Kevin Thornton

Commentator

Kevin Thornton is an historian and filmmaker from Brandon. His current project is about mourning and Civil War memory in Vermont.

For decades now, American colleges have been working to identify their first African-American students. The implicit message is that any college that can claim an early black student has a legacy of tolerance.

Stephen Douglas Birthplace and Brandon History Museum

150 years ago this month my town of Brandon, like the rest of the state, was in mourning. A town of 3,000 in the 1860 census, it lost six men in the Wilderness; over the course of the spring others would die at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. By the time the war ended 54 men from the town had died. That was typical for Vermont.

Andrew Harris, University of Vermont class of 1838, was the first black college graduate in the United States to demand, not only an end to slavery, but full equality for people of color. That made him one of the most radical and uncompromising reformers in America. Called “the most educated colored man in our country” by the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, Harris became a leading black intellectual before he had been out of UVM a year. Forgotten for 175 years, he is unknown today. But it’s high time to bring him out of the shadows.