Vergennes to recognize Vt’s first Black sheriff, elected there in 1879

LARRY AND LYNN Schuyler visited St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Vergennes in the fall of 2019. Larry looked through church records and got to visit the town where his great-grandfather Stephen Bates had once been the chief police for 26 consecutive years.

VERGENNES — Vermont is awash in history. Some of it is as obvious as the white clapboard churches and the monumental stone markers erected in honor of Civil War veterans. Other history is overlooked  — for a while, at least  — though no less important.

Much of what children and teenagers are given in the United States details history primarily centered around white supremacy and the patriarchy. This is true at national and local levels. Recently, a story was uncovered in Vergennes that exemplified that very fact.

The key to understanding this issue is that it is local as much as it is national — something that I did not fully grasp until now. For the nation to be able to remember the history that has been omitted, the importance of researching our own small-town communities cannot be stressed enough. There is history that deserves to be remembered right here in Addison County.

Vergennes is a place filled with history. Vermont’s first known elected Black sheriff and chief of police, Stephen Bates, lived in Vergennes more than a century ago. Bates will be honored with the unveiling and dedication of an historic marker in Vergennes City Park (or Vergennes Opera House if inclement weather), at 11 a.m. on Oct. 3.

Bates, a Black man born in Shirley, Va., in 1842, was the sheriff and chief of police in Vergennes from 1879 until 1905 and re-elected in 1907 — the year of his death. Bates was presumably the first African-American to hold that position in Vermont.

Yet, no one seems to have heard of him. In fact, his story only came to light in the last couple years when Larry Schuyler of Worcester, Mass., the great-grandson of Bates, requested information on his great-grandfather and grandmother from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Vergennes.

Bo Price, a member of St. Paul’s, scanned church records until she found Stephen Bates along with his wife and children. Schuyler had mentioned Bates had been a sheriff, so, in hopes of uncovering more, Price took to the internet — “I’m a googler,” she told me with a laugh.

Price was able to find two obituaries for Bates as well as articles in archived journals. One of the obituaries was listed in the Middlebury Register, June 1, 1907, and the other in the Barre Daily Times, June 11, 1907. Price does not consider herself a historian, but was able to gather this information from the two obituaries:

Stephen Bates lived with the Hill Carter family who owned Shirley Plantation in Virginia. The Hill Carters counted among their relatives the mother of Robert E. Lee, and Bates’s obituary notes that he had vivid recollections of the Confederate general. In Virginia, Bates’s father was a carpenter, and Bates was a waiter.

The obituaries say he was born of free parents, but the Enslaved Ancestor File for Charles County, Va., indicate that his family was enslaved.

Bates served Union Army officers at Harrison’s Landing during the Civil War. Later he went to Washington, D.C., where he became acquainted with Col. Frederick E. Woodbridge, a Vermont politician who resided in Vergennes. Woodbridge employed Bates as his coachman in Washington when Woodbridge was serving in Congress.

Bates came to Vergennes with Woodbridge in 1866. Bates may have lived with Woodbridge in what is now used as the Episcopal Church rectory. The young Virginian eventually moved into his own home on North Street, which later was destroyed by fire.

Woodbridge was elected mayor the same year (1879) that Bates was elected sheriff and police chief. Bates held the position for 26 consecutive years. He lost in 1905 but was “unanimously re-elected” in 1907.

During his police tenure Bates arrested “Brooklyn Slim” and “Ottawa Red,” who, according to the obituaries, were members of a post office burglar’s gang. He also took into custody Perry the New York train robber.

Bates suffered from a heart condition and died milking his neighbor’s cow. The obituaries detail a well-attended funeral at St. Paul’s. He is described in the Barre Daily Times as being “a self-taught man, and in the discharge of the duties of his office was cool and self-restrained, rarely ever acting hastily.”

Bates was survived by his children Rose and Frederick “Fred” Bates. His wife, Frances Bates, had died in 1897.

Why had someone so celebrated been completely lost to time?

Alicia Grangent, a Vergennes residents who is Black, met with Price and me to discuss what the re-discovery of Stephen Bates meant for the community.

“I got goose bumps when I read this story. It felt like another reason why I’m meant to be here,” Grangent said. “History is written by those who get there first, and for this story to come up now might be a timing thing.”

Grangent described her relationship with history as a young student in southern Illinois: “I spent so much time sitting in the principal’s office, because I would always disagree with what we were given in class.” She felt she was never given close to the full picture of American history.

Grangent was encouraged by the Stephen Bates information we had been able to come across, but she reminded us that as a country we must dig deeper and get these untold stories out there.

Brian Peete, who was newly elected chief of police in Montpelier last year, was given the headline “first black chief of police in Vermont” by the media. But he told me that being the first police chief of color in Vermont was not his focus. Rather, he was focused on his fortune to be serving a town like Montpelier and his desire to work with the town and state to improve the community.

When Peete read Bates’s story, he too, said his skin prickled. “Reading this story was really amazing. It says a lot for the community during that time. And what is really incredible is that it was an election based on content of character, not an appointment that occurred to fill a racial quota.”

Peete sees the value in history. “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going,” he told me. “We have to acknowledge what has happened in the past,” to explain the importance of digging deeper into our history.

Schuyler, Bates’s great-grandson, said he wasn’t looking to re-write history. “We are looking to write about what has been omitted. We want to give those who have been omitted the credit they deserve,” he said.

Schuyler said he feels an intense connection to his great-grandfather, and his achievement of breaking the color barrier.

“It’s in my DNA,” said Schuyler, who himself broke the color barrier a number of times in his life.

“I feel very connected to my great-grandfather because I’ve been the first person of color in a lot of things in my area (Worcester) — golf, hockey etc. — but I never did it to be ‘the first person of color.’ I just did it because I wanted to do those things. I imagine my great-grandfather was the same way.”

Schuyler said he feels incredibly fortunate to have come across documentation of his heritage. He understands that many people do not have the kind of records that he has been able to find — making the story of his great-grandfather feel that much more special.

After speaking with Price, Grangent, Peete and Schuyler, the message of Stephen Bates’s story was clear:

“Individuals during that time were able to come together and elected a person of color to that position (police chief). That needs to be told,” Grangent said.

“If we could do it then, we can do it now,” Peete said.

When I began research on this piece, I was aware that much of the history I had been told growing up painted a picture that was far from complete, however, I had never truly understood how directly connected it was to my own Vermont community. Price and Schuyler uncovered a critical piece of Addison County’s history, and it has only left me and those I interviewed wondering who else has Vermont left behind?

Some of Bates’s descendants living in Massachusetts will attend the dedication and unveiling of the historic marker on Oct. 3. A representative from Sen. Bernie Sanders’s office will be present to give the descendants a framed copy of the Congressional Record recognizing Sheriff Bates. The public is invited to attend the unveiling.

A community historic marker team, consisting of historians and other community members, has spent the past year researching Bates’s life and rediscovering his story in Vergennes. The team consulted a variety of sources, including early newspaper records, the Bixby library, Vergennes city records, an oral history recorded via teachers at Vergennes Union High School, and records from the Shirley Plantation in Virginia. The Oct. 3 event is the culmination of their efforts to recover Stephen Bates’ remarkable life story.

Editor’s note: A version of this story ran in the Addison Independent in September 2020.

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