friend from his childhood in Rutland, Charlotte Chaffee.
Professor Hart: He wrote back to her several times saying, “I hate it here in Liberia. This is going to bring about my early death. There are so many problems here, I can’t stand it. But I will never return to the United States.”
Martin died in Liberia in 1889.
Professor Hart: I ask myself that question, what would Martin’s life have been like had he stayed in Rutland? Lemuel Haynes said his congregation fired him in 1818 when they suddenly discovered he was Black.
Lemuel Haynes was an influential African American minister in Rutland. He later gave the eulogy at Lucy Terry Prince’s funeral.
Professor Hart: What he means by that, I think, is that between the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the early republic, at least through the War of 1812, there is a window of brotherhood that is open. Right at the time of the War of 1812 and the victory of that, that sense of brotherhood begins to shut as Americans begin to ask, “Who is this country for?” “Can it really be for everybody or is this really a nation for white people? Not for Indians, not for free Blacks, maybe even not for Jews.”
Liberia wasn’t the only place imagined as a separate homeland, a separate country of exile. A similar plan promoted sending Jews to the western frontier, where they would be compelled to convert to Protestantism.
Martin Freeman, a brilliant Vermonter, chose to spend his life elsewhere.
Professor Hart: He excelled here at Middlebury. He excelled in Pittsburgh but something about the quality of his life was just totally unsatisfactory for him. I think it’s because he saw himself as a member of the Black intelligentsia who should have been entitled to the same rights and privileges of his white peers. And that wasn’t possible at that time in our nation’s history.
Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Ryan Newswanger and Erick Eisenbiegler.
Thanks to our guests: Shanta Lee Gander, Paul Carnahan, Esme Kimber, Gabby Anzalone, Molly Veysey, and William Hart. Thanks to the Brattleboro Words Project and Reginald Martell for letting us use their recording of “Bars Fight.”