Great thoughts: equality in Vermont history

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison says that while many “Great Ideas” are expressed in words, others are embodied in symbols. And in some cases, they’re embodied in certain individuals, persons whose presence and work pointed the way for others to follow. He says three Vermonters are a case in point.

(Robison) Surely one of the greatest ideals of American culture is that of equality: equality before the law, equality of opportunity, indeed equality of all citizens in their possessing certain unalienable rights. I would like to call attention to three Vermonters whose lives and work advanced this great concept long before the rest of the nation followed suit. They were Lemuel Haynes, Emma Willard and Alexander Twilight.

Lemuel Haynes was the first black man to become pastor of a white congregation in America. He became pastor of Rutland West Parish in 1783 and held that post for 30 years. In 1804, at its second commencement ever, Middlebury College conferred an honorary degree on the Reverend Haynes, surely the first such degree to be conferred on an African American.

In 1823, Middlebury conferred the first bachelor’s degree ever on another African American. He was Alexander Twilight and he went on to become a leading pastor, educator, and member of the Vermont House of Representatives – yet another first.

The third name in this triumvirate is Emma Willard. She also had ties to Middlebury in that her husband was on the faculty at the college when she opened a school for girls in Middlebury in 1814. It was a truly radical idea. The school, which bears her name to this day, was in due course
moved to Troy, New York.

The theme here is equality of opportunity regardless of race or gender. These ideas are so central to our lives now that it is only an issue when that equality is denied. But it was not always so. Not at all. Historically, Vermont’s image has been one of conservatism. And yet back 200 years there was clearly enough permissiveness to allow recognition of Haynes and Twilight and to tolerate Emma Willard’s strange idea that girls should be educated.

As you approach Middlebury College from Route 7, the first college building you see is Twilight Hall. It stands on the exact site of the original building in which the college first opened in 1800, indeed where Twilight attended classes. That original building burned down about the time of the Civil War and the current building was for a couple of generations a part of the Middlebury Public School system. When, in 1985, the building came back into the possession of the college, was renovated and renamed for the Reverend Twilight, the dedication ceremony centered around an address by the late Reverend Dr. Samuel Proctor, long-time senior minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. His talk that day was a speculation of sorts. He asked repeatedly, as he recounted the young Twilight’s experience as a Middlebury College undergraduate, how the nation’s history might have been different if the entire country had followed suit back then, if equal opportunity irrespective of race or gender had come earlier in the nation’s history.

Haynes and Twilight and Willard embodied in their lives and work great ideas that went beyond words and provided examples, reference points, for an entire nation that continues to this day to try to give real meaning to the concept that all, yes all, are created equal.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria. VPR’s commentary series, “Great Thoughts of Vermont,” examines the big ideas that came out of a small state. Learn more about the “Great Thoughts” in this series.

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