This is the first of a five-part series about the contribution of blacks to the history of Brattleboro. The series, written by local historian Anne Dempsey, is offered in observance of Black History Month.
Special to the Reformer
Even before George Washington became the first President, blacks lived as free people in Vermont, where slavery was prohibited in the state's 1777 Constitution.
In 1784, 9-year-old Prince Saunders, later to serve as Haiti's attorney general, was baptized in Thetford. Lemuel Haynes began his 22-year vocation as minister of West Rutland's Congregational Church in 1788.
And in 1786, Benjamin Wheaton bought land in Brattleboro.
Wheaton was not the only black person in Brattleboro during those early years. State and federal census records reveal that one black person lived here in 1771, 14 in 1790, and six in 1800. What makes Wheaton's story unusual is his status as the first black person to own property in town. All the other blacks in 18th-century Brattleboro lived with and worked for white families as farm laborers or domestic servants.
From 1786 to 1806, Wheaton's town taxes helped care for the poor, pay the minister's salary, build roads, bridges and schoolhouses. In 1791, he took the Freeman's Oath, Vermont's prerequisite for voting. He was a literate man, owning a number of books, a brass inkstand and a share in the Brattleboro Library.
In 1803, he purchased a pew in the town's meeting house, which at that time stood across the street from the First Congregational Church.
Wheaton's profession is not known, though he owned many tools commonly used in furniture-making. Whatever his trade, Wheaton felt secure enough to purchase land adjoining his property early in 1806.
In March of the same year, the agenda at the annual town meeting included this item: "to see if the town will consent that a pest-house shall be opened and adopt some other measure to prevent the spreading of small pox which has made its appearance in this town."
Benjamin Wheaton died later that same month. Some of his outstanding bills at the time of his death were for services rendered during his "last sickness." It can be assumed that Wheaton contracted and died from smallpox.
Wheaton had no heirs. Consequently, the town purchased his land from his estate for $51. This money paid Wheaton's doctor bills, his tab at the general store, and the balance of notes and interest on his property. A notation on the land deed reads: "to be used by the town of Bratleboro forever as a road, common, or green and for no other purpose."
This land today is known as the West Brattleboro Common, a triangular green that borders Western Avenue, across from Stockwell's Store.
Wheaton's spectacles, his Windsor chair, his woodworking tools, and his brass inkstand have scattered and disappeared. But his land will be forever a part of Brattleboro's public lands.
Brattleboro Reformer, February 7, 1994.
The part of the Common on Western Avenue opposite Stockwell's Store was purchased by the town of Brattleboro in 1811 from the Benjamin Wheaton estate. The Lafayette Clark house stands on the west side of the Common.
Charles Thompson found himself in a predicament one afternoon while tending his shop at the corner of Walnut and Main. A runaway slave, hoping to reach Canada safely, entered the shop asking for help. Thompson was a bit taken aback, for he had never met a runaway slave before and was not aware that the Underground Railroad passed through Brattleboro. He guided the fugitive to the train station and gave him money to pay his fare farther north.
Debates never ceased about the wisdom of placing fugitives on a public mode of transportation in Vermont. Yes, the train was quicker, but the network of safe houses was much safer because of its secrecy.
In "The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom," author Wilbur H. Siebert observed that "the penalties of (federal) law, the contempt of the neighbors, and the espionage of persons interested in returning fugitives to bondage made secrecy necessary in the service of the Underground Railroad."
The most talked about safe house in the area is the Angells' house in West Brattleboro, a large, red brick building across the road from the Baptist church on Western Avenue.
The stories can be confirmed in part by a large rock in the basement covering the entrance to a tunnel. This rock is no longer visible because the Angells put up a wall in front of it years ago. Ruth Angell recalls that the rock has marks all the way around it where it was pushed repeatedly up against the tunnel's circular entrance.
