Martin Henry Freeman gazes toward Washington Street, a marker, according to those who put him there, of the ongoing struggle for equality.
The sculpture of the Rutland native who was the first African-American to become a college president was dedicated Thursday, and a descendant of Freeman announced his family was establishing a scholarship fund for local students. The bust of Freeman set atop a stack of books is the eighth entry in the Rutland Sculpture Trail and the third to be placed in Center Street Marketplace Park.
The piece was designed by Massachusetts artist Mark Burnett and carved by local sculptor Don Ramey. A number of people approached the two at the dedication Thursday to compliment them on the sculpture and each man responded by gesturing to the other, an attitude that continued when their turns came to make remarks.
“You see here, really, Don’s talent and his skill,” Burnett said. “I still look at it and see features I just love.”
Ramey said those features were all taken from Burnett’s work.
“I hope I did justice to the expression everyone saw in the model,” he said.
Freeman was born in Rutland in 1826, the descendant of freed slaves. He was among the first African Americans to enroll at Middlebury College and was his class’ salutatorian when he graduated in 1849. Freeman left Vermont for a job at Allegheny Institute and Mission Church, a black college in Pennsylvania later renamed Avery College. Within a few years, he was named the college’s president.
“Despite his brilliance and his personal success, Martin Freeman faced the same kind of prejudice and systemic racism as every other black person in America,” Costello said.
Freeman was so discouraged, Costello said, that he became part of a the movement advocating for Black Americans to relocate to Africa, which he did himself in 1864. He taught at Liberia College before rising to become that college’s president.
Costello said organizers were unable to find a descendant of Freeman while planning the sculpture, but one found them.
Robert Henry Dennis III, Freeman’s great-great-great-grandson, who represented Liberia as a sprinter in the 1996 Olympics and today works as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., said stories about the sculpture came up in a Google search he did on his ancestor in December. Dennis said the family has contingents in the U.S. and Liberia and they were truly honored by the city’s enterprise.
“Although we were not involved in the creation of this sculpture, we as a family are committed to working with you to memorialize our remarkable ancestor and ensure that his legacy lives on,” Dennis said. “Martin Henry Freeman was an educator, a curator of minds, a light in the darkness to so many. He represented this up to his final moments with his last words being ‘I can teach no longer.’”
Dennis said the family was creating the Martin Henry Freeman Memorial Scholarship, which would initially serve needy students from the Rutland area, but they hoped to build to where it could have a wider scope.
Racial justice was the recurrent theme among the speakers, that included Curtiss Reed, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, who said the Freeman sculpture would join Rutland’s sculpture honoring the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment on Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail. Reed said it was important to raise awareness of African Americans’ roles in Vermont’s history, which went all the way back to the Green Mountain Boys and beyond.
“Our kids need to see role models,” he said. “They need to see people of color who have done incredible things around the state and who are doing incredible things around the state.”
Reed said that while the city overall was still about 95% white, 13% of the students in Rutland City Schools were people of color, pointing to an inevitable demographic shift.
“We want to keep people here, and we think about the future — this is what our future will look like,” he said. “I am so impressed with this work. It’s a calling card to the rest of the nation that Rutland is a destination for everyone.”