Orleans County Historical Society celebrates Alexander Twilight

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by Joseph Gresser

BROWNINGTON — Alexander Lucius Twilight will turn 225 on September 23, or he would have had he not died in 1857.  The Orleans County Historical Society is marking the occasion with several days of events that kicked off Sunday on the grounds of the Old Stone House Museum with the presentation of a couple of gifts and reading of greeting cards sent by the U.S. House of Representatives and the Vermont Legislature.

As speakers beginning with Carmen Jackson, the historical society’s board chair, pointed out, Alexander Twilight was the first African American to graduate from a U.S. college or university, in his case Middlebury College.  He also was the first African American to serve as a state legislator.

He is particularly remembered in Orleans County as a schoolmaster and minister, leaving the four-story granite dormitory, today called the Old Stone House, as a monument to his dedication to his calling as a teacher.

The state, Ms. Jackson said, chose to recognize the anniversary of Mr. Twilight’s birth by replacing the historical marker put up in the 1940s with a new one focused on him and his achievements.

Bob Hunt, the museum’s associate director of operations, told the small crowd gathered across Old Stone House Road from the Samuel Read Hall House, not far from the Brownington Congregational Church where Mr. Twilight preached, that he hoped to get a new sign this year and was delighted to find the state was interested in reinterpreting some of the places already bearing plaques and had money to spend on a new one for Alexander Twilight.

“We wanted an update based on new knowledge, with his name on top,” Mr. Hunt said.

The group who wrote the text for the marker was faced with at least one limitation.

“The text couldn’t be more than 765 characters,” Mr. Hunt said.  “I think we left no spaces empty.”

Mr. Twilight arrived in Brownington in 1829 to head the Orleans County Grammar School, the marker informs passersby.  It does not say, what Mr. Hunt told the gathering, that he left town in 1847 after a quarrel with his board.

After a few years the community regretted their actions and implored him to return.  He did and, Mr. Hunt said, forgave the town enough to have said of Brownington in an address toward the end of his life, “This is the home of my choice.”

Alexander Twilight died in Brownington in 1857 at the age of 62.

Curtiss Reed Jr., the director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, followed Mr. Hunt to the lectern.  He said the Old Stone House’s new attention to Mr. Twilight’s African American ancestry marks the beginning of a conversation.

One of the outcomes is a plan to include the Old Stone House Museum as a stop on the Vermont African American Heritage Trail.

“People who are interested in cultural tourism can come to Vermont to be educated about the rich and deep history of the African Americans who have been in Vermont since the 1600s,” Mr. Reed said.

Asking himself what Mr. Twilight might have said that day as he preached in the nearby church, Mr. Reed suggested he would advise his parishioners, as did the late U.S. Representative John Lewis, “to get into some good trouble.

“He challenged the status quo.  He would want us to challenge the status quo,” Mr. Reed said.

The current education system will create a workforce steeped in racism and inequality, he said, asking people to work to create a system to promote antiracism and equality for all.

“I believe he’d want the Legislature to address diversity so everyone can be comfortable calling Vermont home,” he concluded.

After a rendition of the state song, “These Green Mountains,” by Eileen and Phil Baker accompanied by Kate Wolff on dobro, Bobby Farlice-Rubio, the science educator at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, told the crowd his coming to Vermont story.

Mr. Farlice-Rubio, who said he is half African American and half Cuban American, grew up in Hialeah, a working class suburb of Miami, Florida.

He said he first heard of Alexander Twilight during the annual Black History Month presentation given in his school every February.

All he knew of Mr. Twilight, Mr. Farlice-Rubio said, was that he was the first African American to graduate from an American college.  He said he knew little more about Vermont until he started attending Amherst College and went out for crew.

At one of the sculling races on the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mr. Farlice-Rubio noticed a team that had the image of a Holstein cow emblazoned on each of their oars.

Investigating, he discovered they were from Middlebury College.  At Amherst he met additional Vermonters and found them to be exceptionally nice people.  One invited him to spend a vacation at his family’s eighteenth-century home in East Ryegate.

In Hialeah nothing was older than the 1950s, he said.  He said he came back as often as he could and eventually met a Vermont woman and married her.

After he got his job at the Fairbanks Museum, Mr. Farlice-Rubio discovered he was now living in Mr. Twilight’s old neighborhood.  As he learned more about the educator, he found they shared a passion for astronomy.

That realization was heightened, he said, when he hosted a stargazing event at the Old Stone House Museum and felt that Mr. Twilight, too, must have scanned the heavens with his students as well.

