Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Reporter Debrief: Meet Stephen Bates, Vt.'s First Black Sheriff In Vergennes

sheriff badge on dark background
Stephen Bates, who was at one time an enslaved person, was elected to serve as sheriff in Vergennes.

Last summer, Brian Peete made history when he took over as police chief for Montpelier, making him the first Black police chief to serve in Vermont. But more than 140 years ago, the city of Vergennes elected a Black man, Stephen Bates, as their sheriff — and kept reelecting him.

A group of Vergennes residents and some of Bates' descendants have researched his time in the city. Now, they hope to create a historical marker to honor him. Bates' life and the ongoing efforts to mark his impact in Vermont were profiled earlier this month by The Burlington Free Press.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Burlington Free Press reporter Liz Murray, the author of the piece. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So, Stephen Bates was born into slavery in Virginia. Can you tell us more about him and how he ended up living in Vergennes?

Liz Murray: Yeah, so he was born into slavery in Virginia, like you said. Basically, during that time, if the Union Army got close enough, slaves would basically skip the line and join up with the Union Army, and escape from their plantations. So that's what he did. He joined up with the Union Army when they got close enough to Shirley Plantation, and after the war, went to Washington, D.C. and met a congressman from Vergennes and followed him back up into the state.

And do we know how he then ended up deciding to run for sheriff?

We don't actually, and we don't know a lot about how he met the congressman either. There are some holes in his account, as there are in many historical things that you go back and try to piece together, and that's one of the holes. We don't really know why he ran for sheriff, but we do know that when he did run for sheriff, the congressman also ran for mayor and they were elected together.

And so now there's this group of people, as you mentioned, who are researching Bates' life, including some of his descendants, who live in central Massachusetts. What got them interested in finding out more about his life in Vergennes?

This actually started a couple of years ago when a Clark University professor reached out to Stephen Bates' descendants in central Massachusetts. They had found a trove of old photographs from the early 20th century in central Mass. Through the professor's research, she found out that the Schuyler brothers, the descendants of Stephen Bates, were connected to this sheriff up in Vergennes, Vt.

More From VPR: 'A Level Of Implicit Bias': UVM Study Shows Black, Hispanic Drivers More Likely To Be Policed

And so that kind of sparked one of the brothers’ interest, Larry Schuyler, to go and kind of track down his roots. He visited a church in Vergennes where his great grandfather had been a communicant. The person that he connected with ended up writing a blog post, and now, a couple of years later, when Brian Peete became [police] chief in Montpelier, this effort kind of picked back up again and they decided to make the goal of having a historic marker commemorate Steven Bates' time in Vergennes.

And what more do we know about his time as sheriff? Obviously, Vermont was a predominantly white state in the late 1800s, as it still is. And we know that Bates was continually reelected, but do we know if he faced any prejudice in the Vergennes community during his time here?

From everything that the group has found he was very well known and very well liked. The only question was his house burned down at one point and it wasn't clear whether that was due to prejudice or if it was an accident. But the community basically rallied around him and raised a bunch of money for him so that he could continue having a good living.

More from Brave Little State: Remembering Vermont's 19th Century Black Communities

Elections were annual back then for the sheriff, and he was reelected 23 times and two other times when other sheriffs stepped down, he was asked to take that position. So he spent 25 years as the sheriff and actually died when he was still in that position. So from most accounts, it seems like he was really beloved by the community.

Outside of being sheriff, he did a lot of odd jobs around town. He was a coachman. He was a security guard. So, he was pretty busy.

And finally, Liz, as you mentioned in your story, and as you mentioned earlier, this group that's been researching Stephen Bates wants a historical marker. Where do those efforts stand right now?

So, they are still in the process of drafting their application for the historic marker, as far as I know. And they're hoping to send that in soon and obtain that marker.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways toget in touch here.

Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Latest Stories