“‘At this place in history, we’re in Vergennes, home to Vermont’s first known black sheriff and police chief.
“So a few months ago, the state of Vermont, with a group of local citizens, erected the marker behind us to Stephen Bates, who was, as far as we know, the first black Vermont Sheriff and police chief right here in Vergennes,” said Perkins. “And we’re not talking like, you know, 50 years ago, we’re talking well over 100 years ago. 1879. So there’s a new exhibit, opening up the Bixby Library looking at his life.”
“I had a visit from Larry Schuyler from Worcester, Massachusetts. He was coming to Vergennes to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where I’m a member, and he wanted to know if we had any information about his great-grandfather, Stephen Bates,” said Bo Price, Co-Chair of the Stephen Bates Historical Marker Team.
“I just did a quick search online for some records, and I found his obituary, which explained that he lived here in the late 19th century, had been Sheriff for many years. I noticed that he was an African American, and I thought that was an unusual story,” continued Price.
“He was born enslaved on the Shirley plantation in Virginia, which is south of Richmond on the James River, and he and his entire family were there. So in 1862, McClellan, who was the General Union officer ended up being at a place called Harrison’s Landing, which was quite near the Shirley plantation with a number of troops,” said Price. “And at this time, Stephen escaped and joined those union officers.”
“He got to Vergennes through Frederick Enoch Woodbridge, who was a congressman. And we learned through newspaper accounts that he was Woodbridge’s coachmen. So when Woodbridge finished his time serving in the United States Congress, he came back to Vergennes where his home was, and Stephen came with them,” said Price.
“His time as sheriff was a part time position. He had additional duties – but as Sheriff he arrested people. There were stories about him arresting some mail robbers. That was a big story back then. There were some stories about him being involved in investigating grand larceny. He was Sheriff for 25 years. So all but six years between 1879 and 1907,” said Price.
“I think we have to remember that in Vermont, sheriff is an elected position. So it’s not like a job application chosen by a couple of people, it’s actually an elected position. I think it’s pretty significant,” said Perkins.
“Very Significant. If I remember correctly, Vergennes’ population was around 1500. And the number of African American’s then was 13, including Stephen Bates,” added Price.
“Through his personality and his skills with people, and he was a member of all kinds of community organizations. He was a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, he sang in the choir. So he had a lot of friends here. It apparently just wasn’t a thing that people in Vergennes would be upset about. They just really liked him a lot and wanted him as their Sheriff,” said Price.