Black Lives Matter protest in Rutland, Vermont. One of the speakers at the demonstration, Ella Norton, holds “I am Black & I matter” poster. On her left is a peer and speaker at the gathering, Makieya Hendrickson. Photo credit: Hannah Dicton

Black Lives Matter in the whitest in state in the Union: Part 2. Avoidance and denial

12 mins read

Following a tense 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Rutland, Vermont, the notion that “Vermonters are not racist” is explored in the state’s often neglected history of slavery, representation and whiteness. This is the second part of a three-part series looking at race and race history in Vermont.

Nobody wants to be a racist, especially those who consider themselves fair, just, and “colorblind.”  However, it is obvious that even the most liberal state has a visible racist streak. Remember the Hans Christian Andersen classic, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?

Many Vermonters see the possibility of racism in their state as an oxymoron.  In their line of thinking, the spirit of the Green Mountain State is too open-minded to allow the dark recesses of prejudice a platform.  To them, racism is just a problem in other states, or the more backward ones, if you will.  If racism occurs, they contend that it must be the work of outside agitators because no real Vermonter would harbor such ugly preconceptions. 

Too often, Vermonters claim to have never witnessed any kind of racism firsthand.  Or, at least, anything beyond ‘harmless’ jokes or off-color comments here and there. 

“I don’t feel like I’ve experienced white privilege or racism in my own personal life,” said Kyle Kapitanski, acting chief of police in the town of Richmond.  He spoke to residents at a September 2020 forum on racial justice and policing. According to the Community News Service, a part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program, the forum’s panel consisted of three candidates seeking the position as the city’s new police chief. 

“We’re all peers, we’re all equal,” added Kapitanski.  “I need to acknowledge that I don’t see [racism] in my day to day operation. It is hard to point my finger at something I cannot identify.” 

More accurately, many Vermonters have never had to reckon with the experiences of people of color firsthand.  Passing weeks, even months without seeing a person of color is within the realm of normal in the whitest state.  Thus, it’s easy to be tolerant and nonracial when there’s no targets of racism available.  Yet and still, when non-white Vermonters share traumas this state has doled out, they are met with indignation and denial. 

Behind the progressive facade, Vermonters are as racist as everyone else.  And those supposedly innocuous remarks? They are the bread-and-butter of everyday racism. 

Tabitha Moore told us that she protests prejudice in Vermont for Lisa Ryan, the only Black woman on the Rutland City Board of Aldermen:  “She deals with more racism than the rest of us because she dares to speak, dares to exist, and God forbid, dares to infer that racism happens here.” 

Moore told VTDigger that, growing up in Rutland, she sometimes felt “starved for connection with people who reflect” her.  

Historically, Rutland County is conservative; especially, compared to liberal bastions in the north of the state, like Chittenden County.  The town of Clarendon, where Moore works as a school counselor, majority voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election by more than a 50% margin.

Burlington, the biggest city in the state with over 40,000 residents, is 85% white with nearly 6% of residents being Asian, nearly 6% being Black, and nearly 3% self-reporting as two or more races according to data from the US Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey. 

Chittenden County, Burlington’s home, also holds the next three populous cities in the state:  Essex, South Burlington, and Colchester, which are 84%, 90%, and 93% white, respectively.  Burlington is also the center of a larger metropolitan area that contains two other counties, Franklin and Grand Isle, with a total population of about 215,000. 

Ink blots on in a white space: Representation

Kiah Morris speaks at the 2018 International Women’s Forum. Morris served in the general assembly as a State Representative from 2014-2016 and 2016-2018. She is the first African-American and person of color elected from Bennington County and the second African-American woman to be elected to the legislature in Vermont history. Morris stepped down as a legislator following months of death threats and harassment. She claims local police did not provide adequate assistance in her case. Photo credit: Website of Kiah Morris

In November, Kesha Ram became the first woman of color in the Vermont Senate, according to the Burlington Free Press.  Ram, who is of Indian and Jewish heritage, represents Chittenden County as a Democrat.  She hails originally from California, but attended the University of Vermont, graduating in 2008.  That year, she became the youngest member of any state legislator when she was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives.

Republican Senator Randy Brock, representing Franklin County just north of Burlington, was the first Black person elected to statewide office in Vermont when he became Auditor of Accounts in 2004.  In 2009, Brock was one of only four senators to vote against same-sex marriage in Vermont and opposed the introduction of universal healthcare in the state in 2012.

VTDigger reported in 2018 that “Vermont officials of color reached record numbers” that year, citing Shanta Lee Gander of the Brattleboro Select Board, Ali Dieng of the Burlington City Council, and Lisa Ryan of the Rutland Board of Aldermen as recently-elected examples.  

Curtiss Reed, Jr, executive director for the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, told the paper that five legislators of color were serving in the State House at the time,  “We’re at an all-time high,” he said. 

Even so, recalling the story of Kiah Morris, it is noteworthy that at the time of her resignation in 2018, the Bennington Democratic representative was the only Black female legislator in the whole state.

