Reprinted courtesy of Waterbury Roundabout.
December 19, 2020 | By Jacob Dawson
The Waterbury Area Anti-Racism Coalition’s “What’s in a Name?” community event this week drew over 100 local residents to talk about a recent revelation that Partridge Thatcher, the namesake of Thatcher Brook, was a slaveholder.
Thatcher’s name also belongs to Thatcher Brook Primary School, although that name was chosen in 1997 as a nod to the brook, not the man.
Life LeGeros, a resident of Duxbury and host of the Race Conversation series at the Waterbury Public Library, led the discussion Tuesday and said so far the overwhelming response of those who attended was a positive one.
“People coming out with the takeaway being ‘Let’s do more of this’ is certainly part of what we had hoped for and part of what we’re going to keep working on,” LeGeros said Wednesday.
Hosted via Zoom video conference, roughly two dozen facilitators, the majority of whom were educators and high school students from Harwood Union’s Rooted Organizing Committee, were joined by about 75 others from the Waterbury area. The event began with a recognition and moment of silence to honor the Native Americans who lived in Vermont before European settlers arrived.
“Please join us in acknowledging the Abenaki community and their land which we are on, which was first called N’Dakinna, or ‘The Dawn Land’ by its original inhabitants,” Harwood student and ROC member Gavin Thomsen said. “We also recognize the damage done to Abenaki villages by some of our ancestors.”
LeGeros then framed the event with a set of “agreements” for conversation regarding discourse, and “going beyond safe spaces.”
“We know talking about race and racism can be uncomfortable,” LeGeros said, explaining that the goal was to create “brave spaces” where everyone regardless of background felt comfortable engaging in difficult conversations for the betterment of the community.
Tracing Thatcher’s family tree
LeGeros next introduced Elise Guyette, PhD., a South Burlington teacher, historian and author who wrote “Discovering Black Vermont” after almost 20 years of research into Black families who settled Lincoln Hill Road in Hinesburg. Guyette gave a brief history of Thatcher’s story.
Born in 1714 in Lebanon, Connecticut, Thatcher moved to the town of New Milford, Connecticut, at the age of 28 and earned a reputation as a successful miller, craftsman and lawyer. In 1749, Thatcher purchased two young African children named Jacob and Dinah. Three years later, they married and raised multiple children, all enslaved by Thatcher.
In 1763, New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth chartered lands in central Vermont to several dozen people, including Thatcher, who 19 years later surveyed Waterbury for the first with a team of three others. The team built a cabin on a stream they named “Thatcher’s Branch,” which today is Thatcher Brook.
Thatcher is believed to have spent less than a year in Vermont before returning to Connecticut where he died in 1786 from what was thought to be an illness he contracted during his travels. Thatcher’s will freed all of his slaves on conditions and left them land in Vermont. No evidence has been found to suggest the land was ever settled by freed slaves.
Historical documents suggest that Thatcher treated his slaves like family, as he and his wife Mary were unable to have children. Guyette challenged some of these accounts, saying before Thatcher freed his slaves, many had attempted to run away.
LeGeros then introduced Dean and Karen Henry. Karen being the sixth great-granddaughter of Jacob and Dinah, Thatcher’s slaves. Karen Henry described her husband as the “genealogist of the family.”
Dean Henry said in 2012 when Karen’s mother passed away, they found an old letter addressed to Karen’s grandmother which “detailed [the family tree] from two children, slave children, that were purchased and in the country for six weeks by Partridge Thatcher, all the way up to [Karen’s] grandmother.”
After the Henrys spoke, attendees were broken up into 11 groups to have more focused discussions and give people the chance to share their reactions.
One group was facilitated by Adam Sargent, a history teacher at Harwood, and Allie Brooks, a Harwood student. Sargent began by saying his first reaction to hearing about Thatcher’s slave ownership was a desire to learn more. Brooks said the news struck her moral core. She then asked for others’ “gut reactions.”
Garin Samuelsen of Waterbury, said he was not surprised, but he was also saddened by the news. “So much in this country’s history is embedded in systematic racist ideas,” he said. Samuelsen said he is hopeful though that these conversations can continue to raise awareness.
Shannon DeSantis Gile of Waterbury explained her reaction this way: “Definitely not surprised, but it gave me kind of an ‘Oh yikes’ moment.” Sargent then asked what people thought of the significance of having a brook and school named after Thatcher.
