georgewashingtonhenderson

Three years ago, after Saturday Night Live lampooned the state of Vermont as a “Caucasian paradise—an agrarian community where everyone can live in harmony because every single person is white”— Michael Schirling, secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development, responded with good humor.

In addition to sending the cast members flannel shirts from the Vermont Flannel Company, he invited the show’s viewers to learn about the state’s rich history and visit the African American Heritage Trail, which showcases the stories of Black Vermonters.

Both the comedy sketch and Schirling’s response are a reminder of how humor, irony, and satire, can raise awareness around critical social issues and challenge societal norms without stigmatizing people who are unaware of the issues or who hold differing viewpoints. In this age of “call-out” culture, Schirling “called people in” to view the Green Mountain state from a new perspective, with increased information about how Black leaders and community members shaped Vermont and the nation.

One such leader was George Washington Henderson. Born enslaved in Clark County, Virginia in November 1850, Henderson was hired as an attendant to a Union infantry officer during the Civil War and accompanied the New England soldier back to Vermont when the war was over. Though prevented from learning to read or write for the first decade and a half of his life, upon coming to Vermont, Henderson attended the Underhill Academy, studying under Principal Oscar Atwood, and Barre Academy, in preparation for admission into the University of Vermont. When he graduated at the top of his class from UVM in 1877, Henderson not only gave the valedictory address but also became the first African American to be inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

Founded on Dec. 5, 1776, in the Apollo Room of Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern by five students at the College of William and Mary, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious academic honor society. Adopting the motto “Love of wisdom is the guide of life” and celebrating the values of academic excellence, friendship, and morality, the members of what was then a secret society took up the most pressing issues of the day— from whether standing armies were justified in times of peace and whether religion is necessary in government to the justice of African slavery. When the College of William and Mary was forced to close its doors in the winter of 1781, after the British army under General Charles Cornwallis occupied the York peninsula, Connecticut native Elisha Parmele convinced his fellow Society members to allow institutions in New England to charter chapters.

According to the original records of Phi Beta Kappa, published in the American Scholar, chapters soon appeared at Yale (1780), Harvard (1781), and Dartmouth (1787). In 1848, the University of Vermont was awarded Phi Beta Kappa’s 11th chapter. While a resolution by the Society’s founders in 1779 declared that it was “repugnant to the liberal principles of societies that they should be confined to any particular place, men, or description of men,” and that “they should be extended to the wise and virtuous of every degree and of whatever country,” it took nearly a century for the Society to induct the first women and African Americans. The first women, Eliza Hamilton and Lida Mason became members at UVM in 1875 and Henderson joined two years later. Although Edward Alexander Bouche, the first African American student admitted to Yale, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1874, his official induction did not occur until 1884, when Yale’s chapter began activity again after a 13-year hiatus.

Henderson’s contributions to the state and to the nation are truly remarkable. While in college, during his junior year, he served as principal of nearby Jericho Academy and worked as a farmer during the summers. Upon graduation, he served as principal of Craftsbury Academy and Newport Graded School. In 1880, Henderson received a Master of Arts degree from UVM and earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale University in 1883. Following an additional year at Yale under a fellowship for excellence in Theological Studies, Henderson spent a year studying at the University of Berlin.

He went on to serve as a pastor in New Orleans, Louisiana and was appointed chair of Theology at Straight University, now known as Dillard. He also served as dean of Theology at Nashville’s Fisk University and retired from serving as a professor of Latin, Greek, and Ancient Literature at Wilberforce University. While in New Orleans, Henderson authored the first formal call to end lynching in a document entitled “First Memorial Against Lynching,” submitted to the Louisiana legislature in 1894.

Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail, designed to illuminate the lives of Black individuals with ties to Vermont helps to create a fuller, more complex story about the state than the one presented in the SNL skit. At the same time, it encourages visitors and residents alike to consider how the future of the state’s cultural, social, and economic strength and well-being is dependent upon building a more diverse and inclusive Vermont.

Spencer Kuchle is Associate Director for Collections and Interpretation at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.