Exploring literacy, education, and culture through the words of our past
A portrait of Lucy Terry Prince by Louise Minks.

Exploring literacy, education, and culture through the words of our past

A new project shines a light on Brattleboro’s literary history, starting with the words of a former slave who transcended race and gender to have her say in the highest courts in the state

BRATTLEBORO — In January, I became part of a committee that worked to create a project for a National Endowment for the Humanities “Creating Humanities Communities,” a matching grant whose goals are “to ensure that Americans around the country have the opportunity to engage with our shared cultural heritage” and to “demonstrate the power of the humanities to build connections, stimulate discovery, and contribute to vibrant communities.”

The People, Places, and History of Words in Brattleboro, Vermont project is a wide collaboration of five area organizations, schools, and other entities to build an awareness of the humanities in rural communities and help citizens explore the diverse cultural/literary history of this area we call home.

It also seemed a way through history and culture to create common connections among people and to lessen the divisiveness in our society widened in this last United States presidential election.

The committee chose for our first year a project to explore the life of Lucy Terry Prince, the first known African-American poet, orator, and rights advocate, who lived during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

“Lucy Speaks,” which is part of the Brattleboro Literary Festival, is a “pop-up” exhibit housed in a mobile trailer called MILES (Mobile Interactive Literary Exhibition Space). The trailer will be parked in front of Key Bank at 185 Main St. during Saturday, Oct. 14 and Sunday, Oct. 15. (The Festival runs from Oct. 12 to 15.)

The electoral map of the 2016 election, with all of its red counties and blue islands, revealed a chasm in the country that one could not ignore. I also knew there were public libraries, schools, colleges, museums, and other cultural centers in both blue and red areas where people of all beliefs gathered and discussed their common history, culture, and other issues important to their communities.

Could small, community-minded groups, dedicated to historical accuracy and fact-based learning, create inclusive projects that might serve as antidotes to our country's discord, much of which had been exploited by social media “bots” and “fake news”?

If there was one place to make such a project work, might it not be in Brattleboro?

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“Lucy Speaks” features Lucy Terry Prince, who was born 1725 or 1726 in West Africa, brought to the East Coast on a slave ship, and purchased by Ebenezer Wells of Deerfield, Mass. to be a domestic slave.

In 1746, she wrote a ballad, “Bars Fight,” which documented the last massacre of Native Americans in Deerfield. (“Bars” is the colonial name for a meadow.) “Bars Fight” was not published until 1854, when the Springfield (Mass.) Daily Republican inserted her poem as part of an article commemorating the history of Deerfield.

In 1756, she was freed from the Wells household and married Abijah Prince, a free black citizen of Northfield, Mass.

Lucy and Abijah, and their six children, left Deerfield permanently in 1785 for Guilford, where they owned land and built a house. Abijah, 20 years her elder, died in 1794.

In Guilford, Lucy and her sons were terrorized by a neighbor who wanted their land. After her sons were beaten and property burned, Lucy, knowing her rights, took the individuals to court and won her case in front of the Vermont Governor's Council.

She argued her case multiple times, up to the Vermont Supreme Court, when her political and property rights were challenged by the white establishment.

Lucy Prince died in Sunderland, Vt. on July 11, 1821, and her obituary read, “Her volubility was exceeded by none, and in general the fluency of her speech captivated all around her...” All considered her a prodigy in conversation. She was much respected among her acquaintance, who treated her with a degree of deference.”

* * *

This project's goals resurrect hidden or forgotten events and peoples - such as the Native Americans who lived in the area - with activities, with exhibits, and with their own history and traditions that predate the arrival of the Europeans.

The values of literacy, education, and culture will be explored through an exhibit of the Brattleboro printing and publishing industries. In addition, the African-American legacy of stories and assertions of human rights as personified by ex-slave Lucy Terry Prince and her family will be considered through a display and lecture.

Perhaps with these goals in mind, we as a community can change the vector of separateness that has now become so extreme in U.S. society.

Through activities in the schools, historical podcasts, historical place markers, community gatherings, talks, and exhibits, the People, Places, and History of Words in Brattleboro, Vermont project, can be both uplifting and unifying for our community.

And, maybe - just maybe - this project can serve as an example for others in the nation, using the elucidation of our common history rather than the promotion of anti-immigrant sentiment, political rallies, “alternative facts,” and reality TV distractions, all of which seek to divide instead of unify us.

I believe People, Places and History of Words in Brattleboro, Vermont may help provide a common understanding and engagement of where we have come through a deep study of the places we all share.

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