More recently, Xusana Davis was appointed as the state’s Executive Director of Racial Equity in 2019 by Governor Phil Scott.  Davis, a Black Latina, “works with state agencies to identify and address systemic racial disparities and support the state’s efforts to expand & diversify Vermont’s population,” according to her official page on the State website.

The myth of abolition in a slave state

Slavery was banned, except in the case of debt repayment, in Vermont’s inaugural state constitution in 1777.  In 1770, an estimated 25 people were enslaved in Vermont in 1770. Eventually, the constitution would set all existing male slaves free at age 21, and all existing female slaves free at age 18.  However, Blacks were re-enslaved or in some cases, sold to planters or trades in slave states. 

According to the 1790 and 1810 US Censuses do count enslaved people living in Vermont.  In the case of the 1790 count, some scholars believe that an error occurred when “sixteen persons returned as ‘free colored’ were classified as ‘slaves,’” as was claimed by Vermont historian Lyman Simpson Hayes in 1929. Yet and still, 

“It has long been known that that first census, as given to the public, contained numerous errors, and that this assignment of slaves to Vermont was one of them,” Hayes wrote.  “Vermont declared against slavery in 1777, and that declaration has always been adhered to.”

Others disagree:  Jared Ross Hardesty, associate professor of history at Western Washington University, told Vermont Public Radio that “there were slaveholders in Vermont even after the Constitution.”  Hardesty, author of Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England, noted that a study of Vermont anti-slavery laws written in the 1780s and 90s suggests a continuing presence of the peculiar institution in the state.

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Executed on July 26, 1783, the bill of sale of a “Negro Woman Slave,” named Dinah. The sale occurs six years after Vermont ended slavery. The sale of Dinah is considered one of the most famous of Vermonters still engaging in the slave trade illegally. Dinah was owned by Vermont Supreme Court Justice Stephen Jacob of Windsor. The bill of sale was certified on July 20, 1801. Creator of document was Jotham White (1728-1809). Found in Digital Vermont archives.

A 1791 Act allowed for slavers to sell into perpetual indentured servitude to any “Negro & Molattoes” servant or slave who ran away, but was apprehended before the abolition of slavery. According to the Vermont Archives in Middlesex, even “free negroes as appear to them indolent, vicious, or likely to become chargeable to the public,” were detained and re-enslaved until the early nineteenth century. Moreover, those enslaved were children forced into indentured servitude.

On the other hand, Vermont was a refuge for formerly enslaved people and free Blacks in the 1800s escaping from brutality in other states, including in New England. 

Jeffrey Brace was born into an important family in West Africa in 1742 as Boyrereau Brinch, according to the Poultney Historical Society.  He was captured and sold into slavery when he was sixteen years old then transported to Barbados, where he was made to fight as a soldier during the Seven Years War.  

After the war, Brace was sold to a Connecticut man, “the first of a series of cruel owners who subjected him to beatings and other humiliations,” according to the historical society.  Brace served in the Revolutionary War, and eventually learned how to read and write in English.  After the Revolution, he was freed and moved to Poultney, Vermont in 1784, becoming the town’s first Black citizen. 

Brace, his African wife Susannah Dublin, and their three children worked on farms in Poultney and Dorset, another town.  However, all was not well:  Susannah’s two other children from a previous marriage were forced into indentured servitude, and the family was tormented by white neighbors.  Eventually, Brace and his family relocated to Georgia, Vermont, where Brace lived until his death.

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Rhonda Brace, his great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter, still lives near Vermont in Springfield, Massachusetts, according to Vermont Public Radio. 

In another case, Daisy Turner was born free in Grafton, Vermont in 1883 to parents who were born into slavery in Virginia, according to the Vermont Folklife Center.  Turner’s family bonds were strong:  “Every night after dinner [Daisy’s father] told them stories of their heritage so they would understand their legacy,” according to the Center.  Her father had escaped from slavery, later returning to his former plantation to kill the overseer who had supervised him. 

Turner was racially aware even as a child.  When her teacher told her to deliver a poem alongside a Black doll as part of a school pageant, Turner refused and recited her own poem instead.  This act of defiance, from when Turner was only eight years old, was adapted into a children’s book called Daisy and the Doll

Turner told her story in the form of oral recordings to archivist Jane C. Beck, beginning when she was 100 years old. In the account, she starts with her ancestral roots in Yorubaland, a region in West Africa.  Beck wrote a book entitled Daisy Turner’s Kin:  An African American Family Saga based on Turner’s recollections.  The Turner family homestead still stands on Daisy Turner Loop in Grafton to this day.

While Vermont celebrates its history of abolition, it neglects to include those who either disregarded anti-slave laws or found loopholes to continue a de facto slavery. A slave-free north is a myth often promulgated in recent texts. Kidnapping was a familiar practice in Vermont.

Furthermore, although Vermont became a sanctuary for escapees later, it also profited tremendously in growing its economy from the chattel slavery system and the “free-negroes” in the area. An important cash crop Vermonters harvested is hemp. As a New England colony, the hemp industry which expanded off of the labor and agricultural knowledge of enslaved persons, played a central role in American economy. Even until 1870, five years after the Civil War, most Blacks worked in the agriculture or service sector for whites, proposed researcher by Elise A. Guyette who studied Black Vermont.

