Bittinger: William J. Anderson

Jan 17, 2014

William John Anderson, Jr. of Shoreham was born in 1876. He and his sister, Nettie, two years older, were children of a freed slave from Virginia who traveled to Shoreham with a Union soldier. Their mother was of French Canadian and Native American descent. The children learned French from her and both were given the opportunity to attend Northfield and Mt. Herman Preparatory schools in Massachusetts. Nettie went on to great success at Middlebury College. She became the first woman of color to attend there in 1895 and she graduated first in her class.

Her brother returned to Mt. Herman to run the student laundry and became active in the Republican Party, even attending Governor Coolidge’s inaugural ceremonies in Boston in 1919. Anderson served in World War I and first witnessed real racism in the Army. But in 1920, he returned to Shoreham, bought land, planted an apple orchard - and prospered.

His devotion to his orchard was legendary and many farmers came to him for advice. In 1935, he was elected president of the Vermont Horticultural Society and thus gained a statewide presence. He held many local offices and was a leader of the Masons, another state-wide organization. He was their chaplain of the lodge and secretary. As one fellow Mason put it, “He was always a credit to the order and a credit to the fraternity.”

He was the second African American after Alexander Twilight to serve in the Vermont state legislature. Elected in 1944 to represent Shoreham as a Republican, he met a racial barrier when he arrived in Montpelier. Both the Montpelier Tavern and the Pavilion Hotel would not give him lodging due to his race, so he stayed at the Miller’s Inn. Fortunately many of his friends in the legislature could – and did - find him there. One close friend was the former president of Middlebury College, John M. Thomas. Anderson enjoyed the experience, and once was invited to speak in remembrance of President Lincoln’s birthday.

During World War II, Anderson gained national recognition when he appealed to the U.S. senator from Vermont, Warren Austin, to train more African American Army officers. And he is quoted as saying, in reference to one interracial conference, that “They’ll argue learnedly about what the Negro wants, when all he wants is what any man wants.”

When William Anderson retired from the legislature in 1949, he returned to his orchard business, but could not make it profitable this time. He became despondent and tried more than once to take his own life. He lost his sight in one attempt, but his son and two grandchildren remembered that he then learned to type as a way to adjust to his new life of blindness.

When he died in 1959 at the age of 83, the town church was filled to overflowing with those who wanted to remember him and honor what he stood for.

And a grandchild fondly recalled him as saying that a Fancy Grade apple - was a perfect apple.