- Courtesy Photo
- Nora Jacobson
In the summer of 1785, a free black woman named Lucy Prince walked from Guilford to Norwich — a distance of 63 miles as the crow flies, but considerably longer for a 60-year-old woman and her son, traveling on foot along winding Vermont roads. The purpose of their pilgrimage was to petition then-governor Thomas Chittenden for justice. The Princes owned a hog farm in Guilford, and their racist white neighbors, the Noyes family, had been harassing them for years to give up their land. Sometimes, their abuse was verbal, a snide remark within earshot; other times, they let their own livestock loose on the Prince's property to ravage their crops.
Little is known about Lucy Prince beyond the sparse facts revealed in a smattering of documents. These offer only the contours of her life — the people who had previously enslaved her, the name of the man she married, her legal battle against the Noyeses. But this Sunday, her story will come to life at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction in a staged reading of Lucy Prince Walks to Norwich. The screenplay, cowritten by Norwich filmmaker Nora Jacobson and New York City-based playwright Richard Wesley, will feature actors from New York, Vermont and New Hampshire in the principal roles. The script is still in development, but Jacobson envisions the project as a feature film — possibly the first in a series about people of color in New England.
Jacobson first encountered Prince's story nearly a decade ago, while she was working on a documentary about untold tales of life in Vermont. One segment featured an interview with Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, then a professor at Dartmouth College, who wrote a book about the Prince family. When Jacobson learned about Prince's journey to Norwich to address the governor, she was astonished, then galvanized by the fact that she'd never heard of Prince before.
As a white woman who grew up in Norwich, said Jacobson, "Why didn't I know about her? There was a lack of stories about people of color. That lack is precisely what needs to be addressed."
In 2014, Jacobson began developing a screenplay about Prince. She drew primarily from Gerzina's book and other published research on the lives of African American Vermonters, many of whom came seeking protection under the state's constitution — the first in North America to abolish adult slavery. But from the outset, Jacobson didn't feel comfortable being the sole imaginer of Prince's experiences.
"The issue is always: Who tells what stories. And I didn't think, as a white woman, that I could tell her story alone," she explained.
- Courtesy Photo
- Richard Wesley
So Jacobson partnered with Wesley, an associate professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. His writing credits include a screen adaptation of Richard Wright's Native Son and the libretto for the opera production of The Central Park Five, the story of five black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a young, white, female jogger in New York City.
Jacobson and Wesley wrote collaboratively, sending annotated drafts back and forth. Over the course of their correspondence, Jacobson said, Wesley would share his own experiences as a black man in America, which would often find their way into the script. The screenplay became part fact, part historical invention: a portrait of a free black woman speaking truth to power at a time when most whites — in practice if not in principle — rejected the notion of black personhood. Even though Vermont's constitution outlawed slavery, the majority of whites were steeped in a racist milieu.
Certain things haven't changed. Today, as much as in the late 18th century, Wesley noted, land ownership is a major driver of racial inequality. A recent New Yorker story reported that between 1910 and 1997, African Americans were dispossessed of 90 percent of their farmland, representing a collective loss of hundreds of billions of dollars.
"Land ownership is a primary source of wealth in American life, the means by which wealth is passed down from one generation to the other," said Wesley, who will attend the reading on Sunday. "That is a part of the battle Lucy Prince and her family are waging in 1787, and it is a large part of the struggle blacks in America continue to wage in 2019."
But Prince's story isn't just about a fight to hold on to land; it's about the struggle of a woman of color, who was also a poet and a songwriter, to attain something deeper than mere legal recognition. At one point in the screenplay, a teacher asks Prince to regale her students with stories from her childhood in West Africa. Prince obliges, unhappily, then remarks to the teacher: "Our sorrows are not to entertain you. Do you understand?"
Ultimately, Chittenden ruled in favor of the Prince family, which is where Lucy Prince Walks to Norwich ends. But the only surviving record of their meeting is his pronouncement; her words to him, like countless other details of her life, have been lost to history.