Descendants of former slave hold reunion in Poultney

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(Host) Over 60 members of the Brace family were in Poultney on Sunday to celebrate the unveiling of a new historic marker that honors their common ancestor – former slave and Poultney resident, Jeffrey Brace.

Nina Keck was there and filed this report.

(Keck) Jeffrey Brace’s life reads like an Alex Haley novel. Abducted by slave traders from his African village when he was just 16, he was shipped across the Atlantic and sold to a variety of owners. He learned to read and write, fought in the Revolutionary War and after finally winning his freedom, he settled in Vermont – first in Poultney then in St Albans.

We know all of this because Brace left something very unusual behind: a highly detailed memoir, published in 1810. Historians say it’s one of the very few from a slave who remembers living in Africa.

Relatives like Cynthia Curtis and her mother, Marilyn Brace Thomas, of Springfield, Massachusetts, say it’s a precious glimpse into their past.

(Curtis – Brace Thomas) "It’s our great great great great grandfather. Yeah – it’s exciting.
"To know where your ancestors, you know, resided, where they come from and where they ended up at. It’s a very good feeling. It’s really spiritual."

(Keck) Another relative, Jim Brace, lives in Saint Albans. In the meeting hall of the nearby Baptist church, he poked fun of the fact that he looked different from other family members.

(Jim Brace) "Myself, I’ve always wondered why I was so light skinned.” (laughter)

(Keck) Jim Brace held up photographs of his black father and white mother and many other mixed race relatives.

(Jim Brace) “Living in St. Albans, I was very proud of my heritage. After reading the book and understanding what Jeffrey went through, I’m 100% an unbelieveable percent, more proud of my heritage now than ever."

(Jeffrey Sylvestor Brace III) “All I really want to say is this is awesome to me…” “Amen.” “…it is amazing and my name is Jeffrey Sylvestor Brace the third. And I used to wear that proudly anyway – because my grandfather and my father are great men anyway. So I was proud to have that name anyway. But now knowing where it really comes from? My chest is really going to be poked out now.” (laughter and clapping)

(Keck) Sean Henry of Green Mountain College’s African American Culture Club says the new historic marker not only celebrates the life of Jeffrey Brace, but sheds light on Vermont’s history in the fight to end slavery.

For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck in Poultney

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