Home News and Features Black History Month Ensuring the People’s House Welcomes All

Ensuring the People’s House Welcomes All

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Artist Katie Runde, who painted the Alexander Twilight portrait just unveiled in the Statehouse, is shown working in her studio. Photo by Evan Wilson.
The Vermont Statehouse has long been called “the people’s house,” but to many Vermonters, that’s not the message it sends. The walls of the majestic building are dominated by governors, military leaders, and white men. The state curator, the Friends of the Vermont State House, and others are working to change that messaging.

“We’re making room for new storytelling, and that’s what the portrait of Alexander Twilight is intended to introduce,” State Curator David Schutz said during an interview at the Statehouse in April. “The overall, arching goal is to ensure that all Vermonters feel that the Statehouse is theirs.”

Twilight was the first Black legislator in the United States, and Schutz said that prominently installing the portrait of him in the lobby is an important step toward making the “people’s house” more inclusive. About five years ago the Friends of the Vermont State House started envisioning a new interpretive plan — one that brings more diversity and inclusion to what people see when they visit or work in the building. Schutz formed a broad-based curatorial task force that included Abenaki, women, Black people, and representatives from the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont historical sites.

A decade ago, when the legislature recognized the Abenaki as the indigenous people of Vermont, the Abenaki gave the governor gifts. Schutz said that those gifts, combined with another a few years later — a carved sign made by writer and alphabet preservationist Tim Brookes — inspired an Abenaki display in the lobby. The sign presents the phonetic spelling of the name the Abenaki called themselves: W8banakiak. It means “dawn-land people.”

Discussions of the lack of Abenaki representation led to looking at other groups.

There were a handful of portraits of women in the Statehouse: Madeleine May Kunin, the state’s first female governor; Edna Beard, who in the 1920s became the first woman elected to the Vermont House and later the first woman elected to the Senate; and Consuelo Northrup Bailey, Vermont’s first female speaker of the House and, in 1954, the first woman elected lieutenant governor in the United States.

The story of women at the Statehouse goes back to Clarina Howard Nichols in the 1840s. A strong supporter of the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, Nichols became the first woman to speak to the General Assembly in 1852.

“The display goes back to the middle of the 19th century, when women began to advocate for themselves,” Schutz said. “This tells the story of how inexorably and gradually — and especially since getting the right to vote in 1920 — women were able to assume power here at the Statehouse.”

A large increase in the number of women legislators during World War II continued into the 1950s. In 1953, there was such a “then-extraordinary number of women in the Vermont General Assembly” that Life magazine ran a multi-page article about it.

 The new display about women in the Statehouse went up in February 2020, just before the pandemic shut things down. Other updated or new displays include information about the three Statehouses and the story of the statue atop the dome.

“This is more than a museum,” he said. “This is our state capitol. This is the place that still has the legislative and executive branches interacting and doing the people’s business, so as the people’s house, how will the Statehouse evolve over time, and what’s the proper role of the building and its ongoing storytelling?”

Artist Katie Runde, who painted the Twilight portrait, said the effort to make the Statehouse more inclusive brings to mind Vermont’s motto: Freedom and Unity.

“We can’t have unity as long as there are people who aren’t welcome or people who aren’t being taken care of,” Runde said in a telephone interview. “If we’re only representing white men and maybe one or two women, it says something about who we’re welcoming into the house. We need to welcome everybody into the house or else it’s not the people’s house … To finally get some diversity into there is amazing. We need more people of color. Twilight needs to be the beginning.”

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