(HOST) Next in our series of stories about Black Women in Vermont History, we hear from author and commentator Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, about Lucy Terry Prince – a woman of uncommon eloquence.
(GERZINA) When former slaves Lucy Terry Prince and her husband Abijah Prince moved to Vermont in the 1770s, they knew they were starting a new life on their own land, earned with their own hard work. What they didn¹t know was that they would also learn to take on the Vermont legal system, or that Lucy, already known to her neighbors as a poet and storyteller, would go down in history for using her voice in court.
Their new land in Guilford was some of the best: 100 fertile acres near Pulpit Mountain. All went well until a man named John Noyes built a much grander house across the road. Looking out of his glass windows at the farm of a black family, infuriated him. Over a period of years he and his hired thugs tried to drive the Princes away: they beat the Princes’ children and their hired man, set fire to their hayrick, and destroyed their crops. Yet at every turn the Princes resisted, and finally took them to court.
In 1785 Lucy, now sixty years old, left her eighty-five-year old husband at home and traveled to Norwich to ask the governor and council for justice. She waited for days to present her case, and when she finally stood up to speak – undoubtedly the first African woman ever to argue in front of Vermont’s supreme judicial body – she so impressed them that they declared that she presented a better case than they had ever heard from a lawyer in Vermont – but it probably wasn’t that hard for a woman who had already memorized the Bible.
When her husband Bijah died in 1794, Lucy moved to her property in Sunderland, where she faced another protracted court struggle because someone else claimed to own her land. For eight years she and her sons fought to regain what was theirs. Legend has it that she took her case all the way to the American Supreme Court, while research suggests that her battle ended in her favor – in the Vermont Supreme Court. Either way, it was an impressive victory.
The town of Sunderland finally built a home for her, calling it "the Negro House." There she lived out her remaining days in relative comfort and great respect. Lucy Prince, brought as a child from Africa in a slave ship, finally went blind. Even so, the story is that she made the trip across the state each year on horseback, to visit the grave of her beloved husband Bijah. When she died in 1821, at the age of 97, the mixed-race Rutland minister Lemuel Haynes delivered the eulogy.
Lucy Terry Prince’s voice lives on in the poem "Bars Fight," memorized for years by schoolchildren. She was one of the earliest and most important settlers in Vermont, white OR black, and was certainly one of the most remarkable women in Vermont history.