Looking for a new option for a northeastern getaway, but want to also learn more about the history of our people and culture? Go to Vermont.
While this may seem like a surprising choice initially, there’s way more to discover in Vermont then people realize. Yes, the state offers beautiful agriculture, farm-to-table tasting options, winter sporting activities and award-winning breweries. But the state also offers a number of options to help travelers explore the state’s rich African-American history.
A recent trip to Vermont completely changed my perception on the state, and it’s contribution to Black history. Despite being the first state to abolish slavery in its constitution, and the first state to enroll and graduate a Black student, these narratives are far too often left out of the conversation when we discuss notable figures in history and their contributions to our advancements today.
Lesser known are the stories of Vermont’s African-Americans and the power of their journeys. When I had the opportunity to explore the state’s African-American heritage trail and explore these stories, I realized how important it is for people to study the history of a very resilient group of people who impacted our culture.
I learned about the amazing Daisy Turner—the daughter of Alex Turner, a man who was born a slave in Virginia and moved to Grafton, Vermont, in 1872 to work in a sawmill. The stories Daisy was able to pass down of growing up in rural Vermont showed that a Black family could flourish in a New England town; many probably don’t realize this was possible.
The African-American Heritage Trail was created to encourage Black travelers to visit Vermont by putting tourists on a journey of the past, leading them to Vermont museums and cultural sites where exhibits, films, tours and personal explorations illuminate the lives of African-Americans for whom the Green Mountain State was part of their identity. Tourists and travelers get the opportunity to meet teachers, storytellers, activists, ministers and legislators—people unique in history for being the first to attain positions formerly held only people of European descent, and people who participated in Vermont institutions to make the state and country a better place for all.
Despite having a very small Black population of residents who actually reside in Vermont, many people spent time and visited the state who impacted its history in a major way. The Heritage Trail reflects just that. It comprises 11 sites including nine museums with exhibits featuring video, audio, and guided, or self-guided tours. The trail includes one of New England’s best documented underground railroad sites, Rokeby Museum, the Old Stone House Museum, which includes the school built by African American Alexander Twilight, Hildene, the Lincoln family home, and exhibits about raconteur Daisy Turner.
The Heritage Trail was inspired by Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. Reed was mindful of the changing demographics in Vermont and across the country and wondered “to what degree we were prepared as a state to fully engage the challenges of being multicultural,” he says.
For those looking to visit the Vermont Heritage Trail, we’ve compiled a list of the top heritage trail attractions to get you started on your exploration.
Located in Ferrishburg, Vermont, the Rokeby Museum provides an intimate record of two centuries of Vermont family life and agriculture. The house and farm nurtured and survived the growing up and growing old of four generations of Robinsons—a remarkable family of Quakers, farmers, abolitionists, authors, and artists. Listed today as a National Historic Landmark, the site tells two stories simultaneously—of the Robinsons in particular, and more broadly, of Vermont and New England social history from the 1790s to 1961.
Vermont Folklife Center
The Vermont Folklife Center, founded in 1984, is dedicated to preserving and presenting the cultural traditions of Vermont and the surrounding region. Through ongoing field research, a multimedia archive and an apprenticeship program, the Folklife Center documents and conserves cultural heritage that could easily be lost. Through exhibits, media, publication and educational projects, they bring recognition to the skills, talents and traditions of Vermonters, past and present.
Hildene, the Lincoln Family Home
Hildene allows you to tour the home where Abraham Lincoln’s descendants lived until 1975. This 24-room Georgian Revival mansion is in the scenic Vermont village of Manchester. The home has been preserved intact with original furnishings and personal family effects. The formal gardens, established in 1907, display a spectacular bloom of peonies, roses and lilies during the summer. Visitors are invited to enjoy the restored cutting and kitchen gardens, walking trails, farm, restored 1903 wooden Pullman Palace car and exhibits.
Grafton History Museum
Grafton’s fascinating past is on display in this award winning museum, rich with artifacts representing over 250 years of history. Though exhibits change annually, the museum has archived historical photos that you can view all year long.