Slayton: Inauguration thoughts on freedom

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(HOST) The inauguration of President Barack Obama made commentator Tom Slayton think of a bit of Vermont’s own history.

(SLAYTON) As I watched the inspiring events surrounding the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I was struck – as I’m sure many others were – by what a truly American story our new President’s rise to power has been: from humble beginnings, a bright, ambitious young man elevated by his own drive, intelligence, and courage to the highest office in the land.

The only difference from the classic Horatio Alger story – the stuff of which the truest American myths are made – is that President Obama had the additional handicap of being born black.  And by overcoming that particular American handicap he has helped us all transcend the deep and tragic conundrum that race has posed for America.

Our new President has helped rekindle an old American dream.  And that in turn helped make Tuesday a great day to be an American.

As I watched the inauguration, I was reminded of a Vermont story that has recently come to light – the story of an African-American man who sought freedom in Vermont 200 years ago.  He was captured in Africa by slave-traders; endured a terrible journey on a slave ship; and, after being held as a slave, won his freedom fighting in the American Revolutionary War.  His name was Jeffrey Brace.

After being freed because of his brave service in the Revolution, Brace decided to move to Vermont.  Why?  Because of the provision in the Vermont Constitution that prohibited slavery.  No one would force him back into slavery here.  And so he moved to Poultney – and, later, the St. Albans area – where he lived out his days with his wife and family.

I happened to encounter the story of Jeffrey Brace last October, when his new historical marker was erected on the pretty East Poultney town green.  As I drove into town, there were buses unloading: about 100 of his descendants had come to attend the event.

Like this past Tuesday, that was a great day, a day that in some small way may have helped right the enormous wrongs that slavery and racism have done in our country.  Jeffrey Brace’s life and accomplishments were celebrated, and his descendants – from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont – filled the East Poultney Baptist Church to overflowing.  They told their stories and spoke of their pride and happiness that their ancestor was at last being recognized.

We Vermonters need to remember that our history is not separate from the history of the larger United States, that blacks played an important role in early Vermont, as they did in the nation.  And the idealism of our forefathers in abolishing slavery in our first Constitution was important in 1777 and is important today.

Like the rise to President of Barack Obama, Jeffrey Brace’s story is an American story – a reminder of the deep value of freedom and the eternal drive of humanity to achieve it.

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