By Elise A. Guyette
Originally published at https://rokeby.org/blog/. From 1793 to 1961, Rokeby was home to four generations of Robinsons — a remarkable family of Quakers, farmers, abolitionists, artists, and authors. Today, the Robinson family’s home is a National Historic Landmark, designated for its exceptional Underground Railroad history. Rokeby is among the best-documented Underground Railroad sites in the county, one the National Park Service has described as “unrivaled among known sites for its historical integrity and the poignancy of the stories it tells.”
Part I (1776-1870)
“Disillusionment inevitably follows each moment of heightened hopes and expectations by people of color.” Elizabeth R. Bethel, Historian
The truth of Bethel’s assertion can be seen through the generations of the Robinson family who first migrated from England to Rhode Island, where the slave trade was dominant in the 18th century, especially in Narragansett County where the Robinsons settled. They operated a large plantation worked by enslaved peoples. Those who migrated to Vermont were devout Quakers, who had come to eschew slavery, and they established their farm at Rokeby in Ferrisburgh, VT.
The inhabitants of the house lived through points of heightened hopes for African descended people such as the Revolution, emancipation, and a renewed interest in civil rights for all. They also lived through violent backlashes against people of color evidenced by scientific racism, the violence of Reconstruction, and the establishment of a prison-industrial complex.
This article, in three parts, explores those high and low points as well as the tentacles of that history that reach into the present.
High Hopes: Revolutionary Era
During the lives of Rokeby’s founders, Thomas (1761-1851) and Jemima Fish Robinson (1761-1846), the country experienced revolutionary change followed by a conservative backlash. The Revolution stimulated heightened hopes that freedom was finally coming for people of color. More people were freed during this era than at any other time before total emancipation in 1865. Black soldiers fought for both the British and American sides, since both nations vowed to abolish slavery if they won the war. For that reason, with hope in their hearts, Black men fought in the thousands to free the country from slavery.
In 1777, a Hessian soldier remarked, “No regiment is to be seen in which there are not negroes in abundance: and among them are able-bodied, strong, and brave fellows.”(1)
However, the sacrifices that Black men and women made for the American side were not rewarded. The ensuing Constitution was a slaveholder’s document, defining enslaved people as 3/5th of a human being for purposes of Congressional representation. While the British freed the Black soldiers who had fought for them and their families, only individual American soldiers were freed as a reward for their military service. The institution of slavery remained in full force on American soil.
One glimmer of hope was the Constitutional clause that provided for the end of the overseas trafficking in human beings in 1808. Many felt that with the end of the horrors of the middle passage, slavery would wither.
On January 1, 1808 many Black people met in their churches to praise the Lord that the end of slavery was near. However, their hopes were again dashed when the buying and selling of women, men and children increased internally in the country. The constant rapes of enslaved women in order to produce children born into slavery, a peculiarly American practice, eased the repugnant cravings of white supremacists for African people kidnapped from overseas.
Low Point: Post-Revolution and the Rise of Scientific Racism
After high hopes for equality during the Revolutionary Era were dashed, expectations for justice plunged. The founders of our country had maintained that all men were created equal, but after the country accepted the Constitution that preserved slavery, they needed to explain away the contradiction. Thus was born the assertion that Blacks and Whites had different blood that made Whites superior to Blacks. This “scientific racism” was not important before the war, but it became vital afterwards to get the founders off the hook of hypocrisy.
While Thomas and Jemima Robinson were settling into their new home in Ferrisburgh, an ominous character was singing and dancing across a stage in Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty. A dimwitted Sambo character created in 1795 for a play, “The Triumph of Love,” became a ubiquitous character in American culture ‘proving’ that Whites were the superior race.(2) By 1820, the stereotype was firmly implanted in Whites minds. The 18th century character, along with other similar stereotypical images, lived on through the 19th to 21st centuries in minstrel shows and movies, at fraternity parties, as artifacts, and on food products.
