How did Vermont profit from slavery?
Question-asker Peter Langella wanted to better understand how Vermont profited from slavery. So Brave Little State dives into the history, and explores how the legacy of slavery is still reverberating in Vermont today.
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“Everybody grows up with people telling them that Vermont outlawed slavery, but Vermont has never abolished slavery to this day."— Historian Elise Guyette
"She had two slaves. Like, openly was owning two slaves in Burlington. And had them for many years.”— Historian Harvey Amani Whitfield, speaking of Ethan Allen's daughter, Lucy Caroline Hitchcock
Perched on a hill, down the street from the library in Windsor, is a big yellow house. These days, it looks a little worse for wear. When it was built, though, in the 1780s, it was a grand mansion for a well-to-do lawyer named Stephen Jacob.
This guy was a big deal. He served in just about every political position you can think of: legislator, selectman, lister, justice of the peace, moderator, county judge. He fought in the Revolutionary War and helped mete out the boundary between New York and Vermont. George Washington appointed him as a federal attorney. Later, he sat on the state Supreme Court.
Jacob married, and had six kids. But he and his family were not the only people living in that big house. There was also a woman named Dinah.
Only Dinah didn’t choose to live in Windsor. Jacob purchased her when she was about 30 years old. That was in 1783. By that time, adult slavery was illegal in Vermont, thanks to the 1777 state constitution. The fact that Jacob was a slaveholder, though? It wasn't a secret.
“Everyone knows Jacob owned Dinah,” historian Harvey Amani Whitfield told an audience at a Burlington bookstore in 2014. “If you lived in Windsor between 1785 and 1800, you know that he had a slave. And he’s a respectable guy. Everybody knows who Jacob was. You couldn’t move to Windsor and not know him.”
Whitfield is a professor at the University of Calgary and he spent years tracking down evidence of slavery in Vermont. He wrote a whole book on it.
What happened to Dinah ends up being well known because there was a court case about her. It’s not a heartwarming story.
“This is not a court case of, ‘It’s wrong that he owned a slave,’” Whitfield said. “It’s about money. It’s about cost.”
Here’s what happened: Jacob allegedly kicked Dinah out of the house after almost 20 years. She’d gone blind and became too sick to work for him. Other folks in town ended up taking care of her, and the town sued Jacob because they wanted to be reimbursed for Dinah’s care.
The kicker here is that the court threw out the case. In 1802, the judges said Stephen Jacob cannot be responsible for the expenses of caring for Dinah because "no inhabitant of this State can hold a slave." Basically, they reasoned, because slavery does not exist in Vermont.
Except, it did.
What slavery looked like in Vermont
Dozens, if not hundreds, of powerful white families enslaved Black people in Vermont through the mid-1800s, sold them out of state or had servants and laborers who were slaves in all but name. (Historical records from the time often don’t name slavery for what it was.)
There are some pretty famous Vermonters on that list: The settlers of Sheldon and Townshend were almost certainly slaveholders. Ethan Allen had two Black “servants” who worked on his farm. It’s not clear if they were enslaved or not, but he did use slave labor in Connecticut.
It is clear that Ethan Allen’s daughter, Lucy Caroline Hitchcock was a slaveholder.
After living in Alabama, “she came back up to Burlington in the 1830s, and she had two slaves,” said Whitfield. “Like, openly was owning two slaves in Burlington. And had them for many years.”
The two people Hitchcock enslaved were Lavinia and Francis Parker — a mother and her 12-year-old son. It wasn’t until six years after they moved to Burlington that Lavinia Parker’s husband was able to pay for his family’s freedom.
Despite all this, it’s not like all Black people in early Vermont were enslaved — most were free. Even if they had to claim freedom for themselves.
Like a man named Pompey Brakkee. In 1779, he sued the person who held him as a slave, and the court sided in Brakkee’s favor.
“So they award Pompey Brakkee 412 pounds,” Whitfield said. “That’s like an astronomical amount of money to give to a former slave — that’s a lot of money to give to anybody.”
Four hundred and twelve pounds would be about $90,000 today.
