Twilight’s Legacy: Lessons from America’s First Black College Graduate and Legislator
The Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village is working with educators and community members to actively resist the whitewashing of history and ensure that heroes like Alexander Twilight are included in national narratives.
October 7, 2021
Alexander Twilight was born in the farming community of Corinth, Vermont, in 1795. His parents, Ichabod and Mary, are listed in the town’s historical records as the first African Americans to settle there. By the time he was eight years old, Twilight was working as a laborer for a neighboring farmer, delaying his formal education until he was twenty. In 1823, he graduated from Middlebury College, becoming the first African American known to earn a baccalaureate degree in the United States.
Twilight went on to a successful career as a teacher, boarding school principal, and church pastor. As the principal of the Orleans Country Grammar School, he developed a groundbreaking hands-on, experiential, and place-based curriculum. In 1836, three and a half decades before African Americans were granted the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, he again made history as the only African American to serve in a state legislature before the Civil War.
Writing in Liberal Education magazine, AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella highlights the need for colleges and universities to work in tandem with museums and libraries to promote an inclusive American story—one that contests the whitewashing of history. At the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village, located on the grounds of a four-story granite schoolhouse that Twilight designed and built, we recognize our shared responsibility in educating for democracy. Our work is grounded in the conviction that local residents, community organizations, and educational institutions must work together to learn about—and act against—historic injustices, systemic racism, and pervasive inequities.
Celebrating Twilight’s Legacy amid Enduring Systemic Racism
The Old Stone House Museum’s efforts to make Twilight’s contributions more widely known are taking place against a backdrop of enduring systemic racism and growing controversy across the state—and around the nation—over who gets to decide how history is written and whose stories get to be told.
In an August 2021 town forum on critical race theory in Essex county, a neighboring community to the town Twilight called home, Vermont State Representative Brian Smith told a crowd that he was “proud to be White” at the same time he disavowed White privilege. An hour into the meeting, another White member of the community challenged the crowd with a question: “Anybody in this room know who the first slave traders were? They were colored people.” With affirmation from the crowd—applause and shouts of “That’s right!”—the speaker recited Vermont’s contributions to the Civil War. He followed up with an argument that “99 percent of the colored people stayed in the South because they weren’t that bad treated.” Finally, he concluded, “So, please don’t tell me I’m racist. I’m not.”
Shortly after this public exchange, the Old Stone House Museum held its annual Twilight Stars Party that brought community members together for live music, food, a beer garden, and astronomy lessons. During the event, the new interpretive signs on the museum’s nature trail, which celebrate Twilight’s use of the environment as a learning laboratory for students, were vandalized with paint. The Black Lives Matter flag flying prominently on the museum’s campus was also turned upside down. These acts have reinforced the crucial importance of community collaborations to catalyze change.
Embracing Community Healing and Narrative Change at the Old Stone House Museum
The Old Stone House Museum has embraced the principles at the heart of AAC&U’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) efforts to prioritize inclusive, community-based healing activities that reshape collective community narratives. In the recent book From Equity Talk to Equity Walk, AAC&U Vice President Tia Brown McNair and her coauthors argue that institutions must “elevate anti-racism as an agenda . . . if we are ever to truly be the just and good society we imagine ourselves to be.” Doing so, they remind us, “requires us all to be active participants in critically examining existing practices that are commonly accepted but perpetuate privilege and the hierarchy of human value.”
This fall, the museum embraced this challenge by creating an inclusive language guide that is being used as a resource for tour guides, the creation of interpretive materials, and daily interactions among staff members and our diverse audience.
Museum staff and board members have also used case studies—including recent controversies around (1) the renaming of museums and galleries, (2) whether the past actions of donors should affect the curation of exhibits, and (3) the removal of a rock that had been given a racist moniker from a prominent location on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus—to grapple with questions central to the museum’s dedication to promoting antiracism:
- What are the ways in which the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village can work toward decolonizing the museum—a process that expands the perspectives we portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group?
- Who gets to decide what constitutes racial offense?
- Does intent matter in examining whether something should be considered racist?
- What do words, labels, and names tell us about the historic moment in which they were created? What factors lead to changes?
- What do these words tell us about the dynamic between different groups and how those dynamics have changed over time?
- How and why do some words become offensive, pejorative, or socially unacceptable over time?
- In contesting Whiteness as the norm, what should we call Americans who are not people of color?
Rather than delegate the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion to the museum’s management team, we recognize that it is everyone’s responsibility to promote antiracism. This message, which extends from the top of the museum’s board to every museum staff member and volunteer, has a profound impact on organizational culture, empowering each of us to play a leadership role in rewriting the narratives around race in America while facilitating engagement with people from all backgrounds. AAC&U’s TRHT efforts continue to inspire us, and we look forward to future collaboration in meeting our shared objectives of jettisoning the belief in a hierarchy of human value, ensuring that heroes like Alexander Twilight are included in national narratives, and actively resisting the whitewashing of history.