New Historical Marker in Vergennes Honors Stephen Bates, Vermont’s First Black Sheriff | History | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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New Historical Marker in Vergennes Honors Stephen Bates, Vermont’s First Black Sheriff

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Gravestone of Stephen and Frances Bates at Prospect Cemetery in Vergennes - DAN BOLLES ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Dan Bolles ©️ Seven Days
  • Gravestone of Stephen and Frances Bates at Prospect Cemetery in Vergennes

When Brian Peete was sworn in as Montpelier's chief of police last year, officials believed he was Vermont's first Black police chief. However, it turns out that another man predated Peete by more than 140 years.

Stephen Bates served as sheriff and chief of police in Vergennes for almost 25 consecutive years between 1879 and his death in 1907. Newspaper articles and historical records depict Bates as a pillar of the community — a cool customer who, according to a 1914 piece in the Enterprise and Vermonter, "lugged the city's evil-doers to the lockup, repressed disorder, and kept the turbulent from breaking out."

"He was very well respected," said Bo Price, a Ferrisburgh resident who has researched Bates extensively.

The recent resurgence of interest in Bates' life and career culminates this week in the unveiling of a new historical marker commemorating him in Vergennes City Park. The park will be the site of a dedication ceremony on Sunday, October 3. A related exhibit, just down the street at the Bixby Memorial Free Library, is on view through the fall; an online version is available on the Bixby website.

According to historical records and information collected by local researchers, Bates was born into slavery in 1842 on the Shirley Plantation in Virginia, which was owned by Robert E. Lee's grandparents. Later in his life, Bates would regale friends in Vergennes with memories of the Confederate general and other prominent Southerners from when he waited on them at plantation meals.

Bates escaped with his brothers during the Civil War and is believed to have marched to Washington, D.C., with the Union Army in 1866. In the capital, he befriended a U.S. representative from Vergennes named Frederick E. Woodbridge, who hired Bates as his coach driver.

Woodbridge's tenure in Congress ended in 1869. The following year, Bates settled permanently in Vergennes in a small house beside Woodbridge's; the two would remain close friends. Bates married Frances Mason in 1871, and the couple had two children: a daughter, Rose Mary, in 1872; and a son, Frederick Napoleon, in 1875. The latter bore both Woodbridge's first name and Bates' father's first name.

Photo of sheriff Stephen Bates from the Boston Herald, December 1905 - COURTESY OF ELOISE BEIL
  • Courtesy Of Eloise Beil
  • Photo of sheriff Stephen Bates from the Boston Herald, December 1905

Woodbridge was elected mayor of Vergennes in 1879, the same year Bates was elected sheriff and chief of police. Bates won reelection unanimously in 1880 and either won handily or ran unopposed in subsequent annual elections for nearly three decades.

Much of what we currently know about Bates was only recently pieced together on the initiative of his great-grandson, Larry Schuyler, who said he knew about Bates primarily through family lore until he began researching his family history a few years ago.

In the summer of 2019, Schuyler and his wife, Lynn, visited St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Vergennes, where Bates had been a member. Schuyler connected with Price, a member of St. Paul's, who helped by digging through church records and sleuthing online for tidbits about Bates and his family.

"We knew he was a sheriff in Vergennes, but we sort of just took it for what it was worth," Schuyler said. "We didn't think it was a big deal until I started talking to Bo."

While Schuyler knew that his great-grandfather was a lawman, he had no idea he was the first Black sheriff in Vermont — and possibly in New England, according to some historians.

"It was like, 'Oh, my God. This is like opening Pandora's box,'" Schuyler said.

The following summer, Price said, "so many things collided." The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin sparked national outrage and protests in cities throughout the country, including Vergennes. There, the movement also inspired the creation of a group devoted to racial justice, Voices in the Park, which met regularly at Vergennes City Park. Then, in Montpelier, Peete was sworn in and touted in the media as Vermont's first Black police chief.

"I kept thinking, Well, that's not really true," Price said.

She began meeting regularly with Voices in the Park founder Liz Ryan and another local leader of the group, Alicia Grangent, to discuss how to share Bates' story more widely. Grangent, who holds a master's degree in criminal and social justice, proposed the historical marker.

"My textbooks say 1966 for the first [Black] sheriff [in the U.S.]," Grangent said. "So to have this information in our hands [about Bates] is amazing."

With Schuyler's blessing, Price, Ryan and Grangent formed a marker committee with a handful of other Vergennes residents. A few historians joined them, including Jane Williamson, former director of the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh.

Larry Schuyler - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Larry Schuyler

As part of those efforts, Eloise Beil, curator emerita at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, began work on the Bixby exhibit, which includes both physical and online elements and may eventually become a traveling show. She combined the marker committee's research with her own to develop a fuller picture of Bates.

As a curator of historical material, "one of my favorite things to do is to fill in the gaps so that we can see through the eyes of the person and what their life was like ... what their community was like," Beil said. In Bates' case, she noted, one event is illustrative of both.

In 1880, the year Bates was unanimously reelected sheriff, his house caught fire. Though the building was saved, the family's possessions were destroyed. The blaze's cause was never determined. House fires were common at the time, Beil noted, due to the combustible combination of wooden buildings and rudimentary heating technologies. However, Schuyler remarked, it's not hard to imagine that a Black family in a predominantly white city might have been the victims of arson.

"We know somebody set that fire, right?" Schuyler said with an eye roll.

Whatever the cause, Vergennes residents rallied around the Bates family and raised money to get them back on their feet. In Schuyler's view, that outcome is significant not just to his great-grandfather's legacy but also to the city's.

"This isn't just about Stephen Bates," he said. "It's about a symbiotic relationship with Vergennes. It's a microcosm of how things could be if we drop the BS and let people be people."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Chief Example"