(HOST) To conclude our week of stories about Black Women in Vermont History, writer and commentator Elise Guyette describes the lives of women of color in an early Vermont agricultural community.
(GUYETTE) In the 1790s, early settlers of a remote hill in Hinesburgh – now called Lincoln Hill – were African American farmers, who risked the dangers and isolation of the northern Vermont frontier to escape constant surveillance by whites in lower New England.
Violet and Shubael Clark had to navigate the 2,000-foot rise, darkened by a canopy of old growth trees. Three years later, Prince Peters and Hannah Lensmen, settled at the bottom. Hannah soon died, perhaps due to childbirth fever, and Prince married a woman named Eliza.
Both families had toddling children, and Hannah, Eliza, and Violet were typical frontier women: one half of a mutually dependent economic unit. The men worked in the field and workshop; the women in the house and yard, caring for the garden and small animals, in addition to bearing and raising the children.
These women also entered the local economy. In 1827, records indicate that Matilda Dorsey bought the "butter of Miss Clark," one of Violet’s daughters, for 58 cents at Dunham’s store. Other records show that Violet’s granddaughter also sold butter.
This ordinary familial detail reveals something quite unusual about life on Lincoln Hill. Northern slave masters lacked the quarters to house more than one or two servants, and usually sold black infants immediately after birth. Grandparenthood was something few African Americans experienced in the North. Yet, the women of Lincoln Hill were surrounded by grandchildren in the safe space they had created.
These women also showed knowledge of the courts and property rights. When Prince died in 1830, his widow, Eliza, wrote a note to the Probate Court in Burlington asking that a white neighbor be appointed administrator of his estate. This choice was not made lightly; the administrator would be the one to set aside her widow’s dower. Records show she had chosen wisely, since he quickly settled the estate and ensured Eliza received her due.
In contrast, when Shubael died three years later, Violet’s son, Lewis, was appointed the administrator. He dragged his feet for many years, and Violet finally complained to Judge Russell, who directed Lewis to deliver to Violet 1/3 of the household property, including 100 sap tubs, farming tools, the barn, her loom and churn, as well as the house and 100 acres. They had obviously created a successful farm at the top of the hill.
At the bottom of the hill, Hannah and Prince’s daughter-in-law, Sarah had similar difficulties with her dower in 1876. With the same tenacity as the previous generation she complained to the Probate Court that her interests in her husband’s Estate were being neglected. The administrator, a descendant of Eliza’s administrator, was cited into court and Sarah finally received household furniture, cash support, and the homestead.
These women of color were not only pioneers who experienced all the normal tribulations of early settlers, but they also fought to maintain their homes and property with a knowledge and boldness that earns them our admiration today.
(TAG) You can find the text and audio of this commentary by Elise Guyette – and all this week’s Stories about Black Women in Vermont History – on-line at VPR-dot-net.