The tunnel led beneath Western Avenue and opened out onto a meadow where the Glen Trailer Park now stands. Once in the meadow, a runaway slave could cross the Whetstone Brook, climb the hill which overlooks West Brattleboro, and, heading northeast, eventually meet the West River, whose shorelinetraced a fairly direct route to the next safe house in Townshend.
The tunnel entrance in the Angells' basement primarily served as a secret escape route, but all conductors furnished hiding places in which the fugitives might sleep, eat and recuperate. Some evidence at the High Street house owned by Barry Redden and Deborah Lazar suggests that it was an Underground Railroad station.
While renovating his home in 1986, Redden discovered a 3-by-6-foot shaft under the floor boards of his porch. Curious, he dropped down into the shaft, near the base of which Redden found a narrow tunnel, 2 foot high and 15 inches wide, that led under the house.
The tunnel was thoroughly investigated by four local men, including local historians Jeff Barry and Walter Harrington who brouught with them miner's head lamps and cameras. A sump pump was used to pump water out of the bottom of the shaft. The tunnel off the shaft proved so narrow that each man had to shimmy through it on his side with one arm stretched out ahead. At the end of the tunnel, they found a field stone-walled room so small that an adult cannot stand up in it.
With little fresh air and no natural light, the room, according to Lazar, is not a pleasant place to be. "You wouldn't want to spend much time down there," she said.
Members of the Brattleboro Historical Society believe that this chamber harbored runaway slaves during the days of the Underground Railroad.
The physical evidence within the homes of both the Angells and the Reddens holds some weight when considering possible safe house sites, but the only Brattleboro safe house documented in Wilbur Siebert's books on the Underground Railroad is the Frost Mansion.
Siebert gives no specifics on the Frost family's operations. But the Vermont Phoenix
recorded a related story on May 22, 1891:
There is shown in Frost & Proctor's window an interesting relic of the days, some 35 years ago, when Brattleboro was a station on the underground railroad, and there was a room in the Frost house on Flat street where Mr. Frost's father, the late Chas. C. Frost, used to hide runaways from slave-land during the day, feed them, and at night send them along to Bellows Falls, the next stage on the long and dangerous journey to Canada. The relic is a slave-driver's whip which a Georgia negro stole from his overseer and brought as far as Brattleboro, where he gave it to Mr. Frost.
As the crow flies, there are 800 miles between the Georgia and Vermont borders. There are many descendants of the Frost family living in Brattleboro today, but the whereabouts of the whip is unknown.
Brattleboro Reformer, February 8, 1994.
Before and during the Civil War, former slave and black orator Frederick Douglass traveled the speakers' circuit for the anti-slavery movement. By January 1866, the nation faced new challenges. The war had ended. Lincoln had been killed. Vice President Andrew Johnson had taken over the helm. Many newly freed black people found themselves homeless, hungry and unemployed. Douglass had new issues to address.
On Jan. 4, 1866, Douglass spoke at Brattleboro's town hall. Before a full house, he stressed the importance of voting rights for the black population. He eulogized Abraham Lincoln for his signing the Emancipation Proclamation, winning the war against slavery and supporting the Freedmen's Bureau. He criticized Johnson, who opposed the black vote and supported southern states that instituted racist laws (called Black Codes). Johnson also restored to former Rebels land that the Freedman's Bureau had promised to newly freed blacks.
Both Brattleboro papers supported Douglass' praise of Lincoln, but sidestepped his criticism of Johnson. The Vermont Phoenix descibed him as "modest in demeanor, quiet in manner," while expressing "his thoughts with grace and force." The Vermont Record noted "his sentiments were. . .endorsed by hearty applause." It also remarked that Douglass was a "radical," wanting too much too fast, "but radical men are useful in preparing the public mind for great questions and great changes."
Over President Johnson's protests, Congress did adopt a number of reforms Douglass had publicly advocated, in Brattleboro and elsewhere. During the summer of 1866, Congress began dismantling the Black Codes. Black males gained voting rights in 1870. But for most former slaves, the dream of owning 40 acres and a mule never was realized.
