GRAFTON — Songs of hope will be part of a celebration this weekend marking the accomplishments of a Vermont family who escaped slavery.
On Saturday morning, several organizations will celebrate the opening of Birchdale Camp, the last standing structure at the homestead of Alec and Sally Turner. Attendees are invited to meet at the Grafton Trails & Outdoor Center, 783 Townshend Road, Saturday at 8:45 a.m. Transportation will be provided to the Birchdale Camp by Thomas Transportation, as no personal vehicles are allowed to drive up Turner Hill. Refreshments will be available at the Outdoor Center Cabin.
During the Civil War, Alec Turner escaped slavery in Virginia and settled in Grafton, where he became a hill farmer. His daughter Daisy Turner, born in 1883, became a storyteller and poet, and named her family’s homestead “Journey’s End.”
“This is the first time I’m ever going to have stepped on the soil of freed slaves,” said Brattleboro singer Samirah Evans, who will sing songs including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” “I’m proud of what they were able to accomplish.”
Journey’s End sits at the head of the Vermont African American Heritage Trail, which consists of over a dozen sites across Vermont.
Trail founder Curtiss Reed Jr., who is executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity, called the Turners “the quintessential hill farmers here in Southern Vermont,” and said the opening of Birchdale Camp deepens the understanding of their story.
“They reimagined what was possible for them,” Reed said. “I think Alec was a visionary. I think his daughter Daisy Turner put that into prose in such a way that makes us appreciate what Vermont means for people, regardless of race — that this is a place you come as you are and then you make yourself part of the community.”
The Windham Foundation organized the celebration in collaboration with the Turner Hill Interpretative Center, the Grafton Historical Society, the Preservation Trust of Vermont and Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity.
Speakers will include Reed, Elizabeth Bankowski of the Windham Foundation, “Daisy Turner’s Kin” author Jane Beck, Ben Doyle and Eric Gilbertson of the Preservation Trust of Vermont and Patrick Cooperman and Patsy Ellis of the Turner Hill Interpretative Center.
Evans, accompanied by pianist Franz Robert, will perform at the Birchdale Camp. When attendees return from the camp, François Clemmons will sing songs inspired by Alec Turner.
Reed called Evans a “brilliant singer” whose voice will bring depth to the moment of celebration.
“If you have ever been to Journey’s End, if you’ve ever been to Birchdale Camp, you can see there is a stunning landscape once you get to the top of the mountain,” Reed said. “That will be celebrated in song. I think Samirah was the right person to choose because of her understanding of Vermont, her understanding of what it means to celebrate, what it means to focus on the future.”
Evans said she admires the “courage, strength and tenacity” shown by the Turner family.
“The fact they decided to take this journey to be free,” she said. “That sets the example for so many people that came after them. There might have been people before them, but to come to the whitest state in the nation at the time and be able to thrive, I’m inspired by that.”
For more information and to RSVP, visit the website for the Turner Hill Interpretative Center, turnerhillgrafton.org.