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Ram: Language As Destiny

Benjamin Barkley
The Lowcountry Digital History Initiative
In the 1920s, Samuel Williams worked for the Thomas family in this house in Windsor, where he and his daughter also lived.

Born into slavery in Charleston, South Carolina, Samuel Williams came to Vermont as a young man when the Civil War ended and lived in Springfield and Windsor, where he found a life of freedom and raised a family.

I’m a young woman of color who moved here from Los Angeles, fell in love with the place and also stayed, and Williams’ story meant a lot to me, so I spoke with his great-great-granddaughter, Erika Jimenez, who also thought his choice of Vermont was “intriguing.”

Williams wrote a memoir that might be one of the earliest written accounts of a former slave in Vermont. According to historian Dr. Susanna Ashton of Clemson University, he wrote that his neighbors made him pie, of which he could not get enough.

He also reflected that his children were able to attend good schools here. And in fact, his daughter and son-in-law became prominent turn-of-the-century Bostonians, while his grandson became one of the first black police officers in Port Chester, New York.

But Williams didn’t remain in Vermont until his final days. Also in his memoir, he complained about the bitter cold and specifically noted that he’d heard far more people use the “n word” here in his new home, than he ever had in the South.

I thought of that when I heard about a series of racist incidents that took place in Stowe this summer. A family camp for multiracial adopted children to connect and bond decided to hold their annual gathering here. But the children had racial epithets hurled at them during outings and they felt unfairly treated by hotel staff. So the group has announced that they won’t return to Vermont.

Those sensitive to current racial dynamics, particularly people of color, aren't really surprised by this. Hate speech may have worsened with the recent political climate, but it’s always been with us – even here in Vermont.

It makes me sad to think that people of color may still be denied the same freedom and peace other Vermonters enjoy. But perhaps if we all become more vigilant about understanding their experiences and affirming that they, too, belong, hate speech like that mentioned in Samuel Williams’ memoir truly will become a thing of the past.

Kesha Ram is a former state legislator and the interim director of the Center for Whole Communities in Burlington. She will study in the Master of Public Administration program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government this fall.
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