A runaway slave himself, Douglass gave these thoughts on his escape in "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written by Himself":
The thought of leaving my friends was decidedly the most painful thought with which I had to contend. The love of them was my tender point, and shook my decision more than all things else. Besides the pain of separation, the dread and apprehension of a failure exceeded what I had experienced at my first attempt. The appalling defeat I then sustained returned to torment me. I felt assured that, if I failed in this attempt, my case would be a hopeless one -- it would seal my fate as a slave forever. I could not hope to get off with anything less than the severest punishment, and being placed beyond the means of escape. It required no very vivid imagination to depict the most frightful scenes through which I should have to pass, in case I failed. The wretchedness of slavery, and the blessedness of freedom were perpetually before me. It was life and death with me. But I remained firm and according to my resolution, on the 3rd day of September, 1838, I left my chains and succeeded in reaching N. Y. without the slightest interruption of any kind."
Brattleboro Reformer, February 8, 1994.
When 80-year-old Francis W. Green died on Oct. 29, 1900, The Brattleboro Reformer published a lengthy obituary about "Barber Green," as he was called. It read, in part: "Green. . .was a native of Colrain, Mass. He learned the blacksmith's trade from his uncle in that town. Later he was a charcoal burner and a teamster in Bennington, and at one time drove a team from Woodford to Hinsdale, N. H. He came to Brattleboro. . .and learned the barber's trade from a man named Bradshaw."
The Bradshaws---Andrew, his wife, Phoebe, and their young daughter, Susannah---moved to Brattleboro in 1823 and were the only black family in town for many years. They first rented, and later purchased, a small wooden building on Main Street as a home and a workplace. Then, Bradshaw set up his barber shop, and Mrs. Bradshaw opened a restaurant. The barbershop was equipped with two shaving chairs, a wash stand and, of course, a looking glass. For the purpose of lathering faces, Bradshaw kept brass kettles of hot water and a barrel full of soap close at hand.
A large billboard sits on the lip of its roof.
Today, Dexter's clothing store stands at this site.
The Bradshaws seemed well received by townpeople. According to the "Annals of Brattleboro," Bradshaw's barber shop was was the first to appear in town and Mrs. Bradshaw was a "famous cook." Her restaurant was "liberally patronized" and the first in Brattleboro to serve ice cream.
March 3, 1843
Around 1835, the Bradshaws took Green into their home. About 20 years old at that time, Green worked alongside Andrew Bradshaw during the day, and slept under the Bradshaw's roof at night. When he gained confidence in his barbering skills, he moved to Greenfield, Mass., and set up his own barber shop. He married there and became a father.
The barber business was especially appealing to free African American men before the Civil War. It was one of the only avenues open to those who wanted a family life, a business and a home of their own. Most other employment opportunities for black men were as live-in laborers in white households.
In 1855, Green returned to Brattleboro a widower with his 4-year-old son, Francis Jr., in tow. The Bradshaws were long gone. Andrew had died in 1843. His daughter, Susannah, married a man from the island of Jamaica in 1844. After settling the estate, Andrew's widow, Phoebe, followed the newlyweds to Boston.
Green set up a barber shop on the second floor of the Fisk building and purchased a cottage on Linden Street. On New Year's Day in 1857, Green and Madelia Pierce, a white woman, were married by Justice of the Peace George Kellogg. Madelia gave birth to a son, Elijah, in 1859. The young boy died three months later. The Greens never had another child.
Like the Bradshaws in the 1830s, the Greens took a young man named William James into their family. Green taught James the barbering trade, just as Bradshaw had taught Green. The only information about James' former life is to be found on his tombstone in the Prospect Hill Cemetery:
At Norfolk, Va.
July 4, 1861.
The grave of William James is in Prospect Hill Cemetery. The stone reads: William James, Born (A Slave) At Norfolk, Va., Died July 4, 1861., AE 23.
To find the grave, stand to the right of the twin fir trees near the cemetery's edge. Face the river and walk down the grassy path. Count six rows of stone on your left. James' stone is the fourth stone in the sixth row.
