Governor highlights Hildene's place on Heritage Trail

MANCHESTER -- Gov. Peter Shumlin came to Hildene on Friday to celebrate the new Vermont African American Heritage Trail and the inclusion of Hildene on it.

The trail consists of sites throughout the state that are of significance to African-American and U.S. history. Shumlin said Megan Smith, commissioner of tourism and marketing, made the project a reality along with the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity and its executive director, Curtiss Reed. An advisory committee also is involved in the project.

Two goals guided the project, Shumlin said. "The first was to bring attention to the history of African-Americans in Vermont and of a select few fellow Gov. Peter Shumlin and Curtiss Reed, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

Vermonters whose life's work focused on issues of equality and freedom," he said. "And the second is to expand tourism efforts across Vermont to welcome a more diverse population."

Double significance

The trail and its brochure bring "visitors to 19 sites throughout the state of Vermont which includes museums, cultural sites, exhibits, films and tours illuminate the lives of African-Americans for whom Vermont is part of their identify," Shumlin said. "Other historic places along the route chronicle areas, people and events significant to the journey of all African-Americans."

Hildene, the mansion built by Robert Todd Lincoln, the only child of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln to survive into adulthood, is included on the trail not only because Abraham Lincoln was the "Great Emancipator." Robert Todd Lincoln served a time as the president of Pullman Company, a significant institution in the lives of African-Americans.

The trail brochure states, "The Pullman Company at the turn of the century was the largest employer of African Americans in the country, offering former slaves jobs as Pullman porters. In spite of the exploitive work environment, these men were able to improve their lives and those of their families, helping to give rise to America's black middle class."

Shumlin spoke at Hildene before the Pullman charter railroad car, Sunbeam, a luxury car that was the corporate jet of its day. Hooked onto the back of a train, such charter cars were self-contained and included a heat source, kitchen, and two porters who worked on board, cooked three meals a day and tended to all the needs of the passengers.

The Sunbeam installation features a timeline on a wall showing the intersections of the Lincoln family, the Pullman Company, and the African American struggle for equality and civil rights in the U.S.

"I think it's worth mentioning that in the 100 years between Emancipation and the March on Washington, it was the Pullman Corporation, headed by President Lincoln's son, who actually created this family compound ... that gave many African Americans who'd just been freed jobs, in tough living conditions, tough conditions far from what we wished they had been," said Shumlin. "But that's what spurred unions in America, was the Pullman Car hard-working African-Americans who found this as a company where they could organize and to start to fight for equal rights and equality for African-Americans across the country."

In fact, A. Philip Randolph, who inspired the famous March on Washington, organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African American labor union.

Other sites on the trail include the Grafton History Museum in Grafton, the River Street Cemetery in Woodstock, and the Early Black Settlers Historic Marker in Hinesburg.

"The history of those of African-American descent in Vermont in many ways exemplifies the history of Vermont itself, from its founding in 1777 to the present day," said Reed. "This trail provides out-of-state visitors and residents alike a glimpse of the rich and enduring impact both black and white Vermonters have had in sustaining communities locally and promoting racial equality nationally."

Educator, author, and former state representative Bob Walsh, of South Burlington, has taught African-American history since 1980 at the high school level and at the University of Vermont.

"One of the common threads I've received form all the students I've had, it really surprised me, they said to me: 'why haven't we been taught this stuff before?'" he said.

Walsh noted that the students took the classes on this topic as electives, not mandatory courses. "Students would be upset: 'We never hear about this in our history courses,'" he said. "I'm delighted this is going to happen, Walsh said of the trail. "One of the problems is that African-American history is not taught in depth in any of our schools."

Smith said that after the disaster and challenge the tourism department in Vermont had been through with tropical storm Irene, which occurred two years ago, the Vermont African American Heritage Trail "project has been just such a bright light for us, and it's really kept us happy and focused."

The state Department of Tourism and Marketing is not done with the project, and it is going to pursue educational opportunities the trial provides. The trail opens up new markets for advertising and bringing groups to Vermont. "We're going to bring busloads of people to Vermont who had no reason to come before," Smith said.


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