By ANDY KIRKALDY
FERRISBURGH — A major federal grant recently earned by the Rokeby Museum could “transform” the Ferrisburgh institution that illustrates the key role Vermont played in the anti-slavery movement, its director said.
Rokeby director Jane Williamson announced this week that the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded the historic Route 7 museum a $235,000 grant to develop a permanent exhibit on the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves find their freedom.
Rokeby earned the highly competitive grant by developing a proposal to highlight the stories of two fugitives who enjoyed long stays at the Ferrisburgh farm, then owned by Rowland Robinson, after fleeing slavery in Maryland and North Carolina.
That exhibit will be housed in a new visitor center to be funded by a second grant Rokeby expects to be announced late this month. Williamson said she was not at liberty to discuss the upcoming grant, but said she was confident it was on the way.
Williamson also noted that the nearest permanent museum devoted to the Underground Railroad is in Cincinnati, Ohio. Because of growing interest in the history of the Underground Railroad and the unique documents at Rokeby related to it, Williamson said she expects the twin grants to help Rokeby grab a spotlight on a wider stage.
“It’s going to transform us,” she said. “It’s going to make a huge difference on this stretch of Route 7, and in Addison County and in Vermont. The Underground Railroad is a very compelling subject. There’s tremendous interest in it. There’s tremendous interest in it among Vermonters, and we’ve had a renaissance in interest nationally.”
The NEH grant will fund 60 percent of the cost of developing the audio-heavy Underground Railroad exhibit, and the National Park Service has pledged another $20,000. Because of the prestigious nature of the NEH bequest, Williamson expects private foundations and state agencies to support the effort.
“This is the kind of thing that foundations will cover,” she said.
As well as letters and artifacts documenting the Underground Railroad, Rokeby also offers an authentic look at Vermont life in the 19th century and other aspects of history.
“The site is very rich. There’s a very deeply layered history here,” Williamson said.
Still, Williamson said she and the Rokeby board understand that the role in fighting slavery played by Rokeby, the name given by the Robinson family to their Ferrisburgh farm, has become the museum’s major draw.
“It’s clear to us that it significantly drives visitation,” she said.
The exhibit will take up the second floor of the proposed new building, which will eventually be built in a lightly treed area south of Rokeby’s main Colonial home and original outbuildings. Williamson said she couldn’t say too much about the building, but it will provide elements that Rokeby now lacks: restrooms, a program center, a foyer and a ticket booth, all of which will allow the museum to handle bus tours for the first time.
“This would be something 40 or 50 people could pile off a bus and do,” she said. “It is really going to make all the difference to us on how we can serve that public.”
The key, Williamson said, will be combining the exhibit to lure those visitors to Rokeby and the facilities to accommodate them.
“That’s why we need this exhibit. So if you come in at 10 a.m., you can explore it in depth, and you can do it at your own pace,” she said. “And it’s right here, right on Route 7.”
The exhibit will occupy five rooms and offer two narratives, the first of a man named Simon, who fled Maryland for Pennsylvania when he learned his owner was planning to sell him to a deep-South plantation.
“That, for some slaves in Border States, was a fate almost worse than death,” Williamson said. “The work down there was far more onerous, and you were being taken from everything you’d ever know, from your family, from your friends … For him, that made the risk of running away worth it.”
The second narrative, about a man named Jesse who escaped from North Carolina, will unfold in an “object theater” behind a screen that will allow different artifacts to be seen at different times. Those artifacts will be displayed in turn while a script written by Vermont playwright David Budbill plays; that script is based on a series of letters written by Jesse and Rowland Robinson to Jesse’s former owner, Ephraim Elliot.
Williamson said Jesse stayed at Rokeby for about a year and earned $150 as a farm laborer. Jesse wrote to Elliot to ask him to accept $150 in exchange for renouncing his ownership claims. Elliot refused, and instead repeatedly requested $300.
Williamson said she was not sure Elliot, who inherited Jesse as part of Lot 4 in his father’s estate, made a smart decision. Once fugitives from slavery made it as far as Vermont it was not worth their owners’ expenses and time to recover a slave from a state with residents who mostly held strong anti-slavery sentiments: The property owner could not expect any cooperation.
“What we know from our letters is that Vermont was a safe haven. Jesse was a perfect example,” Williamson said, because if Jesse really feared recapture he would not have sent a letter with an accurate return address.
The exhibit, by personalizing the Underground Railroad, will offer a true picture of the times, Williamson said. For example, in one Elliot letter he said, “I cannot believe Jesse could with clear conscience wish me to take any less” than $300.
Williamson said documents like that show the “twisted thinking” of slave owners.
“This is a man who was stealing Jesse’s labor,” Williamson said. “Yet he’s incensed that Jesse would want to cheat him out of $150.”
In a glimpse of the future, that and other letters will be part of a dramatic reading of Budbill’s script that Rokeby will offer on Oct. 29.
Rare documents like that letter are part of what Williamson said could make an improved Rokeby a major draw for historians, school classes and tourists by the end of the decade.
“There’s nothing like this really in the whole Northeast,” she said. “There’s nothing that has our documentation, our authenticity, and the depth of what we have here between the landscapes and the buildings and the collections.”