Vermont Blazes a New African American Heritage Trail

by Catherine Brooks

Vermont history is defined by its people: Native occupation dating back 10,000 years, pivotal Revolutionary War events, crucial Civil War support, U.S. presidents, senators and leaders whose work contributed to the foundation of our country. While a large part of Vermont’s role in our culture is widely known, it is the Green Mountain State’s place in African American history that is not as familiar to many.
In order to provide a window into African Americans’ role in shaping the destiny of Vermont and Vermonters, the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing launched the Vermont African American Heritage Trail. Along the trail, visitors will be able to tour destinations and experience exhibits that speak to Vermont’s place in African American history.

Executive Director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity Curtiss Reed, who played a key part in the development of this trail, noted that census records indicate that Vermont’s African American population has always been a fraction of the overall population. However, as Reed observes, “The history is here. African Americans fought alongside Ethan Allen as members of the Green Mountain Boys who brought Vermont to independence in 1777. And by 1810 we see that Vermont welcomed African Americans to establish roots in this rocky soil as evidenced by enclaves of early black settlers in Hinesburg, Guilford and Grafton.” Reed, a Brattleboro resident whose knowledge and enthusiasm was a catalyst for establishing the Vermont African American Heritage Trail, adds, “It is exciting that this history will be available to Vermont’s many visitors.”

Follow the trail to select museums and historical sites that retell the stories of the people, places and stories that populate three centuries of American and African American history in Vermont.

Old Constitution House, Windsor

Vermonters penned the first constitution in America prohibiting slavery. The year was 1777, just one year after the American Revolution, and the place was a roadside tavern in Windsor. Preserved for visitors, today it is the Old Constitution House State Historic Site.

Rokeby Museum, a National Historic Landmark and Underground Railroad site, is described as “unrivaled” by the National Park Service. The home and farm of Quaker abolitionists, a new exhibit tells the true stories of fugitives from slavery who were sheltered there in the 1830s. Tours of the home in which this history was created are also available.

Old Stone House Museum includes a number of historic buildings in this small Northeast Kingdom village. One of them, “Athenian Hall,” was the stately Brownington Academy dormitory built in 1834 by Alexander Twilight, the nation’s first African American to graduate from college. This and related exhibits speak to the accomplishments of Reverend Twilight, including his work as an educator, minister and the first African American elected to serve in the Vermont Legislature.

Brandon Museum and Visitor Center is located in the historic birthplace of Stephen A. Douglas, who is known today primarily for the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1860. Exhibits include a counterpoint to Douglas’ pro-slavery stance with fascinating documentation of the development of abolitionist societies in Brandon.

Historically black colleges and universities owe their existence to Senator Justin Smith Morrill and his 1862 Land Grant College Act and its companion legislation, the Land Grant College Act of 1890. Visitors to the Justin Morrill Homestead State Historic Site will experience Morrill’s passion for learning that he extended to all through his legislative work.

Hildene, The Lincoln Family Home, welcomes visitors to the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln. Lincoln served as president and CEO of the Pullman Car Company. A compelling new exhibit explores the layers of history leading to the organization of the first black labor union in 1925 and the rise of the African American middle class.

Vermont and the Civil War Visitors Guide

In a related piece, visitors may explore 46 Vermont locations that offer compelling stories of Vermont’s support of the Union cause. Visit New England’s best documented stop on the Underground Railroad, the factory where the gun milling machines that armed the nation were produced, and the resort where Mary Lincoln and her children summered in 1864. Experience the fervor of abolitionists, the bravery and dedication of Vermont’s soldiers, and the drama of the northern-most land action of the Civil War. Get a guide and learn more at the website celebrating Vermont’s role in the Civil War (

Visitors will learn about one of Vermont’s most intriguing residents, Daisy Turner, at the Grafton Historical Society. Turner was born in 1883 to former slaves Alexander and Sally Turner at their home in this small village. She lived 104 years and told riveting stories that traced the family history from Africa to their journey out of slavery and into the 20th century.

Middlebury includes two noteworthy sites. Listen to Daisy Turner talk about her family’s saga at the Vermont Folklife Center, and visit Middlebury College, the first American college to award a degree to an African American, Alexander Twilight.

The African American Heritage Trail Map is available for download or by request at the website of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.