A small bubble, bound to pop

BLM Rutland organizer, Aris Sherwood in an interview during the rally. Photo credit: Hannah Dicton

Vermont can be a comfortable cocoon for white progressives, surrounded on nearly every side by their own kind.  A few token gestures now and then, allow a smugness; and perhaps a tinge of superiority to seep through to suggest the notion, “look at how good we’ve got it here.”  Pats on the back all around.  To this ideation, there is a concession. Sure, a troubled past exists, sometimes bleeding into the present, but racism is not an everyday occurrence.  Not here.

Jorja Lamb, a biracial woman from Rutland, disagrees.  Her mother, Lakeisha, is the vice president of the Rutland NAACP chapter, and she has long been outspoken in the community in support of racial and social justice causes.

Lamb recounted her experiences in the white bubble of Vermont, where she has endured racist remarks since childhood.  Race issues in the contemporary political climate led her to reflect back on those times, and draw comparisons with instances of prejudice occurring nationwide.  Despite Lamb’s personal testimony, many question whether ‘it is really like that’ in Rutland.  “In the experiences that I’ve had firsthand, it so is,” she replied. 

Lamb stated that almost all the Vermonters she knows have only grown up around other white people.  It bothers her when peers immediately shut down deeper conversations about race and simply insist, “‘I’m not racist, I have a Black niece’, or cousin, or stepfather, or friend.”  Or, maybe they participated in the Fresh Air Fund, a program where rural families host children, usually of color, from inner cities for two weeks in the summer.  

The initiative is popular in Vermont, but is steeped in controversy because of its goals when it comes to non-white participants. A program designed to introduce healthier food options to malnourished, poor white kids in the 1940s, turned into a way to show that all-white enclaves were not racist when hosting Black and Latino children. Yet ands still, reports show children complained of frequent racist encounter.s

Whatever the case may be, Lamb feels white Vermonters are not able to accept what they cannot personally relate to. 

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Lamb attributed this phenomenon to the cycle of white fragility.  She explained that oftentimes, a white audience simply refuses to listen to Black voices that state hard-to-swallow facts or ask tough questions.  Worse, they will deny what people of color have been through:  “It just astonishes me that you could have a group of Black people telling you their experience about race, and a white man or woman from Vermont is like, ‘no’.”

She continued, “In the time of slavery, Black people were telling you, ‘this is wrong’.  You said, ‘no.’  In Jim Crow, Black people were telling you ‘this is wrong’.  You said, ‘no.’  Now we have the criminal justice system, Black people are telling you ‘this is wrong’.  And once again, you’re saying ‘no’.”

Lamb declared, “They don’t understand that there’s more to racism … than slavery and lynching.”

Moore thought that ‘mundane’ racism might not be so obvious to those with privilege because they actively choose to ignore it. In other words, they do not care because they do not have to care.  She called white apathy regarding racism, “a massive obstacle”.  Particularly in Vermont, it is difficult to drum up support for racial causes because of how few people there are “touched by race and racism in a deeply personal way.”  Moore called it a “numbers game.” She explained, “there’s not really enough of you to care, so it’s not really a big issue.” 

Moore continued, “It’s very easy to be wrapped in a bubble and not think that those kinds of things happen here if you’re white.  It’s a massive impediment in helping white Vermonters to understand how insidious and dangerous white supremacy is here.”  

Moore called the state’s lack of progressivism on race “a hard pill to swallow.”  To explain, she said, “In Vermont we like to pretend everything’s nice and everybody is so happy, and it’s just not the case.  When we know that people are suffering, to turn a blind eye to that is just not who we are, and is not the way we want to live life.”

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While Moore loves her community, she demands that Vermonters wake up to the racism surrounding them and motivate changes.  She believes Vermont can rise above its current situation. 

In 2016, she founded the state’s second NAACP chapter, only a year after the first was created in Burlington.  Moore, who is also a member of the Vermont State Police’s Fair and Impartial Policing Committee, felt it was important to create this group for southern Vermont, where the presence of people of color is often ignored. 

Moore told VTDigger that her activism is focused on making the area “a place where people of color feel safe and comfortable”.

She hopes that through advocacy, local residents will become aware of racism and discriminatory practices in the community.  Moore always stresses that the NAACP is open to all allies, regardless of race. 

Point in case, when the Niagara Movement, a precursor of the NAACP, first met in 1905, it was organized by eminent abolitionists and Black intellectuals, W.E.B. DuBois and William Monroe Trotter.  The inaugural group met just over the Canadian border, as meeting spaces in the United States were white-only at the time.  In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, open to people of all races, was officially founded. Included in the organization’s founders were white Kentuckian, William English Walling, and Jewish Civil rights activist, Henry Moscowitz. Hopefully, Vermonters use this model to improve race relations in the state.

From Vermont to the world, Sophia Moore Smith is an investigator, gardener, reader, and lover of language.

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