James was one of more than 1,000 people who died of tuberculosis in Windham County during the latter half of the 19th century. T. B., or consumption as it was called then, had no prejudice when choosing its victims. Rich, poor, white and black fell under its shadow, including Green's wife, Madelia, who died in 1880. By that time, Green had sold his cottage to the Brattleboro Retreat, retired from barbering and moved to Birge Street.
He was the last black man to barber in Brattleboro during the 1800s. By the time Francis Jr. reached adulthood, three other barbers---all white men---had established themselves in town. Edwin Jeffers, curator of the Barber Museum in Canal Winchester, Ohio, explains that the barber trade shifted dramatically from an exclusively black entrepreneurship before the Civil War to a trade taken over by white men - especially recent European immigrants - after the war.
Francis Jr. worked as a bill poster, city messenger and day laborer most of his adult life. He lived with his father, never earning enough money to purchase a home of his own.
Brattleboro Reformer, February 9, 1994.
The lives of black women in antebellum Brattleboro is difficult to race. None of the black women who appeared in the census records of the town died in town, so the details about an individual's local life normally found in obituaries and pesonal estate lists are not available. Also, women's professions were not noted on the census until 1860.
But given the limited information available, a kaleidoscope emerges. These women's stories collectively reveal a cross-section of the varied experiences of many black women in the North before the Civil War.
The 1860 census reveals the few facts known about Ann Brown. At the time, she was 13 years old and the only black member of the Charles Royall Tyler household. While the Tyler children attended school, Ann did not.
In the three decades preceding the Civil War, Vermont census takers recorded more than 70 black children, 13 and younger, working in white households. Historians believe most of these children were indentured servants, given to white families by parents who couldn't afford to care for them. The climate of racial prejudice against free blacks in the Northern job market made supporting a family extremely difficult. This, in turn, caused the breakup of many black families. Terms of indentured servitude ended at age 21 for men and 18 for women.
In 1843, 23-year-old Betsey Ann Peters moved from Hartford, Conn., to Brattleboro. She became a member of Centre Congregational Church and was married to Levi Smith, a white man, by the Rev. Charles Walker that same year. The Smiths' was the first known interracial wedding performed in Brattleboro. The couple stayed in the Brattleboro area for seven years.
Betsey Ann Smith gave birth to Charles in 1844 and Margaret in 1846. In 1850, the Smiths moved to Hartford, where Levi Smith supported the family as a gardener.
Shortly after moving to Brattleboro in 1823, Phoebe Bradshaw opened a restaurant in a small wooden building on Main Street that served as home, and workplace for herself and her husband, Andrew, who set up his barber shop there.
June 12, 1835
Phoebe Bradshaw's dining room was overwhelmed by her 13 1/2-foot-long table. Her tableware included one dozen large plates, two dozen small plates, six glass tumblers and a dozen wine glasses. The Bradshaws were the only blacks in town for quite a while, but they were well-received by local townspeople who "liberally patronized" the restaurant, the first in town to serve ice cream.
Andrew Bradshaw died in 1843 and was buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery. After her daughter, Susannah, was married in Brattleboro the following year, Phoebe Bradshaw moved with the couple to Boston.
Rebecca Nourse was born in Virginia in 1780, undoubtedly a slave. At age 50, she was living in the home of a jeweler named Daniel Thompson. Also, living in the household was a 1-year-old white boy, Herbert Sullivan.
It is likely that Daniel Thompson was carrying on an old Brattleboro tradition: caring for the poor. The Sullivan family is on the record books as being destitute during that time period, and Nourse might well have been a refugee from the Southern slave system. Often, families opened up their homes to one or more poor people. Town funds subsequently reimbursed them for their expenses.
It could be that a match was made between Rebecca Nourse and Herbert Sullivan, allowing the former slave to serve as the boy's primary caregiver.
