A year ago, the Vermont General Assembly designated Sept. 23, 2020 as Alexander Twilight Day, marking the 225th anniversary of the birth of this African American trailblazer. The observance included an announcement that the Friends of the Vermont Statehouse had joined the Vermont State Curator’s Office in commissioning a portrait of the man who was not only the nation’s first African American legislator, but also the first known Black college graduate in the United States.
In 1836, Twilight, whose life and legacy are celebrated at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village, built the four-story stone structure from which the museum gets its name. The first granite public building in Vermont, Athenian Hall, as it was called then, served as a dormitory, classroom and assembly place for students attending the Orleans County Grammar School, where Twilight served as principal. The same year that Athenian Hall opened its doors to students, Twilight was elected to represent the town of Brownington in the Vermont General Assembly in Montpelier. His primary agenda centered on opposition to dividing funding for education between Brownington and the nearby town of Craftsbury, which sought to open a new school. Twilight maintained that investment in one excellent school is better than supporting several mediocre schools. Though he was not successful in persuading his legislative colleagues, Twilight made history, three and a half decades before African Americans were given Constitutional rights to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, through his presence as the only African American to serve in a state legislature before the Civil War.
While there is no evidence that Middlebury College, from which Twilight graduated in 1823, or the legislative colleagues with whom he served had any knowledge of his biracial heritage, a history of his birthplace, Corinth, lists his parents, Ichabod and Mary Twilight, as the “first negroes” to reside there. However, apart from this narrative and early census records, there are very few references to Twilight’s racial background. Indeed, in the past, representations of the groundbreaking educator and minister have often portrayed Twilight as White, without any hint of “the bronze hue” ascribed to him by one student in a letter home.
Perhaps the best example is a portrait of Twilight that was part of a series by American artist Charles M. Kerins, Jr., appearing in a March 29, 1952, Saturday Evening Post advertisement for the National Life Insurance Company of Vermont. The text in the ad, entitled “The vision of Alexander Twilight,” depicts Twilight as a national hero who “practically alone” constructed the Old Stone House and fulfilled his dream of building a school that would turn farm boys from the hills into leaders. Calling on potential customers to give their children the same educational opportunities Twilight championed, the company appeals to Vermont ideals “such as those of Mr. Twilight…ideals of perseverance, thrift, honesty and foresight.”
The fact that neither the text nor the imagery indicates Twilight’s African American heritage reflects a “whitewashing” of Twilight, illustrating how political, social, and cultural interests influence artistic representations and present whiteness as the norm. One explanation for Kerin's choice can be found on a website dedicated to his work (charleskerins.org), which notes that on the three occasions the artist submitted artwork depicting racially mixed subjects, his work was rejected, and he was ordered to redo the images. This erasure of Black bodies and the contributions of African Americans from Western art has perpetuated viewing the world through a “white gaze,” eliminating Black heroes and role models and distorting history.
Today, seventy years after their advertisement featuring Alexander Twilight, the National Life Group of Vermont has provided a grant to create a more accurate portrait—one that pays tribute to Twilight’s contributions as a Black leader. Katie Runde was selected among 18 artists to paint a large-scale portrait of Twilight to hang in the State House by 2022. Runde, who spoke at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village on August 8th, Old Stone House Day, acknowledges the complexity of White artists painting Black and biracial figures and the need to avoid essentializing race through stereotypes and caricatures. Her approach is to ensure that the voices of people of color are involved in the planning of the portrait and that she has a nuanced understanding, gained from scholars such as Middlebury’s Professor Emeritus Bill Hart and my colleagues at the Old Stone House, of a man who defied the expectations of his time. In the process, she hopes to create a piece demanding we look at Twilight anew, not only in relation to his triumphs, but also in the context of what he had to overcome as a Black man in antebellum America.
Spencer Kuchle is Associate Director for Collections and Interpretation at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.