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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

From hidden history to tourist draw

New self-guided tour highlights role and contributions of African American Vermonters

BRATTLEBORO—For a state that has long held the distinction of being one of the whitest in the nation, Vermont has a surprisingly rich place in African-American history. However, that history is not all that well known.

Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, wants to change that.

Working with the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, the Vermont African American Heritage Trail will provide a self-guided tour for those interested in this chapter of the Green Mountain State’s history.

“This creates a narrative for Vermont,” Reed said. “African-Americans fought alongside Ethan Allen with the Green Mountain Boys. The state welcomed African-Americans to establish roots here in the 19th century, before the Civil War, in Hinesburg, Guilford, and Grafton.”

“The history is definitely there, and now we can share it with everyone,” he said.

The finishing touches are being put on the trail map, but it begins in Brattleboro at the site of today’s Brattleboro Union High School.

During the Civil War, the site was a sprawling military hospital and the main mustering ground for Vermont soldiers heading off to battle and returning home from the fight.

According to the 1860 U.S. Census, approximately 700 African-Americans were living in Vermont, and 149 served in the Union Army. Ten were killed in action.

Another Windham County stop is the Grafton Historical Society in Grafton, home to Daisy Turner, the child of former slaves Alexander and Sally Turner.

Born in 1883, Daisy Turner lived to be 104 and was the living link between the era of slavery and the 20th century.

The Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, another stop on the trail, is the repository for the many hours of Turner’s stories, recorded for posterity.

Other notable stops include the Constitution House in Windsor, where Vermonters penned the first constitution in America that prohibited slavery; the Old Stone Museum in Brownington, where the Rev. Alexander Twilight became the first African-American to graduate from college; Hildene, the Lincoln family’s summer home in Manchester; and the Hokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, a stop on the Underground Railroad where fugitive slaves were sheltered.

Reed sees the Trail as a way for Vermont to do something that it hasn’t done well at — marketing itself to African-Americans.

“Our own numbers in Vermont are low, but there are lots of African-Americans along the Eastern Seaboard who might be interested in coming here, but never thought about Vermont as a destination,” Reed said. “It’s a great untapped market.”

Reed said the Department of Tourism and Marketing will start promoting the Vermont African American Heritage Trail in the coming weeks, to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month in February.

A full campaign will begin in the spring, Reed said, when many of the historical sites open for the season.

More details are available at www.vermontvacation.com.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #187 (Wednesday, January 23, 2013).

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