The installation of a historic site marker in Windsor honoring a Negro woman slave has been long overdue, and accolades are owed to those who moved the project to completion. But while a 2x3 foot bronze plaque is inadequate in which to memorialize any life, the state of Vermont and the marker’s sponsor deliberately omit a known fact about the woman; and with this, they rob her of that which would’ve been afforded a person of European heritage — identity.
The identity of those enslaved in America is often shrouded; family names were rarely recorded and given names were used repeatedly. For descendants, family history can be confused, scant, even non-existent with slavery’s grip of anonymity, its erasure of self and banishment of kin. And it’s in this manner that Windsor’s once enslaved woman is identified on this marker, with only a single name, most often written in records of her time as it was then spoken, Dinar.
The name Dinah was common among enslaved women; so common that white Union soldiers used it as a generic title for any black female. In Vermont’s Bennington County, one woman with the name has been confused with Windsor’s resident that their records in state archives have been mistakenly interwoven. And throughout New England, archival vaults hold accountings of innumerable women and girls named Dinah, all indistinguishable one from another except for a date of birth, baptism, death, or a chance reference to a father, a sibling, an owner. Yet for this historian, such records offer theories linking Windsor’s Dinah to a young girl, once property of a man now buried in Old Pine Tree Cemetery of Lebanon, New Hampshire. But distanced by more than decades, theories require proof before casting names in bronze.
In recent years, Windsor’s Dinah has been labeled with a compound, but false family name which has no support of historical evidence. While in fact, her true family name appears in documents presented to Dinah herself when she was living free and paying her own bills. Seemingly given of her own accord, a family name would’ve contributed to Dinah’s sovereignty, and it’s known today, recorded during her lifetime as Dinar a negro Mason.
The reason for Dinah’s use of the name Mason is unknown, and while there is no proven history of her life before Vermont, her association with the name is not theory. Still, for her marker, Vermont’s Division for Historic Preservation and Historic Windsor, Inc. intentionally blot out her family name in fear of paying homage to a slaveholder named Mason. But such a slaveholder isn’t known to have existed within Dinah’s life, and while any link between Dinah and the man buried in Lebanon remains a hypothetical theory, his lichen-covered headstone isn’t carved with the name of Mason.
Contrary to popular belief, few slaves adopted names that were reflective of slaveholders. For Sally Hemings of Monticello, Virginia, family lore recounts that Sally and her mother were christened with the name Hemings in recognition of Sally’s grandfather, a white man who never owned Sally, her mother or grandmother. In Windsor, a runaway negro fellow once sheltered on the property of a well-known judge didn’t use the name of his owner and would-be captor. And the Windsor resident who cared for Dinah Mason before her death was first known as London, Negro, a typical name and tagging for a black man at the time. He later called himself Leonard Freeman.
Names carry more than identity. In West Rutland, a state historic marker honors a minister with a family name taken from the man who once held the minister as an indentured servant. Recently, Vermont’s legislature deemed indentured servitude to be contrary to life and liberty, and that its original reference within the state’s constitution should be expunged. Yet if this minister’s unchosen past were reason enough to expunge his chosen name, living Vermonters would be deprived of a forefather, and of his merit.
First names may be sufficient for embroidered bath towels, but identifying Windsor’s survivor of America’s great atrocity as merely Dinah, a woman of color falls short. It cordons her back into a shadowed existence, ambiguous as a number on a census page or as a tally mark on an ink-stained tax record. With this marker, the state of Vermont deprives the woman of individuality, of her sought-after sovereignty, and isolates her from those who continue to live with her legacy.
The marker will be unveiled during a public ceremony this Saturday, June 18, 10:30 a.m. at 70 State Street in Windsor.