Mr. Farlice-Rubio said he has had to find a way to deal with the fact that St. Johnsbury, the town where he now works, was founded by a slave owner who signed the Declaration of Independence.

At the same time, he said, he heard of a girl’s soccer match in town.  One of the girls on the local team was Jamaican, and during the match the opposing team’s players called her racist names.

“That happened five times before lunch where I grew up,” Mr. Farlice-Rubio said.  “In St. Johnsbury, it made the front page of the paper.”

Mr. Farlice-Rubio noted that Alexander Twilight was apparently silent on the question of abolition of slavery, a strong movement in the Vermont of his later years.

“I understand why he might not speak out,” Mr. Farlice-Rubio said, quoting a character from a show saying, “Woke rhymes with broke.”

Mr. Twilight may have needed work more than he needed to speak out on abolition, Mr. Farlice-Rubio said.

Still one of his legacies, Mr. Farlice-Rubio said, is “a person like me can get an amazing education.  You don’t have to look like me to support people like me.”

William Hart, who retired from his position as professor of history in June added some complexity to Mr. Twilight’s story.

While his father, Ichabod Twilight, was half African American and half white, there is no sign Alexander Twilight considered himself anything but white.

In the census of 1800 he was listed as black, but after Ichabod disappeared from history five years later the census recorded them as white, professor Hart said.

The difficulty with assigning a retroactive ethnicity to a person is the danger one will fall into the trap of using the one drop of African blood standard of antebellum slaveholders to decide who someone is, he said.

What is sure is that Alexander Twilight went to Middlebury after he worked off his indenture to a farmer.  He studied elsewhere first and arrived at the college as a junior in 1821.

He had to be proficient in Latin and Greek, math and algebra to get into Middlebury, Professor Hart said.

Once there he translated Cicero, studied natural philosophy — what we, today, call physics — astronomy and navigation as well as natural theology.  That, Professor Hart explained, is an attempt to gain a revelation about the divine through the study of nature.

It was evidently his favorite subject, he said.  Library records said he took one text on the subject out ten times.

Tuition in those days cost $26 a year, and room and board between $50 and $100, a far cry from the $70,000 the school charges these days.

Professor Hart said Mr. Twilight’s colleagues either didn’t know or didn’t care that he was part African American.  At the time free, educated black people were encouraged to emigrate to Liberia in Africa, he said.

He spoke of the example of Martin Freeman, who graduated Middlebury in 1849, almost 20 years after Mr. Twilight.  Mr. Freeman became the president of a college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but eventually moved to Liberia where he taught and was ultimately named president of Liberia College.

Professor Hart described Mr. Twilight as a man of indomitable will and irrepressible ambition.

David Shutz, the curator of the Vermont State House, arrived with journalist Tom Slayton, the vice-chair of the Friends of the State House.  He said his organization decided to give a portrait of Mr. Twilight to the State House.

The group was about to start a campaign to raise the $30,000 to $40,000 such a painting will cost, when the National Life Insurance Company stepped in to donate the entire cost of the project, Mr. Schutz announced.

State Representative Brian Smith read the text of a resolution designating September 23, 2020 as Alexander Twilight Day in Vermont and listing many of his accomplishments to explain the decision.

U.S. Representative Peter Welch, who stood marveling at his beautiful surroundings before he spoke, brought a similar resolution from the U.S. House of Representatives.

After reading the resolution, Representative Welch turned his thoughts to professor Hart’s remarks about a drop of African blood marking a person.

That comment, he said “shows how complicated this question can be.  But what’s not complicated is the right each and every one has to have a full life and mutual respect.  God grants those rights to each of us.

“The legacy of our country does include the stain of slavery, that was present in 1619 when a ship arrived in Virginia with 20 people aboard who were kidnapped from their home in Africa,” Mr. Welch said.  “Now each of us here has to decide what to do about it.”

After Mr. Welch presented the framed resolution to Ms. Jackson, she concluded the afternoon by reading, for the second time that day, words about Mr. Twilight from the late Irasburg author Howard Frank Mosher.

“I like the way the Stone House still looms up on that hilltop, where the wind blows all the time.  There it sits, unshaken and monolithic, as I write this sentence and as you read it, every bit as astonishing today as the day it was completed.  What a tribute to the faith of its creator, the Reverend Alexander Twilight: scholar, husband, teacher, preacher, legislator, father-away-from-home to nearly 3,000 boys and girls, an African American and a Vermonter of great vision, whose remains today lie buried in the church-yard just up the maple-lined dirt road from his granite school, in what surely was, and still is, one of the last best places anywhere.”

 

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