BRATTLEBORO — More than 300 people began streaming onto the Retreat Farm and into a big white tent on Aug. 13 as Sam Waymon - brother to the late musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone - and two backup vocalists set the upbeat rhythms for the third annual NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner, with guests joining in to sing together.
Cliff Wood, a retired college president and a member of the Windham County Vermont NAACP leadership team, had organized the organization's members of all ages to make for a moving evening of food, celebration, and song.
The formal events of the evening began by honoring the ATOWI Project at The Retreat Farm and the Elnu Abenaki people of the region. Next, two young men led a unison pledge of allegiance and sang the national anthem.
Juan Cofield, president of the New England Conference of the NAACP, brought his greetings and welcome, along with congratulations for the work of the Windham County chapter and, specifically, to its president, Steffen Gillom. It was Gillom, along with friends, who just three years ago established what is now a vibrant active advocacy group.
Gov. Phil Scott was represented by Xusana Davis, the state's executive director of racial equity.
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Tears, applause, and the streamed-in voice of retiring U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy marked a high point of the evening.
Leahy was elected in 1975 as the first Democratic legislator in 30 years. While other senators have come and gone, he has been elected again and again, always standing out as someone devoted to all Vermonters, regardless of their political persuasion.
Sharing his own experiences working with Leahy, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch offered moving accounts of his colleague's work with the late John Lewis - a civil rights icon and longtime Georgia congressman - for voting rights legislation and, most recently, on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Both Welch and Leahy are determined to pass the law - which would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 stripped away by the U.S. Supreme Court - before Leahy leaves office on Jan. 3, 2023.
Another poignant moment came as Leahy, his voice cracking, talked about how important it is to protect all children, particularly LGBTQ+ youth.
Both Leahy and the event organizers had hoped that the senator would be able to attend in person, but recent hip surgery made that impossible. Nonetheless, he watched and participated in a livestream of the event. He thanked Welch, who is seeking Leahy's Senate seat, and wished him well in the November election.
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The keynote address was given by Rev. Dr. Arnold Thomas, a highly sought speaker.
Thomas, of Underhill, whose family moved from Alabama during the Great Migration, has worked in Vermont for almost 25 years, serving first as conference minister for the United Church of Christ beginning in 1998 and, later, at Riverside Church in New York City.
Now the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, he hosts the Racism in America Forums. Funded by the Vermont Humanities Council (VHC), the forums focus on Vermont “and largely featuring BIPOC Vermonters as panelists, to be broadcast on 49 community TV stations,” according to the VHC.
Thomas acknowledged the threats he has received over the years as an African American, and how it has felt as a Black man living in and traveling all over Vermont. He also acknowledged that he has been surprised by welcomes he has received in the unlikeliest of places.
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The theme of the night's event was “Building Community,” certainly a hallmark of Leahy's work. Thomas highlighted the divisions of the past 150 years, and the efforts made and goals achieved along the way at great cost to people of color and their allies.
In the end, he pointed to the places and people everywhere who can make the differences in people's lives and in our country's history. As he shared his own experiences, people laughed, cried, and later stood to give him an ovation.
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The evening ended with lifetime achievement plaques given to Peter Elwell, former town manager of Brattleboro, and to Norma Hardy, the town's chief of police.
Clergy from Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and indigenous communities offered blessings to close the event, which ended, as the sun set, with the singing of “We Shall Overcome.”