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Treading In The Steps of Abolitionists at Vermont's Rokeby Museum

By Marina I. Jokic

Located in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, the site that today houses the Rokeby Museum has a history that stretches back to the early 1780's. In the early nineteenth century, the estate was also a prosperous Merino sheep farm disporting green pastures and acres of apple and pear orchards.

The last member of the family to live at Rokeby, Elizabeth Robinson established the museum in her will in 1961, leaving more than 100 acres of land, 10 historic farm buildings, the house, and thousands of ephemera to engage and educate future generations. The pastures where sheep and dairy cattle grazed and the orchards can be crossed today by walking trails. Nine historic outbuildings display the tools and equipment that once powered the farm, and still extant barn foundations, wells, stone walls, and a sheep dip remind us of Rokeby's agricultural past.

"In recent years, the story of the abolitionist generation, [namely of] Rowland Thomas and Rachel Gilpin Robinson, and their efforts to shelter fugitive slaves has become the main focus of the museum's interpretation and education," Jane Williamson, the museum's director, said.

The Robinsons were among the earliest and most outspoken opponents of slavery in Vermont and the U.S and were considered radical abolitionists. He participated actively in antislavery societies across the nation, while she maintained their home and ensured it was free from any slave-made goods. Together, they sheltered dozens of fugitives from slavery.

Founded by Rowland Robinson and others in 1839, before public high schools had been established, the Brick Academy at Rokeby offered an education based on the philosophy of nonresistance. Much of the history of the Academy has been lost, but whatever remains can be found at Rokeby. Most notably, the Academy embraced students of African American descent, some local and others from as far as New York.

A highlight of the Rokeby collection is an algebra book signed by Henry and Eliza Turpin from New York, who were the children of a freed slave. The Academy closed in 1846 and was used later for agricultural storage, especially apples, while the building was sold and dismantled for the brick in the early 1940s.

Today, the Rokeby Museum is visited by hundreds of elementary, middle, and high school students per year. One of the current exhibits, Free & Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont, tells the story of two young men, Simon and Jesse, who escaped from slavery and made their way to Rokeby. Student visitors are especially excited to spend time in the very same rooms that Simon and Jesse once occupied. Students also experience life on the farm as they visit the Museum's eight historic farm buildings.

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Zane Weiss

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About The Author

Marina Jokic holds a bachelor's degree from Connecticut College in Russian and East...

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