New book reveals Vt.’s hidden slave history
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | January 19,2014
Harvey Amani Whitfield, a professor at the University of Vermont, is author of the new book “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.”
Vermont prides itself on a progressive history as the first state to approve same-sex civil unions and, before that, to abolish billboards and, before that, to adopt a bottle-return law and, before that, to offer a public school system from first grade through college and, before that, to outlaw slavery.
But what if that last fact, the one that began all the boasting, has an ugly flip side?
“This assertion may not fit easily into the popular notion of Vermont as the first region in North America to completely abolish slavery and offer rough equality for African Americans,” said Harvey Amani Whitfield, a professor at the University of Vermont. “In fact, the state is home not only to a rich abolitionist history, but also to the more troublesome story of slavery.”
So begins Whitfield’s new book, “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810,” set for preview this Martin Luther King Jr. Day before publication by the Vermont Historical Society next month.
Schoolbooks and scholars routinely credit Vermont’s 1777 constitution for categorically abolishing slavery, making the state the only one to do so before the end of the American Revolution. But Whitfield has unearthed dozens of bills of sale, runaway notices, court documents, census records and other papers that prove many people of color remained in bondage for nearly three decades more.
“If you were black in Vermont in the 1780s, you could vote, take a white person to court and own property,” Whitfield said in an interview. “But at the same time you could be kidnapped or your children held as slaves. Slavery just didn’t end — it was a longer process that took at least 30 years.”
The black population increased in the Green Mountains from about 25 in 1770 to 270 in 1790 to 870 in 1830. But the constitution only granted freedom to men older than 21 and women older than 18, so children could lawfully remain slaves before being sold to residents in other states.
In addition, such prominent residents as Vermont Supreme Court judge Stephen Jacob and Ethan Allen’s brother, Levi, and, as late as 1835, daughter Lucy Caroline Hitchcock ignored the law and owned servants.
Whitfield, a self-described “African-descended person,” doesn’t want anyone to view his revelations as a slam against the state.
“It’s not a ‘gotcha’ moment — I’m simply saying the end of slavery was contested, contingent, complicated and messy. I think a lot of historians knew the constitution was problematic, and we needed to do more research.”
Indeed, Whitfield’s peers are hailing his work.
“From time to time, an historian comes along and overturns everything we thought we knew about an event in the past,” Northwestern University professor Timothy H. Breen said. “This is an important contribution to the study of race and racism in Revolutionary America.”
The book, according to University of Virginia professor Alan Taylor, “deftly reveals the challenges of abolishing slavery even in Vermont, so long assumed to have been founded on equal rights and universal freedom.”
Whitfield didn’t set out to write an expose.
“I’ve always been interested in black history in New England,” he said, “and just wondered if I could find some primary sources on what was going on around the revolutionary era in Vermont.”
The historian spent years scouring his university’s special collections in Burlington, the Vermont State Archives outside Montpelier and courthouses as far south as Bennington.
“As I found more and more, I realized there is this far more nuanced story.”
Yes, he said, the state’s 1777 abolition provision served as “an essential foundation for the end of slavery in Vermont” and “an important monument to the slow legislative strangling of slavery in the North.”
But records also show blacks faced continued trafficking, exploitation and discrimination, often because of a lack of law enforcement.
“It doesn’t mean the founders didn’t take an important step,” Whitfield said, “but there is a difference between ending slavery and establishing meaningful freedom.”
The book isn’t scheduled for publication until Feb. 1, but the author will preview it at noon Monday at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier and 7 p.m. at the UVM Memorial Lounge in Burlington and sign copies from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier.
In the preface, Whitfield said his 148-page book “is meant for an educated (not simply scholarly) audience with interest in the Green Mountain State’s history.”
“We want everything said in 140 characters or less,” he said in an interview. “This is much bigger, broader and complex.”
In his own words
“The point of this work is not simply to show that Vermont had slavery and denied equality to free blacks. For it is quite clear that slavery persisted after 1777 and free blacks struggled for meaningful citizenship. Nor is the intention to argue that slavery and racism are the dominant themes of Afro-Vermont history.
Instead, the point here is to advance a more nuanced interpretation of local black history and race relations by including the story of slavery within the overarching themes of emancipation and freedom.
The end of slavery must be viewed as a long process that occurred over thirty years (1777-1810), during which time emancipation, slavery, freedom, racism, hopes for natural rights, re-enslavement, de facto slavery, and fleeting notions of black citizenship existed simultaneously.
This created a remarkable context for race relations whereby Afro-Vermonters could achieve freedom and some aspects of meaningful citizenship, but also faced the persistent threat of slavery, kidnapping, and the bondage of their children.
An examination of Vermont slavery elicits multiple questions about its nature, essence, and eventual abolition. How emancipatory was the abolition provision of 1777? Why did the framers write it in such vague terms? Why did Vermont forego enforcement provisions? How and why did slavery persist?
… We need to understand the struggle between the forces of continued slavery and the movement toward freedom. These tensions in early Vermont beg for further study.”
From Harvey Amani Whitfield’s “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810,” available from the Vermont Historical Society to buy or order at most bookstores after Feb. 1.