Sambo was a difficult stereotype to fight, but Blacks heroically fought against it at every turn, asserting they could not talk it down but would live it down. Black communities, including one in Hinesburgh,VT, built successful farms and businesses, sure that if they showed the world their skills, equality would surely follow. That movement showed promise as the abolition movement again gathered steam.
High Hopes: Abolition, Civil War and Emancipation
The next moment of heightened hopes dawned as the aim of ending slavery gradually became a goal for many Americans.
The second generation of Robinsons, Rowland T. (1796-1879) and Rachel Gilpin (1799-1862) were not just anti-slavery advocates but radical abolitionists who believed in the equality of men and women, Blacks and Whites. They rejected scientific racism. They aided people who freed themselves from slavery, employed freed men and women on their farm, and hosted Frederick Douglass and other luminaries of the abolitionist movement at Rokeby. The Robinsons were instrumental in founding Vermont’s anti-slavery society, which was not popular at first, since many White people still believed that subordination to Whites was a natural condition for people of color.
In the North, a new idea gradually took hold among many Whites: the idea that Blacks were inferior but should not be enslaved. Some people supported Colonization, a scheme to uproot freed families and send them to Liberia. Others supported the idea that slavery should be contained in the South and not allowed to spread to the west. Kept in the South, people believed slavery would die a natural death. It was the need of southerners to spread slavery to other parts of the country, coupled with the abolition movement, that caused the southern states to write secessionist documents. Every one of these documents pointed to the slavery issue as the spark to secede from the Union. “Local control” was called upon only as a means to protect the system of slavery and to protect the wealth it produced for elite Whites.
Blacks were joyful when the Union took to the battlefield against the Confederacy, and claimed the war as their Second Revolution. They felt sure the end was coming for slavery and itched to join the fight to prove their mettle but were not allowed, legally, until the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.(3) As in 1808, on January 1, 1863 many Black people met in their churches to praise the Lord that the end of slavery was near. One of these men hoping to fight against the traitors to our country was Aaron Freeman from Charlotte, who sometimes worked at Rokeby as a farm hand.
Finally, with emancipation, President Lincoln provided for men of color to join the military. Unfortunately, Rachel Robinson had died before she could witness emancipation, but Rowland T. lived through both the highs and lows of this era. Aaron Freeman and his cousins-in-law from Hinesburgh joined the MA 54th. This was another moment of heightened hopes for freedom and equality, as Black men helped to turn the tide of the war. By the end of the war, 10% of the Union army & navy were Black men, although they received less pay than Whites and could not rise above the rank of sergeant major. Yet, they rejoiced when freedom for all was finally attained through the 13th Amendment to our Constitution. Black men and women emerged from the war years with very high hopes. Freedom had come. But what would it look like?
1. W. B. Hartgrove (1916). “The Negro Soldier in the American Revolution” in The Journal of Negro History Vol. 1, No. 2 (Apr., 1916), pp. 110-131. Online https://www.jstor.org/stable/3035634
2. John Murdock (1795). The triumphs of love; or, Happy reconciliation. A comedy. In four acts. / Written by an American, and a citizen of Philadelphia; Acted at the New Theatre, Philadelphia. (Philadelphia: Printed by R. Folwell, September 10, 1795). Online
3. There were three Black regiments established in 1862 that were already in the field and fighting: 1st LA
Published by Elise Guyette
Elise A. Guyette is a former public school teacher, museum educator, and college professor, who has worked as a consultant on ethno-history, social sciences, and curriculum development for schools, theaters, television, and museums. She has a passion for discovering and teaching about stories that were lost because of the traditional telling of history from the point of view of the powerful and is currently working with Historic New England to tell the stories of past and present migrants to Burlington, VT's Old North End. Her publications are varied and include:
"Vermont: A Cultural Patchwork"
“Writing Oneself into Being: Black Writers and the U.S. Census”
“Gandhi in South Africa: A Perfect Miracle or Political Expediency?” and
"Discovering Black Vermont", for which she was awarded the 2010 Richard O. Hathaway prize for the year’s outstanding contribution to the field of Vermont history.
View all posts by Elise Guyette