Burlington to Memorialize a Site of Black Vermonters’ 19th-Century Enslavement | Live Culture

Burlington to Memorialize a Site of Black Vermonters’ 19th-Century Enslavement


Stopping Stones plaques to be installed in Burlington - PHOTO COURTESY OF STOPPING STONES PROJECT
  • Photo courtesy of Stopping Stones Project
  • Stopping Stones plaques to be installed in Burlington
Vermonters often take pride in the fact that theirs was the first state to enter the Union slave-free — at least on paper.

But as the Rev. Arnold Thomas, pastor of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, pointed out, “We were not truly a slave-free state. And so we need to debunk that historical narrative and show what was truly happening at the time.”

In fact, Thomas explained, there was great tolerance on the part of mainly wealthy and prominent Vermonters to allow slavery to continue within their own families, even after its prohibition in the Vermont constitution. Those prominent families included the daughter of Ethan Allen, Lucy Caroline Allen Hitchcock, who enslaved mother and son Lavinia and Francis Parker, from 1835 until 1841.

So on Sunday, September 13, Thomas, himself a Black Vermonter, will join with members of Burlington's Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and other civic leaders and activists to permanently embed two memorial plaques in the sidewalk outside of Skirack. That historic building in downtown Burlington is the Parkers’ last known residence while enslaved.

Once the brass memorials are installed, Vermont will become the fifth state in the country to host so-called “Stopping Stones.” The idea was first conceived by Ohavi Zedek congregant Paul Growald, a retired Shelburne businessman who in recent years has devoted himself to social justice, democracy and climate-change activism.

Growald, 72, is the founder of the nonprofit Stopping Stones Project, whose memorials he based on a form of Holocaust memorials. A few years ago, Growald was in Germany visiting places where his Jewish ancestors had lived. While there, he learned about the country’s Stolpersteine — German for “stumbling blocks” — which are cobblestone-size plaques embedded into sidewalks throughout Europe to remember victims of the Holocaust.

Growald later convinced the mayor of the German town of Nordhausen, where his grandparents had lived, to install Stolpersteine in front of a building his grandfather had constructed in the 19th century.

“Participating in all this, I found it very moving and asked myself, So, what’s the relevance of this for me?” he recalled. Growald realized that while Germany has done much to keep alive the memory of Nazi atrocities in order to learn from them and prevent their reoccurrence, the United States has not had a similar reckoning with its own violent past.

“We’ve avoided and repressed and denied our history of enslavement in this country,” he added, “and the echoes of that still reverberate loudly in our country.”

Since its founding, the Stopping Stones Project has installed 30 plaques in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Missouri. Each plaque includes the name of the enslaved person, when they lived at that location and any other historically documented details about their lives.

In the case of Lavinia Parker, Growald noted that she worked as a housekeeper. He said he tries to include something about the type of labor the person provided, though often little else is known. Jeff Potash, a historian and former professor at Saint Michael’s College, unearthed the names of the Parkers and helped document where they had lived.

Growald eschews the word “slave,” preferring to refer to them as “enslaved people.”

“The word ‘slave’ implies they were objects,” Growald said. “These were all human beings who had their own lives, their own agency, their own loves, even though their freedoms had been ripped away.”

Growald said that it’s important to put these memorials in public places where people can chance upon them, providing them an opportunity to stop and ponder the history of their own community.

“That’s why we called them Stopping Stones,” he added. “We want people to stop, to think and to remember this history, and connect it to the present — and do something to change the future.”

For his part, Thomas, who is a board member of the Stopping Stones Projects, wants Americans to recognize that all states, not just those in the Confederacy, were complicit in the institution of slavery and economically benefitted from it.

“The lingering effects of it affect us today, including [through] the protest rally that’s taking place this very minute [in Battery Park],” he added. “So we need to ask ourselves, since we are all … in this pit together, either as victims or perpetrators, how can we climb our way out of it?”

A ceremony to lay the Stopping Stones will take place on Sunday, September 13, 3-4 p.m. Due to COVID precautions, organizers have asked that interested participants not attend the dedication ceremony in person but rather sign up for an online event here.

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