on H.0527, Sec.97, Underground Railroad Study



In 1997 the legislature directed the Division for Historic Preservation in H.0527, Sec. 97 (a copy is attached to this report), to establish a steering committee and prepare a follow-up study on the 1996 Vermont underground railroad study by pursuing research through sources in Canada. A committee was appointed as per the requirements in the legislation, a historian was hired to do the follow-up report, and two steering committee meetings were held. The steering committee offered suggestions to the consultant on research questions to pursue and possible sources of information, and discussed Future efforts in underground railroad research and outreach.

A written report from the historian will be finished by May 30, 1998, and will be submitted to the House and Senate Institutions Committee and members of the steering committee. It also will be sent to the State Library and will be available to interested parties from the Historic Preservation Office.

Steering Committee

The steering committee consists of the following members: Sen. Julius Canns and Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, the two members of the Senate appointed by the Committee on Committees; Rep. Paul B. Knox and Rep. Carolyn Yarnell, the two members of the House appointed by the House Speaker; Elsa Gilbertson, representative of the Division for Historic Preservation appointed by the secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development: Jane Williamson, Director of Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh; University of Vermont history professor Dona Brown, Norwich University history professor Gene Sessions. and Middlebury College history professor William Hart, the three historians from different Vermont Colleges or Universities appointed by Governor; and Howard Coffin, Elise Guyette, and Tordis Ilg Isselhardt, the three Vermont residents appointed by the Governor. The project historian and consultant is Raymond P. Zirblis. who prepared the 1996 underground railroad study.

Steering Committee Meetings

The steering committee met on October 14, 1997, in Montpelier and on December 9, 1997, at Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh. The legislators on the committee elected Representative Yarnell as the committee chair.

At the October 14 meeting, Senators Canns and Illuzzi discussed the legislative intent of the study, Mr. Zirblis summarized his previous (1996) study and discussed the issues and challenges of the new research, and committee members offered suggestions on possible lines of research. The committee made the point that they hoped this project was the beginning of more research and focus on the underground railroad and black history in Vermont.

At the December 9 meeting, the committee welcomed two visitors -- Sarah Rooker from the Vermont Historical Society and Paul Dumais from the Committee on the Vermont Underground Railroad. Mr. Zirblis summarized his research efforts to date. He reported on his press releases to Province of Quebec newspapers, archival research, contact with local historical societies and historians in the United States and Canada, and contemporary newspaper research. Committee members suggested other possible sources of information and what would be feasible to pursue in the scope of the project. The committee then discussed where this effort should go from here. Senator Illuzzi said the report to the legislature does not need to include the final written study, but should include information on the public benefits of this research and how the information can be used in the best manner.

Summary of Research to Date (March 1998)

Historian Raymond Zirblis has pursued many avenues of research and has discovered that it is difficult to find information about the role of Vermont in the underground railroad through research in Canada. Research at the beginning of this year was set back considerably because of the disastrous ice storm that struck many of the key Quebec towns he had leads on. There is information about the black community in Montreal in the 1840s and 1850s, but not enough documentation to determine if any were ex-slaves who came through Vermont. He found that many Montreal blacks moved to Boston after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and yet others moved to Norfolk, Virginia, after the Civil War. There is a firm mention of Vermont by a fugitive named Moses Roper, who eventually moved to England. Mr. Zirblis has come up with a lot of information on Montreal, but the Vermont to Montreal or Canada connection is what is lacking. As news of his research spreads, he expects to discover more.

Goals for the Future

At the December 9, 1997, meeting, the steering committee stated the need to promote understanding and awareness of the underground railroad in Vermont and to continue this research effort. They suggested the following projects and goals:

Next Steps

The written report on the study of the underground railroad through research in Canada will be written by historian Raymond Zirblis and completed by May 30, 1998. It will distributed to the House and Senate Institutions committees, the steering committee, State Library, and other interested parties.

In the spring of 1998 the Division for Historic Preservation will work with the Department of Tourism and Marketing to use the remaining $5,000 of the study and brochure appropriation to develop the brochure as discussed above. It is expected that the design and printing of the brochures will cost nearly the full $5,000. The Division will solicit suggestions for sites to be included from a wide variety of interested parties in Vermont. Rokeby Museum has offered to host a working session to discuss and help finalize the list of sites. It is expected that a number of organizations will be able to provide text and graphics for their entries. The Division for Historic Preservation will be exploring ways to compile and edit the entries, and prepare the text for printing.


Prepared by Elsa Gilbertson
March 13, 1998

Vermont Legislative Council
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Fax: (802) 828-2424