TOWNSHEND—The ankle-deep waterway that runs through the Townshend State Forest, under State Forest Road, and into the West River — raising debate over racial justice, economic equity, inclusion, gender identity and equality, and the role of government in citizens’ lives — is again on the front burner here.
Proponents of renaming Negro Brook have secured Selectboard support — with a caveat — and are moving cautiously forward.
Lynne Shea, representing a “small group” of residents who want to resuscitate an earlier effort to change the name, met with Selectboard members Dec. 27 to talk about the potential process and gauge the board’s level of support.
“We’re not in a particular rush,” Shea said. “We’re willing to do the work to move the petition forward with the [state] Board of Libraries,” which is in charge of naming geographic features such as mountains and streams.
“We didn’t want to rush the process, and we want to be as inclusive as possible,” she said. “I think most people want this brook renamed.”
Earlier, lack of letters of support from the Selectboard and the Townshend Historical Society caused the library board to question local support. Some questioned whether a proposal to rename the brook after Susanna Toby, a Black woman who lived in the area for many years, would accurately reflect its history.
And getting such letters this time around? That’s by no means a certainty.
Selectboard Chair Sherwood Lake noted this month that when Shea contacted the board asking about starting a renaming process, he told her that unless former high school history teacher and Townshend Historical Society member Charles Marchant were involved, she would “have to go through Town Meeting.”
There are two possible ways to proceed to get the issue before Town Meeting to gauge support.
The first would be to petition the Selectboard to put it on the annual Town Meeting warrant, which would require a “yes” or “no” question for voters to answer.
Since the residents reviving the issue are not rushing and want to solicit all possible input, it seems doubtful the group will do that — and certainly not before meeting with the Historical Society, which is a next step, says Shea.
The second way would be to have a Townshend resident request a discussion of the matter at the end of the annual meeting, under “other business” to come before the meeting, which seems more likely although not assured at this time.
Marchant said this week the downside of discussing it under “other business” is that many voters will have left.
“The problem being last is, in terms of numbers of people, there will be a lot less people at that time, especially if the meeting drags on for hours and hours arguing about money matters,” he said.
However, so far there is no actual petition with a suggested new name for the brook, but Shea and others have met and discussed things with Marchant several times. He does support one possible renaming.
“If they recognize James and Susanna Huzzy — sometimes spelled Hussey — if that’s how the petition is presented, to recognize the two of them, then I said I would support that, but I haven’t seen the petition,” said Marchant. “I agreed with Lynne to support the petition as long as it had the spelling and included both James and Susanna.”
Who are the Huzzys?
According to the census of 1810, 15 Black people lived in Townshend.
Dr. Elise A. Guyette, historian and author of Vermont: A Cultural Patchwork and Discovering Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburgh, 1790-1890, believes it’s likely Susanna Toby Huzzy, her husband James Huzzy, and their children, who moved from Massachusetts, were one of these families.
Susanna Toby Huzzy was born in Maine in approximately 1750. Huzzy was likely born in Massachusetts in approximately 1734. He was enslaved in Upton, Mass. The couple married there in 1776.
According to Guyette’s research, there are no records detailing the births of the couple’s children, but it is likely Toby gave birth to one child approximately 10 months after the start of the Revolutionary War.
Huzzy was 42 when he entered the Revolutionary War. He spent most of the war away from Toby and was a private in the Massachusetts Line, a unit of the Continental Army.
A veteran of the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill, he served two terms “as a substitute for his master’s sons.” Huzzy served a third time under his own name until the end of the War as a plan to gain his freedom.
According to the pension application Huzzy filed, he enlisted in the spring of 1775 after George Washington arrived in Boston. Some of the officers Huzzy served under included Capt. Jeremiah Miller, Capt. Jonathan Brewer, and Col. Joseph Vose. He was honorably discharged in 1783. Huzzy applied for his pension in 1818. The pension application was filed in Townshend.
According to Guyette’s research, Huzzy, approximately 84 years old, described himself in his pension application as “destitute of property and dependent on the town for support.” His pension was granted.
In 1820 the Huzzy household listed five “People of Color.” Huzzy died March 11, 1822.
Records from 1830 list Toby as living in Townshend in a household with three blacks. She applied for Huzzy’s pension in 1836. The application was granted and she started receiving the pension the following year.
The census of 1840 listed Toby as living with a black female age 24-35.
Toby turned 100 in 1850. By then, the census lists her as living in Townshend in the household of Philemon Holden, 44, farmer and father of four children, ages 2 through 11.
Guyette’s research also showed that Toby petitioned for “bounty land” when she was 104.
According to the National Archives and Records Administration, the government provided Bounty Land Warrants for military service to veterans of the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, the Mexican War, and a variety of actions against First Nations peoples. Toby died in 1855.
The renaming process
The original request to rename the brook came in the fall of 2019. In the process, the State Board of Libraries asked what kind of local support the group had for its then-petition to rename it.
At the time, Evan Litwin and Alex Hazzard, two members of the Rename Negro Brook Alliance, based in northern Vermont, wanted to change the brook’s name to honor Susanna Toby.
The effort encountered resistance in that not all signers were from Townshend, for one thing. The library board does not require all 25 signers be local, but it does look favorably on letters of support from the town Selectboard, Historical Society, Planning Commission, for example.
The Selectboard also wants to see that most names on the petition are those of verifiable Townshend residents.
The state Board of Libraries would like a unified petition from Townshend residents, said Shea, adding the goal now is “to have an inclusive process to understand what the majority would like” with clear and transparent communication.
“It’s Townsend that you’re asking for,” Lake said. “I know you’re not required to get our support, but honestly, from my perspective, if the petition doesn’t involve a majority of Townshend residents, it’s not going to see much support here. We represent Townshend and that would, from my perspective, be the key.”
He supports bringing it up at the end of Town Meeting, if the petition is ready to “allow it to be heard, at least, through a first time and have a debate.”
“We’re really interested in the opinions of those who have thought about this for a while and been involved all along,” Shea said. “So if we go to Town Meeting and do something informational and have a discussion, we could see if there’s support and make sure we’re getting input and following the state Board of Libraries process, which is pretty clearly outlined.”
“We’re not planning what we’d say at Town Meeting yet because we haven’t met with the Historical Society or gotten enough input from others,” she continued. “We absolutely need Townshend residents on board for this. We’re just trying to be as clear and transparent as possible.”