Slowly but surely, efforts are being made to balance the scale in the documenting of this country’s history, in part through decisions about which Americans are honored with landmarks like sculptures and statues.
In Vermont, a blindingly white state whose Black residents make up only 1.4% of the population, an initiative to recognize local history makers from the region has led to the creation of a bust to honor Martin Henry Freeman, the first Black president of a college in the U.S.
AP reported on the recent installation of a sculpture in Freeman’s likeness in downtown Rutland in Vermont. Born in Rutland in 1826, Freeman rose to become the president of the all-Black Allegheny Institute and Mission Church in 1856, which is now known as Avery College.
The news of Freeman’s sculpture introduced me to his fascinating story, which not only included leadership roles in academia during a time when Black people’s opportunities were still stringently sidelined by law in America, but also covers his accomplishments as far as Liberia.
Freeman’s academic success took hold at Middlebury College, where he was the only Black student in a state that was the first to abolish adult slavery in 1777. Abolitionists in town had urged Middlebury to enroll Black students as a demonstration that the school really stood against slavery, said William Hart, an emeritus professor of history of Black studies at Middlebury College.
Freeman went on to teach mathematics and natural philosophy at Allegheny Institute and Mission Church in the Pittsburgh area, where be became president in 1856. He supported the colonization of Liberia for Black Americans and abruptly resigned in 1863 with a plan to teach at Liberia College.
He went to Liberia, as he often said, to be a man, which he felt he could not be in the United States, Hart said. It was an act of self-determination, he said. But unlike Freeman, many of the Black Americans who went to Liberia were biracial, the sons and daughters of former enslavers, Hart said. Being dark-skinned, Freeman felt discrimination there, too.
He taught at Liberia College and subsequently also became its president. He died in Monrovia in 1889.
Freeman’s sculpture is part of Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail, which was established to highlight the “profound impact” Black vermonters have historically had on the community. The sculpture was designed by African American artist Mark Burnett, who is based in Vermont.
It may take years for the many Black people who’ve contributed to the growth of America to be recognized with sculptures and statues to match the number of those that honor Confederate soldiers and generals like Robert E. Lee—whose monument was finally removed from Virginia earlier this week—but its been long past the time that more landmarks like the one honoring Freeman in Vermont be created, especially to expand all of our knowledge about the full history of this country.