So as a Black person in early Vermont, you might have access to certain freedoms not found in many other states: you could legally take a white person to court, own property, vote, even run for office. But the reality was not so straightforward.
“At the very same time, if you were a Black person you might see your son or daughter kidnapped and sold outside of the state,” Whitfield said. “You yourself could be kidnapped and re-enslaved. You yourself could still be a slave despite the 1777 constitution. So you have all these different things going on in one place.”
The other thing to know about this time in Vermont is that the economic impact of slavery was everywhere. That’s what our episode is about today. Specifically, how Vermont institutions and municipalities profited from slavery and sharecropping.
It comes from a question posed by Peter Langella, of Moretown:
"Vermont abolished slavery at its founding, but how did we benefit from it — and its after-effects like sharecropping — by way of goods and services?"
Langella is a school librarian and an adjunct professor at Northern Vermont University and the University of Vermont. His question comes from his experience growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire, and what he was taught about his hometown.
“At one time in the 19th and going into the early 20th century, Manchester had the largest set of textile mills in the entire world,” Langella said. “The textile that was being brought in there to be turned into products was cotton.”
“So we were taught all these things,” Langella told me. “We were never taught where cotton came from.”
He thought maybe Vermont has a similar story — former mill towns manufacturing cotton picked by enslaved people, then sharecroppers, or something like it.
The loopholes in the Constitution
Langella submitted his question in 2020. That was before a big political campaign in Vermontgained steam. It’s called Prop 2, and it would amend what the state Constitution says about slavery and indentured servitude.
Because, it turns out, our Constitution did not fully abolish slavery back in 1777. And those loopholes are still on the books.
“Basically the Constitution said that people ought not to enslave people after the age of 21 for men and women,” historian Elise Guyette explained. “It was 18 for women, but then a few years later they changed it to 21 for both. So up until your age of majority, you could be enslaved in this state.”
Guyette is also an author and educator who has studied Black history in Vermont for decades.
“Everybody grows up with people telling them that Vermont outlawed slavery, but Vermont has never abolished slavery to this day,” she said. “Maybe they will in November.”
Vermont lawmakers recently passed new language that would amend our Constition to prohibit slavery and indentured servitude in any form. Vermonters will be able to vote on whether to ratify the amendment on Election Day.
Guyette says when the Constitution was written, this language was not just semantics. We can see evidence of child slavery in census records through the 1800s.
“There were some pretty young kids who were the only Black person in the household, so were obviously serving the white household,” she said. In the 1840 census, for example, there are dozens of kids working in white households, some as young as seven or eight. They’re labeled as “servants” in the census.
The economic impact of slavery
In other ways, though, slavery, and later sharecropping and convict leasing, had a lot of economic benefits — because it produced all these cheap goods.
“It’s a weird thing because everyone benefits from it,” Jared Hardesty said. He’s a history professor at Western Washington University where he studies labor and slavery in colonial America.
“Some benefit significantly more, but everyone benefits from it. And that’s free Black people, white people — everyone benefits because it does create economic growth.”
Hardesty thinks if you went up to most white people in Vermont, and across New England, in the early 1800s and asked, “Are you opposed to slavery?” they’d probably say, "Yes."
“They're not abolitionists,” he said. “They certainly don't believe in racial equality. But they do see slavery as sort of anathema to living in a republic.”
But, if you asked whether they’re willing to give up their cheap cotton clothing or rice to oppose slavery, they’d probably hesitate.
“If they have to give up coffee, if you have to give up sugar, then you're going to start seeing a wider range and more kind of complicated answer to that question,” Hardesty told me.
It’s not just goods directly produced by slave labor, and later sharecropping, that are cheaper. Foreign imports and other American-made products are, too. Farming tools are a good example — things like shovels and pick-axes.
“Think of the Ames Tool Company, based out of Boston,” Hardesty said. “The reason that Ames is able to make enough money to mass produce tools is that they have a guaranteed market in the South.”
That Southern market allowed Ames to “massively ... subsidize their production,” Hardesty explained, “which means then, say, farmers in Vermont can also buy those cheap tools.”
