Out & About

February 6, 2014

Chained in Vermont

FERRISBURGH, Vt. — Vermont has racked many firsts in the nation, including the abolition of slavery, but a University of Vermont history professor deconstructs that claim in a new book.

Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield’s “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont 1777-1810” uncovers 30 years of slavery in the Green Mountain State. That is the subject of his talk, “Did Vermont’s 1777 Constitution actually prohibit slavery?” Sunday afternoon at the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, Vt.

“I had published a fair amount about slavery in the free-black population of New England, the Maritimes and Canada,” said Whitfield, the author of “Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, 1815-1860.”

“I also wrote a lot about the Revolutionary War and how there was sort of a chance to start gradual emancipation in Vermont. I knew Vermont ended slavery in 1777. I wanted to see if slavery truly ended in 1777 and what happened.”

Despite Texas’s posturing, Vermont was the oldest and longest Republic when it abolished adult slavery.

“It only frees men over age 21 and women over age 18,” Whitfield said. “There’s a loophole for children to be enslaved.”

Whitfield searched the historical record at his institution, the Vermont State Archives, UVM, county courthouses, town-historian offices and 18th- and 19th-century newspapers.

 “What I figured out, slavery doesn’t end in 1777. It’s a much longer, contracted process over a space of 30 years,” he said. “People are consistently subverting or ignoring the law. The best examples of this in 1786 the legislature passed the Sale and Transportation Act. They pass a law outlawing people form re-enslaving and kidnapping black people and selling them outside of the state. They do it in every Northern state. It’s not just a Vermont problem. It’s going on everywhere.”

Whitfield was surprised to discover black people were still subject to slavery.

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