This Juneteenth, a Brownington museum will share Civil War stories from marginalized people
Monday marks Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day the last enslaved people in the U.S. — in the state of Texas — learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, and with that news, that they had been freed. This is the third year since Juneteenth became a national holiday and the sixteenth since Vermont recognized it as a state holiday.
In Brownington, the Old Stone House Museum celebrates Juneteenth this year by opening the new exhibit, “A Call to Serve: Vermont and Unexpected Voices from the Civil War.” It seeks to inform a fuller narrative of the contributions Vermonters made during the war between the states.
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Spencer Kuchle, associate director of collections and interpretations of the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
With Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday in 2021, many people had never heard of the celebration marking the end of slavery. The holiday is a reminder that some stories get confined to the lower shelves of history and are left out of the narrative of our nation.Spencer Kuchle
Mitch Wertlieb: What is it about this new exhibit that folks should be excited about? What do you think this brings to the table?
Spencer Kuchle: “Call to Serve” features a unique set of artifacts at the Old Stone House Museum and Historic Village that showcase the contributions of Vermonters to the Union victory in the Civil War. In the process it amplifies diverse, unexpected voices, including those of African Americans, Native Americans, Canadians and women who helped preserve the nation through their sacrifices during America's deadliest conflict. So, I think it highlights those unique stories, and often unheard stories, as well as represents local Vermonters and tells their stories and connects it with the broader context of the Civil War and what was going on at the time.
As you say, if a lot of these stories were unheard, what did it take to get this exhibit together? How did you collect some of the stories that folks may not have been aware of before?
It was really just a lot of book research, reaching out to people, looking at different stuff in our collection from local Vermonters, but also just like I said, trying to add diverse perspectives. So, my background is in African American Studies, and so, really trying to add the perspective of African American soldiers — but [I] also was interested in telling those stories of groups that might not be mentioned a lot, like Canadian soldiers who came over and fought or enlisted in Vermont, and also women and their role in the Civil War. And then also, women who enlisted as men and unique stories about that.
So they actually enlisted and disguised themselves and did fight in the war?
Yeah, and one of the stories that I like to highlight with the Buffalo Soldiers was a woman named Cathay Williams, who did exactly that. She was the only known woman to serve as a Buffalo Soldier — [the only] African American woman to serve. And she enlisted as William Cathay and was in the service for a number of years and wasn't discovered until she had a medical emergency, and was found out not to be a man.
Wow, that's amazing. When you visit the Old Stone House Museum, of course, Alexander Twilight is such a big focus… the first African American to serve in a state legislature and believed to be the first to graduate from a U.S. college — Middlebury — a prominent figure. So I'm wondering how this decision was made to create this exhibit, placing more of a spotlight on the Civil War and Vermonters who took part in it. Is there a link that you see with the Twilight legacy here?
The exhibit came about from just having a collection of Civil War artifacts, and we haven't done a Civil War exhibit since 1994. And so we thought it was a good time to do it, and Juneteenth seems like the perfect time to do it. With Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday in 2021, many people had never heard of the celebration marking the end of slavery. The holiday is a reminder that some stories get confined to the lower shelves of history and are left out of the narrative of our nation. So, this exhibit involves an effort to include the voices of those whose stories have been traditionally overlooked. Not to rewrite the history, but to expand our understanding of it… from a diverse perspective.
I think, as a museum that talks about and really forefronts Alexander Twilight and his unique story… being the first African American to graduate from a United States college or university and the first African American state legislator, it really fits in with those unique stories and the education that Twilight would have wanted to tell… really diverse education. Trying to ground the Twilight story and those other unique stories and start to talk more about diverse perspectives and expanding the stories that we tell at the museum.
Are there any special or extraordinary artifacts that you came across when researching and curating this exhibit that folks might find really interesting?
I really particularly like the photo albums. So, there's a photo album that we have of Amasa Bartlett, it was his Civil War photo album. He has a bunch of soldiers that he served with in the 9th Vermont Infantry, and just looking at their photos and seeing the backdrops that they use to take the photos and different poses that they did really is intriguing to me, and I think that's a fun thing to flip through. And I will have a scanned photo album that people can flip through and look at the different names and pictures of the soldiers.
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