Slayton: Rokeby Museum - Black History In Vermont

Oct 19, 2017

As you turn off busy Route 7 in Ferrisburgh and pull into Rokeby, the historic home of the Rowland Robinson family, you might think that you’re entering a different world

But you’re not.

The old farmstead, now a National Historic Landmark, is peaceful, a serene link to Vermont’s past. But the “Black Lives Matter” lawn sign at the entrance to the new Rokeby museum is evidence that present-day concerns are also reflected here.

In fact, that contemporary sign fits perfectly with Rokeby’s history. Because 150 years ago this quiet seeming farmhouse was on the front lines of the Abolition movement, and a safe haven for escaped slaves fleeing to freedom in Canada.

Racial justice, then, as now, was a cause close to many a Vermonter’s heart, and Rokeby was one of the places the smoldering fire of Abolitionism burst into flame in the years before the Civil War.

And as the southern novelist William Faulkner once wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The current spate of law enforcement killings of black people and the resurgence of virulent white nationalism make it clear that we need to learn again the fundamental truths of our  founding documents — that all men — all human beings, actually, everyone, no exceptions — are created equal, and are born with unalienable rights.

There are certain truths we need to re-learn in every generation, The core truth of racial equality is one of them and Rokeby is perhaps the best place in Vermont to re-learn that truth and what it really means.

On a recent visit, Rokeby Director Jane Williamson reminded me that there were two Rowland Robinsons. Both were Quakers, who believe in the innate divinity within every human being, but they expressed their belief and their Vermont heritage in quite different ways. Rowland T. Robinson was the fervent abolitionist, deeply connected to the movement. Rowland E., his son, was an artist and a writer of folksy Vermont tales.

The history of both men and other family members are celebrated at Rokeby. But it’s the dramatic story of how the elder Robinson and his wife Rachel Gilpin Robinson, devoted their lives to “the cause” and provided safe harbor for runaway slaves for many years that gets the greatest emphasis.

And that is as it should be. It’s obvious that we need to be reminded of their devotion to racial justice, perhaps especially right now.