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People look at the new historic site marker that honors Lucy Terry Prince, considered the nation’s first African American poet, and her husband Abijah Prince, at the Vermont Welcome Center, in Guilford, on Tuesday.

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Community members and local officials gather at the Vermont Welcome Center, in Guilford, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, to honor the new historic site marker for Lucy Terry Prince, considered the nation’s first African American poet, and her husband Abijah Prince.

GUILFORD — A new roadside marker at the Welcome Center on Interstate 91 recognizes the first known African American poet in the United States and her husband, who were among the earliest landowners in Vermont.

Abijah Prince “served in the French and Indian Wars, as a slave and freedman,” the marker states. “In 1751, he achieved his freedom and registered as a taxpayer and proprietor for land ownership.”

Lucy Terry “was stolen from Africa as a child and enslaved in Deerfield, Mass.,” the marker states. “Her only surviving poem ‘Bars Fight’ records the 1746 attack on Deerfield settlers. The earliest existing poem by an African American, endured in oral tradition for over 100 years before appearing on the front page of the Springfield Daily Republican in 1854.”

Lucy Terry became free some time after marrying Abijah Prince in 1756 and the couple began settling 100 acres in Guilford in 1769, according to the marker.

On Tuesday, local leaders and community members filled the front of the Welcome Center for an event to unveil the new marker. Sayon Camara of Guinea, West Africa, and current Vermont resident, performed on hand drums to welcome attendees.

“I’m so pleased all of you have come to honor these wonderful people,” said Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, a former Guilford resident who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book “Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend.”

As an alumna of Marlboro College, Gerzina remembered being the only Black student when she arrived at the school and feeling like she was the only Black person in Vermont. She spent nearly 20 years researching the Princes and said they were “some of the very earliest landowners or settlers in Vermont.”

“Abijah and Lucy did not have an easy time,” Gerzina said. “They were assaulted. People tried to run them off their property. Their neighbors across the road tried to instigate people to drive them away. Abijah took them to court one by one, over and over.”

Gerzina said in researching the Princes, her husband found old records in “moldy boxes” at the Windham Superior Court, Civil Division in Newfane. She said if anyone owed Abijah Prince $1, he would take them to court, bringing family members along to show them how to protect their rights.

Lissa Weinmann, co-founder and executive producer of Brattleboro Words Trail, said her group’s project highlights the rich literary history of the area with audio clips produced by local people. It received a sponsorship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and local support.

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Brattleboro Words Trail held its first exhibit on Lucy Terry Prince at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in 2017.

“It’s been a long road and it’s just so great to be here right now, four years later, and to see this official commemoration of their contribution to the beautiful Vermont that we all know and love today,” Weinmann said.

Her group applied to the Vermont Roadside Historic Site Marker program to get a marker at the Welcome Center. Brattleboro Words Trail has a downloadable mobile app and website at brattleborowords.org.

Shanta Lee Gander, of Brattleboro, Vt., reads a poem written by Lucy Terry Prince,  considered the nation’s first African American poet(,) during an event to honor the new historic site marker of the couple at the Vermont Welcome Center, in Guilford, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.

Shanta Lee Gander of Brattleboro, a multi-media artist who has written about and portrayed Lucy dramatically as an advisory team member of the Brattleboro Words Trail, said history will be marked in ways that tell people with dark skin in the whitest state of the union that “they can be here now, not in struggling, not in fighting.”

“Here at the Welcome Center, strangers passing through, pausing to walk the dog, will come upon this marker that scratches the surface of an extraordinary history and the Princes’ challenging legacy for us,” said Verandah Porche, poet and vice chairwoman of the Guilford Select Board. “It is noteworthy that the governor’s council charged Guilford’s Selectmen, that’s what they called them in those days, with protecting Abijah and Lucy Prince from their toxic neighbors.”

Porche recounted the time she spent teaching Guilford kindergartners about the Princes and their experience in the community. She said the children knew what is and isn’t fair.

“Events such as this are special because we get to highlight important people and stories that are significant to Vermont’s history but also need to be recognized as part of our nation’s heritage,” said Laura Trieschmann, state historic preservation officer.

The Vermont Roadside Historic Site Marker program began in 1947, Trieschmann said. She estimated about 300 markers are placed or in production around the state.

Trieschmann said the first marker recognizing African Americans’ struggle was placed in 1949 and now 26 markers observe African American history, with many more applications being processed and researched. She called the site of the new marker “the most visited Welcome Center in our brave little state.”

“I can say without question, this is the largest group to attend the unveiling of a state historic marker on the African American Heritage Trail,” Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity and founder of the Vermont African American Heritage Trail, said just before the event ended.

Reed said his group along with the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing launched the Vermont African American Heritage Trail in 2013 as a way to attract “cultural tourists” and teach children about history.