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Leverett, Mass.–based artist Louise Minks created this portrait of Lucy Terry Prince based on her research. No known likeness exists of Prince, considered the first African American poet in the country, and whose life and work will be honored by multiple proclamations and a historic marker.

News / Column

The long and winding road to recognition

The Princes finally get their due with a state resolution, two town proclamations, and a historic marker

Shanta Lee Gander, a multidisciplinary artist, was a member of the leadership committee with the Words Project, taking on the role of helping to bring Lucy Terry Prince’s life into the light.  She is a member of the Words Trail Advisory Board and is the 2020 gubernatorial appointee to the Vermont Humanities Council board of directors and is on the organization’s Speakers Bureau, offering lectures on the life of Lucy Terry Prince across the state. The Commons’ Deeper Dive column gives organizations elbow room to write in first person and/or be unabashedly opinionated, passionate, and analytical about their own creative work and events.

BRATTLEBORO—July 11 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Lucy Terry Prince. A group of dedicated individuals — public intellectuals, scholars, historians, and other key stakeholders — have been working to ensure that Lucy and her husband, Abijah Prince, are recognized and seen within a state that has not often recognized the depth of the diverse history within its landscape.

Abijah Prince (c.1706–1794) and Lucy Terry Prince (c.1730–1821), formerly enslaved in Deerfield, Mass., established a homestead in Guilford and acquired land in Sunderland, Vt.

Our team’s work has been to establish a state historic marker at the Guilford Welcome Center, to encourage the Legislature to pass a resolution honoring Lucy Terry Prince on the 200th anniversary of her death, and to support the efforts of two towns — Guilford and Sunderland — to pass proclamations to mark July 11 and to recognize the Princes as key contributors to our state.

* * *

While the 200th anniversary of Lucy’s death might feel like a mad dash to correct the ongoing wrongs of silence and erasure, this work has been many years in the making.

Author and historian Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina and her husband, Anthony Gerzina — Guilford residents at the time — diligently worked for close to a decade to uncover the truth and address much of the mythology that had developed around the lives of the Princes, especially Lucy.

Their work culminated in Gretchen’s 2008 book Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend.

Their book highlights the significance of the Princes as early landowners and farmers in Guilford and Sunderland (where Lucy lived in her later life and died) and as individuals who were not afraid to engage the law in successfully fighting for their rights — something that the Princes were accustomed to doing.

A masterful historical storytelling achievement, Gretchen’s book illuminates how Lucy and Abijah gained freedom from slavery. It documents, too, how Abijah and his sons, like many early African Americans, fought for a new nation in hopes that their rights would be recognized.

In the book, we see how Lucy witnessed Abijah’s frequent fighting for his rights and how she leveraged that knowledge in her fight for her family’s rights against neighbors who harassed them.

We also see her emerge as the young nation’s first known African American poet, a truth teller and bearer of witness of the famed Deerfield Massacre through her only known surviving poem, “Bars Fight.” The poem survived in oral tradition for 100 years before being published on the front page of the Springfield Republican upon her death in 1821.

* * *

Back in 2016, I started working with the People, Places and History of Words in Brattleboro, Vermont (a.k.a. the Brattleboro Words Project) to bring the story of Lucy and Abijah Prince out in the light.

I was astonished to realize I had never heard their story before, and I was glad that the Project’s ongoing deep mapping of the stories hidden — often hidden in plain sight — in our community brought me this opportunity to learn about them. Since then, I’ve become only more passionate in resharing the story of the Princes with others, both within and beyond Vermont’s state borders.

In 2020, the Project started a process of establishing a historic marker for the Princes at the Guilford Welcome Center on Interstate 91 to share this important Vermont history with the almost 800,000 people estimated to pass through there annually.

I started directing these efforts around Lucy for the Project, keeping members of a large team informed. Gretchen Gerzina helped with marker language and will speak at the sign dedication in October. Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, is helping make sure the Princes are included as part of the state African American Heritage Trail.

Lissa Weinmann and William Edelglass, founders of the Brattleboro Words Project, continue to lead its projects and activities. They helped push for the Welcome Center as the best site for the marker against some initial reluctance by those who wanted to see it closer to the far-flung and delicate Abijah Prince Road in Guilford.

We all thought, both then and now, that more people will be welcomed to our state knowing that a family like the Princes lived and thrived in the state, and that for many, this first stop on the African American Heritage Trail would serve as their gateway to Vermont.

* * *

Both the Guilford Historical Society and the Guilford Selectboard voted to support the historic marker at the Welcome Center in May. And selectboards of both Guilford and Sunderland marked this bicentennial by passing proclamations dedicating July 11 to the memory of the Princes.

We worked closely with State Historic Preservation Officer Laura V. Trieschmann to jump through the bureaucratic challenges of placing a marker at the Welcome Center, and we finally secured the approval from members of the statewide advisory council for sign placement.

Stay tuned for news of our unveiling event — a celebration of this historic marker — sometime in October.

State Rep. Sara Coffey (D-Guilford), along with Rep. Kathleen James (D-Manchester), Seth Bongartz (D-Manchester), and David Durfee (D-Shaftsbury), who represents Sunderland, took things a step further to secure statewide recognition by sponsoring a continuing resolution.

The result is that the Vermont Senate and House of Representatives have voted to “honor the memory of Vermont African American pioneer Lucy Terry Prince on the bicentennial of her death.” To read the resolution text, visit bit.ly/620-princes.

The recognition of the Princes is overdue. And just as Lucy Prince’s “Bars Fight” bore witness, we will now do our part.

We will not only witness, but we will make sure that those who, like the Princes, were integral to the formation of Vermont, who fought for the ideals of the nation at large, are honored.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #620 (Wednesday, July 7, 2021). This story appeared on page A3.

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