Historical marker in Windsor to honor a woman enslaved by a Supreme Court justice

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Windsor’s James Haaf, who has researched the lives of Dinah Mason and Stephen Jacob, her slaver, believes she may be buried in this poor section of Old South Church Cemetery in Windsor, not far from Jacob’s graves and his family. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

Editor’s note: This story by Liz Sauchelli was published by the Valley News on June 14.

WINDSOR — A historical marker honoring Dinah, a woman who was enslaved by a Vermont Supreme Court justice after slavery was outlawed by the state constitution, will be placed Saturday morning in Windsor.

The historical marker is slow to come as Windsor continues to grapple with the legacy of Dinah and Stephen Jacob, the judge who enslaved her in his Windsor home which is on a street now named after her. In 1802, after Jacob drove Dinah from his home, the city of Windsor sued him in the Supreme Court for the cost of his care. The case was dismissed on the grounds that since slavery was illegal in Vermont, Dinah could not have been enslaved.

“I think it is extremely important that the marker refer to Dinah as Dinah and not with the surname of her slaver,” said Amanda Smith, a former Windsor Selectboard member who served on a committee that wrote the marker language. “And because she was buried in an unknown location with no permanent headstone, this historic roadside marker also functions as a memorial to her and an acknowledgment of her, of her existence, of her history, of her humanity. .”

The marker, which has been approved by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, will be placed in place in a ceremony at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. It will be placed on a strip of grass between the pavement and the Jacob Street causeway, in front of the house where Dinah lived when she was enslaved.

When a committee including Smith began work on the language of the marker honoring Dinah last year, the biggest challenge proved to be brevity – they had to tell Dinah’s story in just 1,500 characters.

The group focused on the significance of the court case, how Dinah was cast out by Jacob when she was no longer useful to him, and the hardships she faced in her life, including the being assaulted by a deacon’s son. It ends with mention of Dinah’s obituary, published in a local newspaper, which identified her as “a woman of color”.

Judy Hayward, executive director of Historic Windsor, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Windsor’s past and educating people about the town’s history, noted that the obituary does not mention Jacob .

“It seems that in his death there was a strong recognition of his humanity,” Hayward said. “She was alone in this obituary as a woman of color, and I think that’s very powerful.”

Dinah’s marker joins two other historic markers that will be installed this year to honor African Americans in Vermont, said state historic preservation officer Laura Treschmann. Another will mark the location of the Pate-King House in Burlington, which was run by Cleta Harrison King Pate and her husband. The Archibald Street hotel was listed in the Green Book, which told African Americans which places were safe for them while traveling across the United States. Another marker will be installed in Georgia to honor Jeffrey Brace, an African-American Revolutionary War veteran who wrote a book about his life titled The Blind African Slave or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nick-Named Jeffrey Brace. These three markers will bring to 29 the number of historical markers in Vermont representing African Americans.

“There’s not enough of it and we’re working to fix it,” Treschmann said. Vermont has 292 total historical markers in Vermont, according to a list maintained by the state.

Each year, the Roadside Historic Site Marker Program receives $25,000 from the state to order new markers and restore old ones. About 10 new terminals are installed each year and 8 to 10 are restored.

“We’ve also worked on the words to make sure there’s proper representation,” Treschmann said, giving the example of some older markers erected in the 1940s and 1950s that refer to European communities as early settlers of a place without recognizing the Native Americans who were there long before. . “We go back and correct the language and are inclusive.”

The marker for Missisquoi Village and Mission in Swanton is being updated. A marker for the site of the French fort Saint Anne at Île La Motte was recently updated to include a side written in French.

“We have opportunities to tell more of the story, especially as more of the story has been learned since some of these markers were put in place,” Treschmann said.

Each marker weighs 175 pounds and is made of aluminum which is then painted. Each costs about $2,100 to make, and workers from the state’s transportation department or community public works department install them, depending on whether they’re on a state or city road. If the marker goes on private land, the state hires private companies to do the job.

The majority of the 15 historical marker requests the state receives each year come from individuals, Treschmann said. The state works with experts to corroborate the information, and then the application is presented to the Vermont Advisory Board on Historic Preservation for approval.

“We have a criterion that he represents a story that is important to the region, region, state or nationally or he is a person who has acquired importance to the region, region, state or nationally that tells a Vermont story,” Treschmann said, adding that only three applications have been denied in the past eight years. “We work really hard with people to make sure the right part of the story is presented, because it’s an educational tool.”

State officials also found markers themselves, including one in Fayston for Ralph Ellison, who began his novel Invisible Man during a visit to the city. Treschmann currently has a team of interns working to identify more historical events featuring African Americans, as well as digging into Revolutionary War history in preparation for the 250th anniversary.

The process can take six months to a year, depending on how long it takes to reach consensus on the wording. Dinah’s marker was originally proposed as a one-sided marker – with the same text on both sides – but the committee chose to continue Dinah’s story on two sides to paint a more complete picture of her life.

“It may give people enough information to educate them on the spot, but doesn’t give them the whole story, so hopefully it will pique people’s interest and do more research,” said Treschman.

Windsor is always looking for ways to honor Dinah and fight Jacob’s legacy. In 2020 there was an effort to change the name from Jacob Street to Windsor to remove the judge’s name; the Selectboard at the time refused to make the change.

“I would like to see the City of Windsor change the name of Jacob Street because referring to the street by name is a way of honoring its heritage and its foul behavior says more about its character than any of its career accomplishments,” Smith said. . “If the street was called Freedom Street or similar, it would provide many opportunities for community members, students and tourists to learn more.”

Historic Windsor, which owns Jacob’s former home, is also working to put it on the market this year. While Hayward said the nonprofit plans to rehabilitate the house itself, it requires significant work and it would be quite a challenge to restore it to good condition.

“It’s a big project and it will take a lot of money to do it well, and you always have to look at your organizational capacity,” Hayward said. “Based on recent activity in the real estate market, we believe there is this type of buyer.”

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Tags: Dinah, Judy Hayward, Laura Treschmann, slavery, Stephen Jacob, Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, Vermont Supreme Court, Windsor

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