People & Places

Vermont set to honor the state and nation’s first known African American poet

Historians have yet to find an image of Lucy Terry Prince, the state and nation’s first known African American poet, spurring artist Louise Minks to create this portrait. A public remembrance of Prince will take place at the Sunderland Town Hall at 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 11. Provided photo

As a writer for such publications as Ms. Magazine, Vermonter Shanta Lee Gander promotes the work of fellow Black poets like inauguration sensation Amanda Gorman.

“Gorman’s ‘Black Daughter’s Pointillism’ offers palpable power on the page within the first line: ‘I’m a piece of work,’” Gander recently wrote.

But for all of Gander’s love for her contemporary peers, the Brattleboro resident is most passionate about one from two centuries ago: Lucy Terry Prince, who scholars deem the state and nation’s first known African American poet.

“Many continue to see Vermont as a primarily white state void of the depth of diversity that has too often been hidden within our history and communities,” Gander says. “The recognition of Prince is overdue.”

Prince, who lived from about 1730 to 1821, was abducted as a child by slave traders in her native Africa. Brought to New England, she met and married Abijah Prince, a formerly enslaved man who purchased her freedom. Together, they settled in the Vermont towns of Guilford and later Sunderland.

Lucy Terry Prince left no written record and only one known surviving poem, “Bars Fight,” which tells what she witnessed during a raid in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1746.

August ’twas the twenty fifth
Seventeen hundred forty six
The Indians did in ambush lay
Some very valiant men to slay …

The 28-line work was passed on by word of mouth for more than 100 years before its publication after Prince’s death. It has taken another century for scholars to rediscover the poet. That, in turn, had led the Vermont Legislature and Guilford and Sunderland selectboards to adopt resolutions calling for the remembrance of Prince and her husband this Sunday, July 11.

“It is time to match action with who we claim we want to be in the state,” Gander says, “to go beyond words and gestures and recognize all who came before us in ways that we have been blind to in all of our stories.”

Gander has found inspiration in the work of University of Massachusetts professor Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, a former Guilford resident who wrote the 2008 book “Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend.”

“How could I not love a woman who arrived in New England from Africa as a small enslaved child in the early 1700s and reputedly went on to argue successfully cases before the Vermont and U.S. Supreme Courts?” Gerzina begins her 256-page work.

Gerzina spent nearly a decade researching how Prince gained freedom and fought for her family’s rights upon facing harassment and property damage — even if, myth debunked, the poet didn’t argue her case before the highest court in the land.

“None of what we discovered over these long years takes anything away from the legend of Lucy Terry Prince,” the author concludes her book. “If anything, our findings make it stronger and more poignant, if sadder.”

Two centuries later, Gerzina is encouraging others to learn about Prince and her husband.

“Today it is very important that we remind ourselves that among the earliest Vermonters were a Black family,” she says.

Gander, for her part, is publicizing a public remembrance at the Sunderland Town Hall at 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 11 — exactly 200 years after Prince died in the community in 1821. She’s also preparing for the unveiling of a historic marker at the Vermont Welcome Center in Guilford sometime this fall.

“Just as Lucy Prince’s ‘Bars Fight’ bore witness,” Gander wrote in a recent essay, “we will now do our part.”

Kevin O'Connor

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