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Campaign wants Vermont anti-slavery amendment at forefront of 2022 elections

A group of people standing outside a brick church with a banner that says 'Vermont Interfaith Action' above them.
Peter Hirschfeld
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Vermont Public
Rev. Mark Hughes, at the podium, with the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, and Debbie Ingram, at his left in the foreground, with Vermont Interfaith Action, say the vote on Proposal 2 is about far more than changing language in the Vermont Constitution.

This November, voters will weigh in on a proposed amendment to Vermont’s Constitution that would prohibit slavery and indentured servitude in all forms in Vermont.

But advocates say the campaign for Proposal 2, as the measure is known, is about far more than getting Vermonters to fill out an oval on their ballots.

Most residents of the state have probably heard at some point in their lives that Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery. In fact, Vermont's Constitution, first written in 1777, actually contains language that allows for slavery or indentured servitude under certain circumstances.

A screenshot of the Vermont Constitution, of Article 1, reading: Article 1. [All persons born free; their natural rights; slavery prohibited]
That all persons are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety; therefore no person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person as a servant, slave or apprentice, after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person's own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.
Screenshot
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Vermont General Assembly
The Vermont Constitution technically still allows slavery under certain circumstances. Proposal 2 wants to change that.

Two organizations — the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and Vermont Interfaith Action — launched a campaign earlier this summer to get out the vote for an amendment that would strip those so-called “exception clauses” from the state’s founding document.

Rev. Mark Hughes, executive director of the VRJA, said the goal is to put Prop 2 at the forefront of the elections conversation this cycle.

“The truth about this campaign is that it’s very complicated,” Hughes said. “The work that we’re doing here, 30 seconds doesn’t do it justice.”

Last month, at the campaign launch, volunteers laid out colorful campaign swag on a long folding table near Church Street. They handed out Prop 2 stickers, lawn signs, and t-shirts with the word “Abolitionist” printed on the back.

“The truth is that no, Vermont was not the first state to abolish slavery."
Rev. Mark Hughes, Vermont Racial Justice Alliance

Debbie Ingram, executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action, a multi-denominational social justice organization, told supporters that November’s vote isn’t just about changing the language in the state’s founding document.

“For us, it is a process to understand that our society will never live up to its potential until we grapple with the legacy of slavery and its manifestation as systemic racism today,” she said.

Hughes said getting people to vote "yes" on Prop 2 is the easy part. The heavier lift, he said, is explaining the state’s complicated history with slavery, and how its legacy persists.

“The vast majority of Vermonters will run to the ballot anxious to fill that little oval in so we can move on and stop talking about this, without really understanding the connection and the truth,” Hughes said.

Contrary to popular belief, Vermont’s Constitution didn’t entirely prohibit slavery. Article I of the document contains three exception clauses. One allows for people under 21 to be bound by indentured servitude. Another allows people to be enslaved for nonpayment of debts.

More from Vermont Edition: The History Of Slavery In Vermont, Across New England

Hughes himself wasn’t aware of those clauses until he began researching the issue in 2015.

“It was kind of crazy, coming to that knowledge and nobody around really wanting to embrace that, or even understand that,” he said.

Hughes suspects the existence of the exception clauses will be news to many of the Vermonters being asked to vote on Proposal 2.

“The truth is that no, Vermont was not the first state to abolish slavery," he said. "Now, this is not a time for [people] to get upset. This is not a time for listeners to feel ashamed."

Instead, Hughes said, he’s hoping people will be “delighted.”

“I’m always delighted when I learn something new, especially when it’s actionable,” he said.

People standing over two folding tables covered with campaign paraphernalia.
Peter Hirschfeld
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Vermont Public
Volunteers handed out literature, lawn signs and t-shirts at a campaign launch for Proposal 2 in June.

Hughes said the action the campaign for Prop 2 hopes to inspire will require some work on voters’ parts. That’s because it takes time and mental energy, he said, to understand the connection between slavery and modern-day racial disparities in income, wealth, homeownership, incarceration rates and health outcomes.

“Our hope is … to be able to share with people across the state the truth about what we’re doing," he said. "Then it makes sense — ‘Oh, you want to create a policy for health equity? Of course you want to create a policy for health equity. Why? Because there’s no health equity.'"

Caroline Kisiel, an associate professor at DePaul University who’s studied the history of exception clauses in Illinois and other northern states, said she’s watched her students grapple with the same kind of reckoning Hughes wants to provoke in Vermont.

“That’s usually the first hurdle that my students have to get over, which is, ‘Wait, wait, what? We’re a northern state. How is it that I grew up here and didn’t know there was slavery and indentured servitude in this state?’” Kisiel said.

Many northern states used exception clauses, she says, as a way to distance themselves from the indignation of slavery while availing themselves of its economic benefits.

“And the North, well, we abolished slavery, so … we don’t have that kind of stain if we’re from the North," she said. "But I think history is a lot more complex than that."

“And the North, well, we abolished slavery, so … we don’t have that kind of stain if we’re from the North. But I think history is a lot more complex than that."
Caroline Kisiel, DePaul University

More than 20 states have constitutions with exception clauses. In the last four years, three states — Colorado, Nebraska and Utah — have approved constitutional amendments to remove them.

Karla Kelley, a single mom from South Burlington, hopes Vermont will join them.

“We saw the problem, we’ve been dealing with the problem for years, now we got to be part of the solution, not patch it up and put a Band-Aid on it,” Kelley said.

Kelley doesn’t hold white Vermonters accountable for the sins of the nation’s past. She is hoping they’ll work harder to understand how those sins continue to affect Black people and other people of color today.

“If you’re not too sure, if you’re conflicting, read on it," Kelley said. "Take a day, take an hour out of your day, cancel all the noise, social media, and just read it. And just don’t push it aside — 'Oh, they’re still complaining about that?' It’s not a matter of still complaining, just read it, and be a part of that change.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:

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Corrected: July 21, 2022 at 9:31 AM EDT
The original version of this story misstated the year in which the Vermont Constitution was first drafted.
The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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