WOODSTOCK — Former Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy has a theory on why so many white people don’t understand the frustration and fury behind the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We Americans,” he says, “tell ourselves a much better story than we deserve.”
Amestoy, author of the state’s precedent-setting 1999 ruling granting marriage rights to same-sex couples, recently published his first book, “Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana Jr.,” the true tale of a 19th-century son of Boston high society who dropped out of Harvard, took to the sea (as chronicled in the classic 1840 memoir “Two Years Before the Mast”) and returned home to become a lawyer on behalf of sailors, slaves and eventually President Abraham Lincoln.
Most histories of the mid-1800s lead readers to believe Dana’s New England friends and neighbors were abolitionists. But the facts, Amestoy says, have been whitewashed: “The powers that be up to the Civil War were pro-slavery — that’s a simplest way of saying it, but it’s true.”
Amestoy is one of several prominent scholars who, speaking over the weekend at the Bookstock literary festival in Woodstock, argued that the North’s seemingly clear-cut past is more complicated — and contributing to present-day racial tensions.
“If we had a more honest accounting of American history,” said Amestoy, also a former Vermont attorney general, “we wouldn’t be so surprised today with African-American distrust of the legal system.”
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When publicists tell the story of the Green Mountain State, for example, they often note that before it was the first to adopt a bottle return law, abolish billboards and approve same-sex civil unions, it led the nation by outlawing slavery.
University of Vermont professor Harvey Amani Whitfield knows better. Yes, the state’s 1777 constitution was the only one to include an abolition provision before the end of the American Revolution, serving, he notes, as “an essential foundation for the end of slavery in Vermont” and “an important monument to the slow legislative strangling of slavery in the North.”
But Whitfield, scouring his university’s special collections in Burlington, the Vermont State Archives outside Montpelier and courthouses as far south as Bennington, has unearthed dozens of bills of sale, runaway notices, court documents, census records and other papers that prove many people of color remained in bondage — facing continued trafficking, exploitation and discrimination, often because of a lack of law enforcement — for nearly three decades more.
“This assertion may not fit easily into the popular notion of Vermont as the first region in North America to completely abolish slavery and offer rough equality for African Americans,” Whitfield writes in his book “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.” “In fact, the state is home not only to a rich abolitionist history, but also to the more troublesome story of slavery.”
The black population increased in the Green Mountains from about 25 in 1770 to 270 in 1790 and 870 in 1830. But the constitution granted freedom only to men older than 21 and women over 18, so children could lawfully remain slaves before being sold to residents in other states. In addition, such prominent residents as Vermont Supreme Court Judge Stephen Jacob and Ethan Allen’s brother Levi and, as late as 1835, daughter Lucy Caroline Hitchcock ignored the law and owned servants.
“People were buying and selling slaves in Vermont,” Whitfield told a Bookstock crowd. “It’s sad, but it’s true.”
And, for many, a surprise. As one audience member exclaimed: “I’m hearing that for the first time.”
Following Whitfield, fellow scholar Kenneth Mack brought the past into the present. Mack, a Harvard Law School classmate of President Barack Obama, now teaches at his alma mater. But racial challenges persist: Last fall, someone defaced portraits of Mack and other black professors with electrical tape.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” the educator said.
That’s one reason Mack has written “Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer,” a history of the pioneering African-Americans who first fought for equality.
“It is about a group of men and women who changed America,” he told a Woodstock audience. “The past is more complicated than we think it is, and it helps us understand the present is more complicated than we think it is. To see what I’m getting at, you’ve got to hear the stories.”
Richard Blanco, the poet at Obama’s 2013 inauguration and Bookstock’s keynote speaker, concurred. “The youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role,” as his biography says, he called for modern-day understanding and unity.
“People manipulate narrative for power,” Blanco said. “We’re told from birth we’re different, but there really are no borders.”