Tracing Vermont's diverse past

Monday January 21, 2013

GRAFTON -- There is a mountain's worth of historical and cultural significance in the presidential re-inauguration slated for today.

President Barack Obama, the first black commander-in-chief in American history, is set to take the oath of his office to begin his second term on a day designated to honor a man who made Obama's journey possible.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, named after the late civil rights pioneer, was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and though some states were reluctant to recognize it at first, the holiday is now federally celebrated. Though controversial in his time, King has become a hero to many Americans of all races and backgrounds and different regions of the country find their own unique way to preserve his message and memory.

Last week the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing opened an African-American Heritage Trail with several sites (including Grafton) of importance to black history in the state. Curtiss Reed Jr., the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, said the trail is intended to boost cultural tourism in the Green Mountain State and increase awareness of its track record of racial tolerance.

"The trail is the result of a conversation we've had over the last several years with the state government about how do we grow the economic pie in the state given the demographics," he told the Reformer, adding that there are also several historical markers as part of the trail.

The department did not reply to a request seeking comment by presstime.

Reed said Vermont is one of the whitest states in the nation in terms of population but has a rich history of acceptance, opportunity and social justice. It is home to the first state constitution banning slavery within its borders, a strong abolitionist movement and the first African-American to earn a degree from an American university and get elected to a state legislature.

One of the stops on the heritage trail is the Grafton Historical Society. The town was once home to Daisy Turner, who Reed "called probably the most enthusiastic and insightful storyteller that Vermont has ever seen."

The daughter of former slaves, Turner's family settled in Grafton many years ago and her father Alexander -- a Civil War veteran -- slowly bought land bit by bit.

"Her father was a larger-than-life figure in Grafton," Reed said. "They were a part of the fabric of Grafton life."

Daisy, Reed said, was famous for her gripping stories about her family origins in Africa, enslavement and eventual emancipation. Reed said there are a lot of audio recordings and videos of her stories. He also said Daisy was the oldest living person in Vermont (roughly 105 years old) when she died in the 1980s.

Society President Patsy Ellis said one of the group's central themes has been the families whose history define the character of the town.

"Over the years we have focused attention on Daisy Turner and the Turner family, whose story in so many ways represents our heritage in their struggle to carve out a life on a Vermont hill farm," she said in an e-mail to the Reformer. "We are now proud to be able to share their story as part of The African American Heritage Trail."

The Turner family's homestead is still in Grafton, as is the Daisy Turner Loop -- a 8.5-mile bicycle trail near the Grafton Pond. There is also an exhibit in her honor at the town's historical society and at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, a town which also is on the heritage trail.

Alexander Twilight received a bachelor's degree from Middlebury College in 1823 and eventually served in the Vermont General Assembly.

The other towns on the trail are Woodstock, Manchester, Brandon, Windsor, Strafford, Browington, Ferrisburgh and Strafford.

"These are all sites that have particular interest to history buffs. They say, ‘Come to Vermont. There's a reason to come to Vermont,'" Reed said. "These sites have existed for a long time but there was no sort of brand identity for them."

Ferrisburgh includes the Rokeby Museum, a site of the Underground Railroad that led escaped slaves to freedom, and Strafford was the home of Sen. Justin Smith Morrill, who sponsored the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act. That legislation paved the path for black (now historically-black) colleges and universities, which educated former slaves and their descendants.

"Out of the black colleges and universities came the intellectual powerhouses for the Civil Rights Movement," Reed said. "If a Vermont senator had not had the foresight to seek the education of former slaves, there'd no black colleges and the Civil Rights Movement would have taken on a totally different shape."

Reed grew up in St. Louis, Mo., but has called Vermont his home since 1978. He thought the state is not a racial utopia (citing an incident in Bellows Falls a few years ago when a white barber allegedly lied to a visiting black physician to avoid having to cut his hair, later saying it's difficult to cut a black person's hair) but said an incredible amount of historically significant events have taken place in the state. He said many of Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys were black.

Reed said appealing to the multi-cultural marketplace is vital to the sustainability of Vermont's hospitality and tourism industry. He cited the Census Bureau as reporting there were more babies of color born last year than white babies and said demographers believe the United States will become a minority-majority nation within 29 years. Reed said Americans of color know about Vermont's white demographics and might shy away from vacationing here because they fear how they would be treated. He said that mindset needs to change if Vermont is going to prosper in a changing world.

"(The trail) will increase the number of tourists coming to the state. The profile of those tourists are likely to be black or African-American or Latino or whites who have (an appreciation) for history."

He said Vermont is a beautiful destination for professional and amateur black associations to hold their annual conferences. He mentioned specifically the National Brotherhood of Skiers, a non-profit organization made up of over 45 active African-American ski clubs that could hold their events here, adding that the NBS has not come to the Northeast since visiting Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1984.

"If your vision of who could enjoy Vermont is limited to just white people, then you're losing out on the fastest growing market in the United States," he said.

Domenic Poli can be reached at, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.


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