A trio of artistic disciplines comes together as Montpelier’s T.W. Wood Gallery honors both Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Black History Month with an unusual event Saturday evening. Focusing on the 19th century, “A Celebration of African Americans in Vermont History” features historical readings, period songs and an exhibition of paintings.
To open the evening, Hardwick actor Edgar Davis will bring to life two extraordinary Vermonters: Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) and Alexander Twilight (1795-1857). Both became prominent preachers and scholars — who earned Middlebury degrees — after spending part of their early lives as indentured servants. In 30 years at one Rutland parish, for example, Haynes penned and delivered some 5500 sermons. Twilight built a school that still stands in Brownington, and a brick building on the Middlebury campus bears his name — Twilight was the first African American to graduate from an American college.
At intermission, a reception will take place amid a display of paintings done primarily by the gallery’s namesake, Vermont artist Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903). To close the program, Vermont chorus Counterpoint will perform traditional spirituals and Civil War-era tunes.
Tim Tavcar, the gallery’s publicity director and office manager, came up with this multimedia approach. His initial inspiration was an in-kind trade negotiated with Counterpoint. The group’s members hail from all over Vermont. In exchange for rehearsal space at the Wood — a central location — the singers are performing at a couple of gallery events this year. Of the repertoire for Saturday’s concert, Tavcar says, “A significant amount is going to be from their album Let Me Fly,” which is subtitled Music of Struggle, Solace and Survival in Black America.
Tavcar knew these selections would fit well with the gallery’s collection of Wood’s 19th-century African American genre paintings — casual scenes of everyday life. “Portrait work was his bread-and-butter job,” Tavcar notes. The Montpelier native took commissions all over the country. Working in Nashville when fighting broke out, Wood “was stuck there for the entire Civil War,” Tavcar says.
Wood spent those years traveling in Tennessee and Alabama. “He got to experience a lot of African American life and the whole gradual emancipation” process, Tavcar explains. His paintings “evolved from slaves working in the field to portraits of free men and women.” Wood’s poignant “To the Polls: His First Vote” hangs in the current exhibition. “It’s four men of distinctly different ethnicities — one looks very Irish,” Tavcar describes. “And the fourth one is a black man with his voting chit in his hand.”
For Missouri native Edgar Davis, learning about Haynes and Twilight has been a revelation. “They seem very strange to me, and I have a lot of questions,” he admits. “These weren’t the kind of black men I was exposed to as a young man learning about African American history.”
Davis speculates on how two men of color not only achieved acceptance in their time but became community leaders. “In a place like Vermont that’s very last frontier-ish,” he ventures, “because things are scarce or a little harder, people are a little more tolerant. Maybe just out of necessity for ‘We need a preacher, and this guy is good.’”
Despite Haynes’ prolific writings, as of press time Tavcar had not found a sermon excerpt for Davis to read. Instead, Davis will briefly describe the lives of Haynes and Twilight and then present dramatic readings from Twilight and African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895).
Davis’ performance is “not going to be an attempt to imitate” the historical figures, he vows. “You let the text carry you through ... I don’t try to embellish. The reason why these things have lasted — the reason that people are interested in them — is because they are interesting in themselves.”
It seems enough just to imagine how powerfully Twilight’s words rang out in July 1853: “But subjugation by war and superiority of physical or intellectual strength never gave man the right to reduce his fellow man to his service without his own consent.” In Brownington, a black Vermonter preached this in a sermon 10 years before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed all American slaves free.
A Celebration of African Americans in Vermont History.” Saturday, January 23, at 7:30 p.m. in T.W. Wood Gallery, Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier. $20. Reservations or info, 828-8743.