T. J. Buckley's Diner stands on this site today.
A 23-year-old black woman, Patience Smith, and her 1-year-old son, George, lived in Brattleboro's Irish neighborhood along Vernon Road, according to the 1850 census. This was the most impoverished area in town, consisting of the roughest, most makeshift dwellings. During that period, it was probably all a young black woman could afford.
Before the influx of Irish immigrants, most black women's employment opportunities were limited to that of laundress, waitress and servants, poor paying jobs but jobs nonetheless. The arrival of the Irish poor left black women especially destitute.
Frederick Douglass' words addressing the unfair situation black men faced in the 1850s just as easily could have been applied to the employment status of black women. He declared, "Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrants whose hunger and color are thought to give him a better title to the place."
During the 1860s, Seyland and Jones rented a house in the Canal-Clark Street neighborhood. The exact location is not known. The 1860 census lists Seyland's age as 65, Jones' as 33, and her daughter, Carrie, as 2.
It appears Ann Jones was the breadwinner of the household. Living on her wages as a servant was probably quite the challenge, although both she and Seyland might have had husbands out on the road working. During those days, men who worked as field hands or laborers were often away from home for long stints.
Before the Civil War, not all black women in Brattleboro were free. By law, no Vermonter could own slaves, but this did not stop visiting Southerners from bringing their slaves into the state. One out of every three patrons at Wesselhoeft's Water Cure traveled from the Southern slave states.
Mrs. Levi Fuller of Brattleboro described the peculiar impact these Sotherners had on her hometown. She wrote, "Our water cures were patronized largely by people of Southern wealth. They brought some of their slaves with them. Gay-turbaned black nurses were a common sight on our streets in my childhood."
Brattleboro Reformer, February 10, 1994.
By Anne Dempsey and Matt Goddard
Special to the Reformer
In Brattleboro, during June 1864, 20 black men enlisted in the Union Army. All 20, age 19 to 38, were assigned to the 45th Regiment of the 25th Army Corps. Their regiment fought in a fair number of battles in southern Virginia until the time of Lee's surrender on April 9, 1865.
Imagine what it must have been like being a free black man living in Brattleboro, knowing that if you chose to leave this peaceful Northern town to enlist in the Union Army, you would be fighting within Confederate territories and taking the risk of being captured. You are aware that when captured in a Southern state, the consequences may include death or enslavement, for the Confederate Army refuses to recognize any captive black soldier as a prisoner of war.
Lincoln himself stated, "Having determined to use the Negro as a soldier, there is no way. . .to give him all the protection given to any other soldier. The difficulty is not in stating the principle, but in practically applying it."
Being aware of these dangers, one might wonder why a black man would risk so much. Black men, along with their white counterparts, fought to prove their patriotism, preserve the Union, and liberate black people in the South.
In his book, "The Sable Arm, Black Troops in the Union Army," Dudley Taylor Cornish notes, "Black soldiers only fought more stubbornly and ferociously, as they assaulted Confederate lines, motivated in part by their awareness that as prisoners they had no rights which Confederates were bound to respect. . .Black soldiers and their officers were bound together in a heightened esprit de corps in a determination to die before surrendering that is rare in military annals."
Here is a list of blacks who enlisted in Brattleboro in June 1864. There are recruits and the rest are substitutes. Black soldiers often were not given their bounty or full salary, so subsituting was a more preferred method of entering the armed forces.
Daniel S. Green, age 19
Benjamin Loney, age unknown
Hazeworth Matthews, 20
Henry Bayler, 20
Frank Benton, 26
Edmund Brown, 27
Thomas Carter, 20
Alek Durbin, 20
Jefferson Gillespie, 22
Alfred Jennison, 20
Andrew Johnson, 21
Daniel Jones, 20
James Lancaster, unknown
Henry Lewis, 20
Lawrence Newhall, 20
Jacob Samil, 38
Beverly Taylor, 21
James Wilson, 30
Edward Patterson, 26.
Brattleboro Reformer, February 11, 1994.