By Jennifer Falvey, Standard Correspondent
A look at Woodstock’s legendary Underground Railroad system offers a fascinating frame of reference for our past and current attitudes toward minorities, refugees, and citizens in need. On Sunday, March 19, at 2 p.m. the Woodstock History Center will host author, Michelle Arnosky Sherburne for a discussion of her book, “Abolition and the Underground Railroad in Vermont.”
Vermonters enjoy the pride of living in the first state to abolish slavery. Viewed through the veil of historical perspective, we imagine that slaves were welcomed into our state and that our geographical ancestors worked in unity, ushering rescued victims from Southern torturers to Northern safety. But, as Sherburne’s book describes, it wasn’t that simple.
Sherburne’s book reveals a truth that was far more complicated. Slavery may have been illegal, but racism was rampant. Members of the Underground Railroad kept their identity hidden from their neighbors in order to protect themselves, as much as to protect the African refugees.
In “Abolition and the Underground Railroad in Vermont,” we find that noble efforts were often met with anger and violence. A school for black and white students was erected and quickly burned to the ground, reflecting a “not in my backyard” mentality. An apartment building which existed behind the Episcopal Church in Woodstock housed black families for many years until one night in 1835 when a mob of forty men appeared, bearing torches and weapons and drove the families out of town.
And yet there were local heroes. Titus Hutchinson is alleged to have created a tunnel from his home directly to the river in order to secret refugee slaves to awaiting boats. And Dr. Thomas Powers of Church Street is said to have come to the rescue of the black families who were driven from Woodstock by that angry mob. He secured their safety and helped them relocate.
State and Federal Laws did little to help protect black Americans. While it was illegal to own a slave in Vermont, the law only applied to men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 18, making it legal to own black children. Therefore, even free black families ran the risk of having their children taken from them. Black children were often pressed into service as indentured servants until they became adults.
On the federal level, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it illegal for any U.S. citizen to harbor runaway slaves and required that “property” be returned to its rightful owner. Bounty hunting became a lucrative trade, and bounty hunters routinely used violence in order to capture runaways. The growing violence created an even greater fear of living near black community members and that fear often grew into outright hatred.
Michelle Arnosky Sherburne’s, Abolition and the Underground Railroad in Vermont, holds a mirror up for us to see that, then as now, cowardice was the first cousin of hatred and courage the progeny of love.
If we want to make history, we must know history. On Sunday, March 19, at 2 p.m. the Woodstock History Center offers a wonderful opportunity for us to take a hard look at how the past can help shape the future.
Members of the Underground Railroad kept their identity hidden from their neighbors in order to protect themselves, as much as to protect the African refugees.
This article first appeared in the March 16, 2017 edition of the Vermont Standard.