In recognition of Black History Month, Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins takes us to a stop on the Underground Railroad, the Ferrisburgh, Vermont home of Rowland and Rachel Robinson, now known as the Rokeby Museum.
Executive Director of the Rokeby Museum Jane Williamson first explains what the Underground Railroad was, and how it was significant to the state of Vermont.
“Really what it was, was a journey that slaves took from slavery in the South to freedom in the North. It was difficult, dangerous and not always successful. Some of those folks made it all the Vermont and were here at Rokeby, especially in the 1830s and 1840s.”
“Were there a lot of people in Vermont helping slaves?” asked Perkins.
“It was relatively limited. Vermont has a proud history of abolition, which is earned. But abolitionists were always a tiny minority anywhere there was an abolitionist movement. So in Vermont, we know of a few folks in the area. But the idea that there was an Underground Railroad stop on every block in Vermont is a little overblown,” said Williamson.
“These are two generations of the Robinsons. Thomas Robinson was the first member of the family. He came to Vermont from Newport, Rhode Island in the 1790s. He purchased the property in 1793. This is his son Rowland Thomas, who was born here in 1796, with his wife Rachel. The Robinsons were Quakers. Rowland and Rachel were radical abolitionists, devout Christians, devout Quakers. Radical abolitionists had a very expansive view of Christianity. They believed in the Golden Rule and the Bill of Rights. That was all they needed. It was clear them slavery was wrong and it was a sin. Rowland, Rachel and the other radical abolitionists in the Northeast demanded immediate emancipation of all slaves and full rights for free people,” explained Williamson.
To get the word out about abolitionism, the Robinsons agitated, organized and created an abolitionist society.
“They did an incredible amount of publishing. One of the things that really impressed me is how literate they were,” said Williamson. “A liberated slave spoke in Washington County. And at the Great Convention, which was right here in Ferrisburgh, it was Frederick Douglass. This was in 1843. No one knew who Frederick Douglass was yet. He had only escaped from slavery in 1838 and began to speak in 1841. This was the opportunity; they offered these speakers if you organized a meeting. So Rowland organized a meeting and Douglass spoke right here in Ferrisburgh.”
“Scholars always talk about the Underground Railroad in history and in memory. What we’ve shown in this exhibit about the history of the Underground Railroad is often in conflict with what people think of the Underground Railroad, the memory of it. Popular culture will tell you there’s a back staircase and a hidden room. In Vermont, that really wasn’t so. We call our exhibit ‘Free and Safe’ because the fugitives that came here were free and safe. But that doesn’t mean stories didn’t crop up here. I think that’s why it is so popular and so well-known. It makes a great story. What we’ve tried to do in our exhibit is bring out the actual people, tell you something real about these folks, because to us that makes a much better story,” concluded Williamson.
To view our ‘This Place in History’ series or, during Black History Month, ‘Hidden History’ series, click here.