Valley News, Vermont Law School Mural Viewed As Racist Will Be Painted Over:
Vermont Law School plans to paint over a mural in its student center that highlights Vermont’s role in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement after members of the law school community objected to its depictions of African Americans and said it made some people uncomfortable.
VLS President and Dean Thomas McHenry said in a schoolwide email this week that students and alumni had raised concerns about the mural in the Chase Community Center, which was painted by Vermont-based artist Sam Kerson in 1993 with the school’s blessing, even winning recognition from The Christian Science Monitor at the time.
“More than twenty-five years ago, the mural was offered to and accepted by the School with the intention of honoring African Americans and abolitionists involved in the Underground Railroad,” McHenry said in his email. “However, the depictions of the African-Americans on the mural are offensive to many in our community and, upon reflection and consultation, we have determined that the mural is not consistent with our School’s commitment to fairness, inclusion, diversity, and social justice. Accordingly, we have decided to paint over the mural.”
The brightly colored mural — “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” — comprises two 8-by-24-foot panels, with four scenes in each panel, and “celebrates the efforts of black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice,” Kerson’s website says. ...
Kerson said ... he had not been told of McHenry’s decision, and likened it to the “thuggery” of the destruction of a statue of Douglass last week in Rochester, N.Y. “This is a monument to abolition in Vermont and a description of the people who struggled against slavery, and it is important to our culture,” he said of the mural.
Sam Kerson, The Underground Railroad Vermont and the Fugitive Slave:
Welcome to the e-room describing the mural: "The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave. This mural celebrates the efforts of black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice.
This first panel depicts the enslavement in Africa. ...
The second panel discusses abolition. ...
Vermont, Abolition, and the Underground Railroad: 1777 - 1860:
Vermont has a long history of opposition to slavery. Many Vermonters opposed slavery and assisted runaway slaves throughout the pre-Civil War period. In 1777, Vermont's constitution became the first in the country to abolish slavery. While the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 supported the "rights" of Slave-owners to reclaim their "property" in any state of the Union, many Vermonters secretly or openly resisted the law, and the legislature and the courts made it as difficult as possible for slave-owners to remove escaped slaves from Vermont.
Judge Theophilus Harrington was a farmer who lived in Clarendon and served as Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court from 1803-1813. In one case he tried at Middlebury, a slave owner came to Harrington to recover a slave who had escaped to Vermont. The slave owner showed bills of sale for both the slave and for the slave's mother. Harrington said, "You do not go back to the original proprietor." When the slaver's attorney asked what he would need for proof of ownership, Harrington replied, "A bill of sale from God Almighty!" The escaped slave was set free.
By 1836 there were 89 anti-slavery societies active in Vermont. In 1840 many of these fervent abolitionists formed the Liberty Party and successfully proposed a personal liberty law that guaranteed fugitives an attorney, required first that the slaver post $1,000 bond and then be fined if he lost the case. If the slaver further attempted to capture the fugitive, he was liable for kidnapping. In 1842, the state legislature passed resolutions favoring a Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery and bar admittance to the Union, of states allowing slavery. Resolutions calling for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, for the abolition of slavery and for barring slave states from joining the Union continued throughout the pre-Civil War period. In 1843, the 1840 act was replaced by a strengthened act that also barred sheriffs, jailers and citizens from holding or detaining fugitives. In 1850, the state legislature resolved to use constitutional means to repeal or modify the Fugitive Slave Law at the national level and guaranteed fugitives in Vermont the right to habeas corpus and a trial by jury. It also required immediate notification of state's attorneys so that they could defend the fugitives.
The Underground Railroad was especially active in Vermont from 1830 to 1860. Most of the fugitives who went to Canada through New England passed through Vermont, with the majority passing on the route from Brattleboro to Montpelier. While there are no clear records on the total number of fugitives to pass through Vermont, one Underground Railroad agent in Norwich, which was not one of the main routes, assisted 600 escaped slaves.
Christian Science Monitor, The Painting of the Underground Railroad (Sept. 27, 1993):
Kerson sees this type of monumental art as a means of social and political commentary. Wiping perspiration from his brow — the windows in the balcony room were open, but the humidity was relentless — he said he was drawn to his subject by the role of freed slaves and abolitionists in molding a truer democracy in America. In the bravery and radical commitment of both the blacks fleeing bondage and the whites who sheltered them, he saw enduring relevance — something each generation of Americans should reflect on. ...
Vermont was a hotbed of abolitionist fervor, with even small towns having sizable antislavery societies. The state's prewar legislatures never tired of sending directives to the congressional delegations, calling on them to oppose statehood for slaveholding territories like Texas. Vermonters in Congress led the charge against the legal structures that upheld slavery, such as the fugitive slave laws. The state's courts did everything they could to foil slavers coming in search of their property. ...
[T]he law school, a private, liberal-minded institution in a small town that had actually been a setting for some of the scenes Kerson paints, welcomed the mural and its theme of injustice thwarted. The artist's political aims — to provoke questions and discussion through his painting — were right at home there.