Samuelsen drew a comparison between a place of education being named after someone, but not recognizing their transgressions, as a kind of subconscious ignorance.
“If we’re inside these walls that are named after a slave owner and choosing to ignore that, what does that teach us?” he asked.
Gile questioned what the harm was in changing the name if students and most residents are generally unaware of Thatcher’s life.
The small group conversations lasted about 45 minutes. LeGeros said facilitators asked the same questions in all groups, but conversations varied. He said in some groups, talking about changing the names of the brook and school came about very quickly, and other groups didn’t even touch on the topic.
The groups came back together to share what they had all talked about, where responses were similar. Most groups said they were not surprised to learn about Thatcher, and agreed there needs to be more discussions like Tuesday’s.
Ellie Odefey, a Waterbury resident and senior at Harwood, was one of the chief organizers for the event.
“I was a student at Thatcher Brook [Primary School] and it was the first time I was hearing of it,” Odefey said in an interview after the event. Odefey said she was never taught about Thatcher nor did she know why the school was named after the brook.
“To be honest, I don’t think the teachers did either,” she said.
Odefey said she was happy with how the event turned out, but would have liked to have heard some differing opinions and recognized one of the future challenges is how to engage more people who may not feel the same way about the issue.
Sorting through opinions
Indeed the discussion regarding how to consider Thatcher’s legacy today and his name attached to something as prominent as a school captured the public’s attention from the moment the Race Conversation event was announced several weeks ago.
A pre-event debate bubbled up on Front Porch Forum involving many local residents and community leaders alike.
Don Schneider, who served as principal at Thatcher Brook Primary School from 2000 until 2013, suggested in the forum that the school district remove the brook names from Thatcher Brook school and even Crossett Brook Middle School and once again use town names on the schools.
“I feel it is not appropriate nor historically important to name the primary school after someone who owned slaves no matter how kind he may have been,” Schneider wrote.
Waterbury municipal manager Bill Shepeluk weighed in cautioning those suggesting action without more consideration of the “context of time, place and culture.” He suggested that “teaching history is much more appropriate than trying to erase from history the deeds of the everyday folks.”
“It is easy to be critical of someone else who lived in a different time who is not here to provide explanation for the untoward behavior that we see. Let's spend more time trying to ensure that people 200 years hence don't have reason to be critical of our behavior in this time,” Shepeluk wrote.
While some voiced strong opinions, others suggested that everyone continue to reflect before advocating action steps.
Eric Mackey wrote in to point out how hard it is to imagine the culture and customs at the time Partridge Thatcher lived. “It might be more worthwhile to neither celebrate nor chastise a namesake from a time period that we can't even begin to understand with standards from the 21st century,” he wrote. “Heck, I'm 29 years old and I can't even begin to imagine what life was like for my grandparents growing up less than 100 years ago.”
Odefey said the response from the community has been a big part of the learning experience.
“I’m really excited that the town has gotten involved, even though it’s been a source of conflict, I’m glad it’s out there,” she said.
“Racism feels very intractable and overwhelming in so many ways,” LeGeros said. “But right now I’m feeling very hopeful that enough are people interested in working on this in the long term.”
To be continued
The day after the event, the Partridge Thatcher topic came up at the Harwood Union School Board’s meeting. Chair Caitlin Hollister, one of Waterbury’s four representatives on the board, said that she and at least five other board members took part in the online discussion the previous night.
Carlton Cummiskey, a Harwood senior and student member on the school board, also mentioned the event calling it “really powerful.”
At the close of their meeting, Hollister noted that the board meets next on Jan. 13 when several topics related to addressing racism will be on the agenda such as a request regarding flying the Black Lives Matter flag on school campuses and budget allocations for next year to fund anti-racism training and development. Continuing the conversation around Partridge Thatcher also would be appropriate, she said.
“Given the interest in the Thatcher Brook name both at the event last night and I think some work that’s going to continue around that, it is going to be wise for our board to consider allocating board agenda time to that topic specifically,” she said.
Stowe Street's Thatcher Brook Primary School has had several names and uses: Waterbury High School in the first half or so of the 20th century; Waterbury Elementary School starting mid-1960s, and the current name chosen in 1997 when Waterbury and Duxbury merged schools and named both after brooks in each town.
Reprinted courtesy of Waterbury Roundabout.