Slavery in Vermont

UVM’s student body’s focus on social justice has been tradition, but one of its earliest alumni to make a great stand is rarely celebrated.

 

Vermont passed a law in 1777 that freed black men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 18 from slavery, Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield, associate professor of history, said in a discussion he led on Feb. 2.

 

The discussion titled, “Did Vermont’s 1777 constitution actually prohibit slavery?” was held at the Rokeby Museum located in Ferrisburgh, Vt., according to the Press-Republican.

 

The law, however, did not completely cease slavery in Vermont, as subsequent laws in 1786 and 1806 regarding topics as re-enslavement, slave sales and kidnapping suggest slave ownership continued as an issue, Dr. Whitfield said.

 

Andrew Harris felt persisting racial tensions when he came to UVM in 1835, before becoming the first black college graduate in America to demand total equality for people of color, according to Vermont Public Radio.

 

Both Union College and Middlebury College rejected Harris. Even after being admitted to UVM, he was not permitted to walk or accept his diploma with the fellow 23 students of his graduating class, according to Vermont Public Radio.

 

“It’s weird to think of a classmate not being able to graduate with you,” junior Sarah Burns said. “It’s a shame the university didn’t treat Andrew Harris better.”

 

Harris spoke in front of approximately 5,000 people at the American Anti-Slavery Society’s annual meeting as a rising abolitionist and minister from Philadelphia in 1839, according to the Vermont Quarterly.

 

His topic did not focus solely on slavery, but on the traits of racism as a whole, which he assumed slavery helped to spread in both the North and South, according to Vermont Public Radio.

 

Harris passed away unexpectedly from a fever three years after graduating, but he managed to make a strong impact, according to the Vermont Quarterly.