Place  /  News

The Push to Remove Any Mention of Slavery From Vermont’s Constitution

The state prides itself on its abolitionist history. But its identity has been shaken by recent racist incidents.
Library of Congress

Vermont’s constitution is the hardest in the nation to amend. But in the coming years, state lawmakers want to alter it for a highly unusual purpose: to get rid of the language that abolished slavery.

The effort is part of a broader push on the part of legislators to solidify Vermont’s self-image as a bastion of liberal values and personal freedoms, which has been tested by recent racist incidents in the state. Advocates for the clause’s removal say it’s simply not necessary anymore, and that its inclusion in the founding document is insulting to African Americans in Vermont. The current raft of proposed amendments—the slavery provision, an expansive equal-protection measure, a constitutional guarantee for abortion rights, and a guarantee of privacy—could hit the ballot as soon as the 2022 midterm elections.

While the abortion-related measures are high profile, the slavery and equal-protection measures go to the core of the state’s identity. Vermont, which was 95 percent white at the time of the last census, has been known for its racial liberalism since becoming the first place in the Western Hemisphere, in 1777, to outlaw slavery. But the state remains monochromatic and, sometimes, racially fraught. “Vermont has long been accused, especially in other parts of the country, of being tolerant without a lot of diversity … to bump up against that tolerance,” says Kesha Ram, a former state representative and former candidate for lieutenant governor, who is one of only a few people of color ever elected to the state’s legislature.

As for the slavery passage, “we want it out completely,” says Tabitha Pohl-Moore, the acting director of the NAACP’s Vermont branch and the president of the Rutland-area chapter, arguing that opponents of removal are propagating the belief that “white folks think that they know better what we need than we do.”

The racial-equity measures function as a signal to Vermonters, advocates say, that bigotry is anathema to the state’s values. Cementing equal protection in the state constitution in particular gained a renewed urgency among lawmakers this past summer, when Kiah Morris, a two-term state representative from Bennington and the only black woman in the legislature, resigned following a torrent of racist harassment and threats from white supremacists, most notably another Bennington resident. (Morris could not be reached for comment.) The targeting of Morris was one of several incidents in the recent past that have shaken the state’s self-image.