Moving Onward, Part 4 of 4 in Celebration of Black History Month
By Old Stone House Museum Staff, in partnership with Scott Wheeler
The last three ONWARD articles highlighted stories of courage, acceptance and determination. Alexander Twilight and many of his contemporaries in the field of education far outpaced their time and culture as socially progressive minds. However, examples of race relations in Northern Vermont have not all been so inspiring. Too often, terrible moments of hate and pain crop up in our local history.
Being African American or of a different ethnic or religious group frequently led to discrimination in Vermont. In his book, My Vermonters, Roger Emerson gives an account of a trip to the Barton Fair during the early 1930’s and hearing a carnival barker cry, “Hit the —- and win a cigar. Hit him twice and take your choice.” A black man wearing a catcher’s mask stood at the ready nearby. According to the account, a friend suggested his father have a go, but instead his father, with a disgusted look on his face, stated he’d rather try his luck on some milk bottles stacked up at another stand.
In a recent donation of Orleans, Vermont photographs, one photo surfaced that appeared to be taken in the old Orleans Opera House circa 1918. The black and white photograph seemed to be of some kind of minstrel show, Halloween party or dance with people in masquerade including black masks and even blackface.
It may come as a surprise to some today that even the Ku Klux Klan had a short-lived presence in the Kingdom as shown in the excerpts to follow. While African Americans were in short supply there were others, mainly French-Canadian Catholics and Jews on whom the Klan could focus their hate. Scott Wheeler, publisher of the Northland Journal provides firsthand reminisces of cross burnings which occurred in Newport during the 1920’s.
“Tucked in her bed for a good night’s sleep, a young Laura (Lizzotte) Willard was abruptly shaken from her sleep by her father.
“They’re burning the crosses again,” Willard remembers her father telling her. Gathered in front of their home on Elm Street in Newport, the family could see three crosses burning up the hill behind where the East School stood at the time. “There was one big one and two smaller ones.”
“My parents were so frightened,” the now late Willard, who passed away on April 14, 2007, at 89 years old, recalled. “They were wound up.”
At the time, the hill was barren of trees, allowing not only the people of the eastside of Newport, including those living on Elm Street, to see the burning crosses, but also giving a clear view from downtown region of the city, including Main Street.
Being about ten or 12 years old at the time, Willard relied on her parents to explain to her what these unnerving events were all about. “They said it’s the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) again,” she said. “My parents were so upset.”
The short-lived KKK movement that stirred emotions during the mid and late 1920s here in the Kingdom and the rest of Vermont was part of a larger national Klan movement. Born in the South in 1866 following the end of the Civil War and freedom for the slaves, the Klan at that time focused their hatred and persecution primarily on the newly freed slaves. Following a lull in Klan activities, William J. Simmons, a former Baptist minister resurrected it at a gathering at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1915. The revitalized Klan expanded its scope of hatred far beyond African Americans to almost anyone who was nonwhite, non-Protestant, and not American by birth. The Klan’s slogan was “America for Americans.” – From Wheeler’s Newport’s Centennial: Voices from a Lakeside Community
As our country continues to evolve, bend and flex with cultural norms, expectations and emotions, we have an obligation to learn from both our beautiful and terrible histories. Here in the NEK, yes, there are plenty of moments in our history we should strive not to repeat. But, we also have so much of which to be proud.
“Another thing that is known about the Klan and its members is that many Vermonters rebuked them and refused to tolerate their ignorance. The Vermont Legislature considered a bill prohibiting anybody older than 12 years old wearing a mask or a disguise. Some communities worked to prohibit Klan activities. On an individual basis, some members of the community refused to do business with businesses or people associated with the Klan. Strong emotions about the Klan sometimes divided communities, pitting sympathizers against non-sympathizers.
As Willard looks back on those dark days in the Kingdom when a contingent of strangers and community residents rose up, donned robes and hoods, and burned crosses that lit the night sky, she said it’s unbelievable that such a thing ever happened in rural Vermont, an area that was, and is filled with people who pride themselves on getting along with each other.
“I was brought up to get along with people,” Willard said. “I was told if you can’t say something good about your neighbors, don’t say anything at all.” – From Wheeler’s Newport’s Centennial: Voices from a Lakeside Community.
Remember the stories told in our series of articles about amazing Vermonters who came before – George Washington Henderson, William Scales, Mercy Ladd Twilight, Nancy Louis Walker Skinner, Abbie Seavey and of course, Alexander Twilight – These people, through excellent education and fervent forces of will, built a unique and enlightened little world here in the Northeast Kingdom protected by the grace of the Green Mountains. With Twilight as our guide, we can continue our own paradigm here in the NEK where all people matter.