Slavery also benefited Vermonters who were selling goods. Farmers raising livestock or growing crops might sell their wares to markets in Boston. From there, those goods might be exported to the South or the West Indies. “And who's it feeding once it gets there?" Hardesty said. "It's feeding enslaved peoples.”
There was another product coming out of Vermont in the 1800s and early 1900s that profited from slavery, and later sharecropping: Cotton cloth.
Just like in other parts of New England, textile mills sprang up all around Vermont in places like Bennington, North Pownal and Brattleboro by the early 1900s.
“There were tons of these little mills everywhere,” said Miriam Block, the director at the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum. While the museum is housed in a building that historically produced wool products, just across the Winooski River, the Chace Mill manufactured cotton.
Along the railroad in Burlington was another factory called the Queen City Cotton Mill. It was a major employer, with more than 600 workers at its peak. They offered child care and housing in factory-built homes in the Lakeside neighborhood of Burlington’s South End.
Elsewhere in Vermont, cotton mills were part of the landscape since the early 1800s. Block read from a book of old drawings of mill machinery: “The looms made the Middlebury cotton mill the largest in the state. The 1820 census listed 11 manufacturers of cotton yarn and or cloth in Vermont.”
The Vermont State Prison also had over 50 power looms at the time.
Block and another Vermont historian named Erica Donnis told me it’s possible some of these mills produced something called “Negro cloth” — fabric used to clothe enslaved people. But we don’t have direct evidence of that here in Vermont.
For all these mills, though, it’s more than likely the cotton was grown by slave labor before the Civil War, and sharecroppers after. Cheap labor that created cheap raw goods and generated more profits for factories.
The legacy of slavery today
We also have evidence of Vermont institutions and municipalities that benefited from the exploitation of Black people that are still around today.
Like the town of Castleton. The story of how it was settled goes something like this: Two white men arrived in the area in the late 1760s, “attended” by a Black man, most likely a slave. They cleared land, built a cabin and felled trees. One of the white men left before winter to go back to his home in Connecticut. The two who stayed in Vermont had a hard time. Their guns broke, they couldn’t fish because the river froze, they had to chase down deer on snowshoes. The Black man’s feet were badly frostbitten.
That was the start of the town as we know it. A few years later, a group of white families arrived to live there for good, thanks in part to a Black man’s labor and suffering.
Or take the Shelburne Museum. It was started by Electra Havemeyer Webb. She grew up in New York City, surrounded by fine art. Her father was a major player in the sugar refining industry. He founded what later became known as Domino Sugar.
Elise Guyette, the Vermont historian, brought this up. “So you can look at direct money from the backs of enslaved people coming from the Caribbean up to Vermont through the Havemeyer Webb family,” she said.
It’s something the museum has been open about in recent years.
They have a section on their website that “acknowledges the complex and controversial history of the capital” of its founder, which “ultimately provided the resources … that were central to the origin of Shelburne Museum.”
Another example is the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh. It’s a historic farm of the Robinson family, best known for their involvement in the Underground Railroad.
“It's interesting to note that they came from Rhode Island and that family enslaved large numbers of people in Rhode Island,” said Guyette, who is also on Rokeby’s board. “So, even that family of abolitionists, the money to buy the farm came from enslaved peoples.”
Better understanding the origin of the family’s wealth is something the museum is looking into right now.
But you don’t have to go so far back in history for examples of how folks in Vermont have profited from slavery and its after-effects.
Just a few weeks ago, there were these items for sale at a gun show at the Vermont State Fairgrounds in Rutland. Mia Schultz first learned about what was going on from a photo.
“A person who was at the gun show saw them, took a picture,” she told me. “And then it found its way to me.”
Schultz is the director of the Rutland NAACP. She saw this photo in August. It shows a clear plastic bin filled with shackles and keys. In gold lettering, labels on the metal read things like “Negro Woman or Child Only” and “Property of Georgetown County Plantation Police.”
We don’t know if these things are authentic or not, but it doesn’t matter. Some vendor was selling these shackles as souvenirs of slavery in the Antebellum South.
Right now, selling this racist paraphernalia is technically legal at the Fairgrounds, according to the Vermont State Fair.
