WINDSOR, Vt. — The Windsor Selectboard will seek public input to explore ways to remedy the town’s historical ties to a prominent Vermont figure and slaveholder.
On Wednesday the selectboard resumed a discussion initiated June 30 about whether to rename Jacob Street, named after Vermont Supreme Court justice Stephen Jacob, on account that Jacob was once an illegal slaveholder.
In addition to the street name, Windsor is also home to the historic Jacob House, on State Street, where Jacob and his wife resided in the 1780s.
Windsor Selectperson Amanda Smith broached the idea with the board last month about renaming the street, saying that the town shouldn’t pay honor to a slaveholder by naming public property after him.
Initially, Smith had suggested a vote by the selectboard, but on Wednesday the board felt the question required the entire community’s feedback.
“I think it’s a pretty good idea to give people what they asked for, which is inclusion in the conversation,” said Selectperson Christopher Goulet. “And I think a group specifically tasked with that is a wise direction.”
Many residents were critical of the selectboard’s conversation on June 30 because it occurred with little notice or opportunity to collect public input.
“I believe it’s better to have a committee look at some of these issues, to bet on a broader cross-section of the community,” former selectboard member Michael McNaughton told the board.
Town Manager Tom Marsh noted that the town has historically incorporated the public in the decision-making process, through committee discussions, public forums and education discussions, whether the topic was about a town solar project, the wildlife management area or future use of the Windsor prison property.
“There’s a long history of a very inclusive process that has led to big decisions,” Marsh said.
Though the decisions have never been unanimous, whether it was a vote by the selectboard or town ballot, the process has typically resulted in better educating the community and finding opportunities to collaborate, Marsh said.
Selectboard members also felt the underlying question should really be how to memorialize Dinah Mason, the Black slave owned by Jacob.
“Changing a street name is one way to memorialize her, but there are other ways that may exist that I would love more input from the community on,” said Selectboard Chair Heather Prebish. “Because I think this is a huge opportunity for us. The spirit of the idea is excellent.”
Prebish suggested that restoring and repurposing the Jacob House, perhaps as an educational resource, could be another way to honor Mason.
The board agreed that Smith and Prebish will initiate the formation of an ad hoc committee, with the help of Marsh. The board did not settle on a specific number of members, though Selectperson Paul Belaski had suggested between three to five people. This committee is expected to gather public input, through public forums, surveys or other resources, about questions that include renaming the street, and ways to commemorate Mason and the history. The committee will also study the impacts and feasibility to implement these proposals, including the process of having a street renamed in the state of Vermont.
The committee is expected to report its findings to the selectboard in late October, which would allow the board time to put a question into a warrant article for the town ballot.
Smith said she supported involving a committee-based process, though she still strongly believed the town should not have a street named after a slaveholder and that the selectboard also has a responsibility to take leadership on social issues.
“I do support the committee and I do support public input,” Smith said. “But I also support people of power using their positions to represent the underrepresented.”
Resident encourages the public to follow history, not hearsay
Windsor resident James Haaf urged the committee to focus its study on how to uplift Mason rather than an over-condemnation of Jacob.
While Haaf said he believes Jacob Street should be renamed, he cautioned the public about basing their opinions on the common hearsay rather than historical facts.
“One thing I’ve [found] is if you repeat something long enough it becomes fact and if it becomes fact it becomes popular belief,” Haff said.
According to Haff, who has closely studied the history surrounding Jacob, there is “no evidence” on record that supports the popular belief that Jacob had mistreated Mason or abandoned her in her old age.
The only indisputable fact is that Jacob was a slaveholder, as confirmed by a 1783 bill of sale signed by Jacob for the purchase of Mason. Additionally, slave ownership was illegal in the state of Vermont at the time.
“He was a slaveowner… [and] one of the few slaveowners in Vermont,” Haaf said. “But there is good evidence that Dinah Mason most likely took the initiative to exert her freedom. So celebrate that. Don’t condemn Stephen Jacob because the history has not been completed.”