People & Places

Historic marker in Windsor to honor woman enslaved by Supreme Court justice

James Haaf of Windsor, who has researched the lives of Dinah Mason and Stephen Jacob, her enslaver, believes she may be buried in this paupers' section of the Old South Church Cemetery in Windsor, not far from the graves of Jacob and his family. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

Editor’s note: This story by Liz Sauchelli was published by the Valley News on June 14.

WINDSOR — A historic marker honoring Dinah, a woman who was enslaved by a Vermont Supreme Court justice after slavery was banned by the state constitution, will be placed Saturday morning in Windsor.

The historic marker is a long time coming as Windsor continues to grapple with the legacy of Dinah, and Stephen Jacob, the judge who enslaved her in his Windsor home that sits on a street now named after him. In 1802, after Jacob cast Dinah from his home, the town of Windsor sued him in the Supreme Court for the cost of caring for her. The case was dismissed on the basis that because slavery was illegal in Vermont, Dinah could not have been enslaved.

“I think it’s incredibly important that the marker refer to Dinah as Dinah and not with her enslaver’s last name,” said Amanda Smith, a former Windsor Selectboard member who served on a committee that drafted the language of the marker. “And because she was buried in an unknown location without a permanent gravemarker, this roadside historic marker also functions as a memorial for her and recognition of her, her existence, her story, her humanity.”

The marker, which was approved by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, will be put up during a ceremony at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. It will be placed on a strip of grass between the sidewalk and roadway of Jacob Street, in front of the home where Dinah lived when she was enslaved.

When a committee including Smith began working on the language for the marker honoring Dinah last year, the biggest challenge proved to be conciseness — they had to tell Dinah’s story in only 1,500 characters.

The group focused on the significance of the court case, how Dinah was cast out by Jacob when she was no longer of use to him and the hardships she faced in her life, including being assaulted by a deacon’s son. It ends with mentioning Dinah’s death notice, published in a local newspaper, that identified her as “a woman of color.”

Judy Hayward, executive director of Historic Windsor, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Windsor's past and educating people about the town's history, noted that the death notice does not mention Jacob.

“It seems like in her death there was a strong acknowledgment of her humanity,” Hayward said. “She stood alone in that death notice as a woman of color, and I think that’s very powerful.”

Dinah’s marker joins two other historic markers that will be installed this year that honor African Americans in Vermont, said Laura Treschmann, state historic preservation officer. Another will mark the location of the Pate-King House in Burlington, which was run by Cleta Harrison King Pate and her husband. The hotel on Archibald Street was in the Green Book, which told African Americans which places were safe for them to stay while they traveled throughout the United States. Another marker will be put up in Georgia to honor Jeffrey Brace, an African American Revolutionary War veteran who wrote a book about his life titled The Blind African Slave or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nick-Named Jeffrey Brace. Those three markers will bring the number of historic markers in Vermont representing African Americans to 29.

“There are not enough of them and we are working to rectify that,” Treschmann said. Vermont has 292 historic markers total in Vermont, according to a list kept by the state.

Each year, the Roadside Historic Site Marker program receives $25,000 from the state to commission new markers and restore older ones. Around 10 new markers are installed each year and eight to 10 are restored.

“We’ve also been wordsmithing to make sure there’s appropriate representation,” Treschmann said, offering the example of some older markers erected in the 1940s and 1950s that refer to European communities as a spot’s first settlers without acknowledging Native Americans who were there long before. “We’re going back and correcting language and being inclusive.”

The marker for Missisquoi Village and Mission in Swanton is being updated. A marker for the site of French Fort Saint Anne at Isle La Motte was recently updated to include one side written in French.

“We have opportunities to tell more of the story, particularly since more of the story has been learned since some of these markers have been put up,” Treschmann said.

Each marker weighs 175 pounds and is made of aluminum that is then painted. Each costs around $2,100 to make, and workers with the state department of transportation or community public works departments install them, depending on whether they are on a state or town road. If the marker is going on private land, the state hires private companies to do the work.

The majority of the 15 applications for historic markers the state receives each year come from individuals, Treschmann said. The state works with experts to corroborate the information and then the application is presented to the Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for approval.

“We have a criteria that it represents a history that is significant to the area, the region, the state or nationally or it’s a person that has achieved significance to the area, the region, the state or nationally that is telling a story of Vermont,” Treschmann said, adding that only three applications have been rejected in the past eight years. “We really work hard with people to make sure that the right part of the story is being presented, because this is an educational tool.”

State officials have also come up with markers on their own, including one in Fayston for Ralph Ellison, who started his novel Invisible Man while visiting the town. Treschmann currently has a team of interns working to identify more historic events featuring African Americans, as well as digging into Revolutionary War history in anticipation of the 250th year anniversary.

The process can take six months to a year, depending on how long it takes to reach consensus on the wording. Dinah’s marker was originally proposed as a one-sided marker — with the same text on both sides — but the committee opted to continue Dinah’s story over two sides to paint a fuller picture of her life.

“It can give people enough information to educate them right there on the spot but doesn’t give them the whole story so I’m hoping it ignites people’s interest and they do more research,” Treschmann said.

Windsor is still working out ways to honor Dinah and grapple with Jacob’s legacy. In 2020, there was an effort to change the name of Jacob Street in Windsor to remove the judge’s name; the Selectboard at the time declined to make the change.

“I would like to see the town of Windsor change the name of Jacob Street because referring to the street by his name is a way to honor his legacy and his repugnant behavior speaks louder about his character than any of his professional accomplishments,” Smith said. “If the street were named Freedom Street or the like it would allow for many opportunities for community members, students and tourists to learn more.”

Historic Windsor, which owns Jacob’s former house, is also working to put it on the market this year. While Hayward said the nonprofit considered rehabilitating the house itself, it needs extensive work and it would be quite the challenge to get it in good shape.

“It is a big project and it is going to take a lot of money to do it well, and you always need to look at your organizational capacity,” Hayward said. “Based on recent activity in the real estate market, we think there’s that kind of buyer out there.”


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