That’s something Schultz is trying to change. She sent out a letter, on behalf of the Rutland NAACP, to the Vermont State Fair, which rents out the fairgrounds, calling on them to prohibit the sale of racist objects on their property.
“To make sure that it explicitly says we are not going to stand for this type of sale of problematic racist, hateful, hateful, ephemera, collectibles, whatever you want to call it,” she said. “We're not going to do that here.”
The letter reads: “It is important to learn about and recognize the horrors of the legacy of slavery, and so we must not perpetuate profiting from the relics.”
It’s not the first time something like this has happened.
In 2018, the Rutland NAACP sent a similar letter to the very same group, the Vermont State Fair. That was after vendors sold Confederate flags at the fairgrounds.
Those same kinds of flags surround Schultz’s neighborhood today.
“There are four Confederate flags hanging off the houses within a square mile of me,” Schultz said. “We are in the North. There is no pride to Confederate flags inherently connected to the Northern states.”
Those flags send a clear message: “To display hatred towards a group of people, or to display hate," Schultz said. "It's not pride. That's a fallacy.”
Schultz’s letter from this summer goes on to say, “One of the ways that we can move forward as a nation, a state, and a city is to ensure that we are intentional about where the history of hate is displayed.”
In a public statement shared with Brave Little State, the Vermont State Fair said they’ve been leasing the space to the gun show “for over ten years without incident,” and will be updating their leasing contracts to include “non-discriminatory language.”
The gun show hasn't responded to requests for comment, and the Vermont State Fair has yet to respond to Schultz.
Meanwhile, in the city of Burlington, there’s a whole task force asking the same thing as our question-asker, Peter Langella, about how Vermont profited from slavery.
“I think there is tremendous value in understanding what Burlington's historical relationship with the institution of slavery is,” said Pablo Bose, a geography professor at the University of Vermont. “I think there’s real value in us really entangling some of those complicated legacies.”
Bose is a member of the Burlington Reparations Task Force.
The group was set up by Burlington City Council in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd. Their task is to research how Burlington might have profited from slavery, and what the city can do for the descendants of enslaved people. That’s as a way to address the harm the city caused.
Right now, the task force is mostly done with their historical research. The reparations piece, though, is a different story.
“We haven't looked at what reparations look like, we haven't looked at what reparations might be for a city like Burlington,” Bose said.
As of now, there’s no timeline for when they might introduce proposals.
These days, in front of Stephen Jacob’s old house in Windsor is a new green plaque. It went up this summer, to remember Dinah, the woman he enslaved here for 17 years.
It’s one of the Vermont Roadside Historic Markers. And, if this is an example of what progress looks like, it’s a little unsatisfying.
Here are the last few lines of the marker: “Although Dinah died in poverty, she was identified in a published obituary as ‘a woman of color.’ The location of her grave is unknown.”
We know next to nothing about the first 30 years of Dinah’s life. What we know of her time in Vermont is about the hardships she faced. According to the marker, the small dignity Dinah receives comes in death, when she’s referred to by her name and as “a woman of color,” not as "Stephen Jacob's slave."
The marker doesn’t mention that there was another Black person living in Stephen Jacob’s house. We can see that from census records, but we know nothing about who they were.
There are many ways to think about how a place like Windsor profited from the enslavement of people like Dinah. You can look at the racial wealth gap — all the money and assets that white people have compared to Black people in the U.S. It’s about 10 to 1.
Or, you can walk a hundred feet from the house where Dinah lived, and turn onto a road called “Jacob Street.”
- The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, Harvey Amani Whitfield
- The Blind African Slave, Or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace, Jeffrey Brace as told to Benjamin F. Prentiss, Edited and with an introduction by Kari J. Winter
- Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, by Christy Clark-Pujara
- From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, William A. Darity Jr., A. Kirsten Mullen
- "Eat the Rich," Invisibilia
Lexi Krupp reported this episode. Mix and sound design by Myra Flynn, with editing and additional production from Angela Evancie, Josh Crane and Mae Nagusky. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Kari Winter, Stephanie Seguino, Lindsay Varner, Erica Donnis, Rebecca Zietlow and Thomas Denenberg.
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