Vermont’s Forgotten History of Racial Bigotry

It’s hard for a veteran opinion writer to admit confusion. But the recent chaos in Virginia has humbled this writer and it has nothing to do with politics.

Growing up in the fifties in Morrisville at People’s Academy, our spring event was “Kakewalk,” a parody of a racist and humiliating amusement staged by slaves for their owners. The owners, king and queen of KakeWalk, sat in large chairs and watched as slaves high-stepped towards them in pairs with their arms pitched up and way back. The grand prize for the highest steppers was a kind of “plantation cake.” Hence the name KakeWalk which persisted in Vermont in my childhood and at UVM until 1969.

As a middle school student I remember sneaking into the auditorium and watching seniors audition for the spectacle. In 1958, my Vermont education ended when I left to go to Phillips Exeter so I never got to try out.

I’ve never served in political office, choosing instead to work in the business and non-profit sectors as my contribution to Vermont.

Watching the Virginia chaos, I have little sympathy for Northham’s dithering but believe he should have the opportunity to recover his dignity as a public servant. Even so, I’m haunted by my own “there but for the grace of God” circumstance.

If I’d had a chance at age 17 to participate in KakeWalk, would I have? I’d hardly ever seen an African-American except in movies or on passenger trains. There were none in Morrisville and only a few hundred in Vermont. I’d yet to study and understand our genocidal and exploitative history with regard to native Americans and immigrant minorities.

What would I say today if confronted with an image of myself in such a blackface spectacle?

I’d admit the truth but I’d also want the chance to apologize for my youthful bad judgement. After that I’d want a redemptive path – an opportunity to find and earn forgiveness and to continue to contribute. I wouldn’t want my civic life ended for my youthful ignorance and bad judgment.

How do we as a society find this balance? How do we afford someone the opportunity to confront and atone for bad judgment and go forward?

It’s only by chance, and perhaps lack of any athletic prowess, that I didn’t don a tuxedo and blackface and high step out in blackface myself.

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