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First Black Man to Graduate College in U.S. and Become State Legislator Honored with Portrait in Statehouse

Middlebury College professor William Hart speaks about the life of Alexander Twilight after the unveiling of Twilight’s portrait at the State House Thursday, May 5. At right is Gov. Phil Scott. Photo by John Lazenby/Friends of the State House.
Growing up in rural Vermont in the early 1800s, Alexander Twilight faced some challenges: his family didn’t have much money, so he worked as an indentured servant on a neighboring farm; he couldn’t start formal schooling until age 20; and he was a Black man in a predominantly white state. All of that shaped him into the person who would go on to become an educator, a legislator, and, just last week, the first person of color to have his portrait hung in the Vermont Statehouse. 

Twilight attended Middlebury College and became the first Black college graduate in the United States. He built a successful boarding school and served as the school’s headmaster and the town’s minister. In 1836, voters elected him to the Vermont House of Representatives, making him the first Black American to serve in a state legislature.

“Twilight lived the American ideal. He improved his own situation and he favorably influenced lots of other people,” said Carmen Jackson, president of the Old Stone House Museum and Historic Village Board of Trustees. “He wasn’t defined by his race.”

On May 5, 2022, 186 years after his election into the legislature, Twilight achieved another first when his portrait went up at the Statehouse. During a 70-minute ceremony before an overflow crowd in the main lobby, Gov. Phil Scott and two members of the Friends of the Vermont State House unveiled Vermont artist Katie Runde’s life-size portrait. The Friends commissioned the portrait and the National Life Group underwrote it in memory of Jack Carter and Charlotte MacLeay, two past chairs of the Friends.

A Progressive Educator Ahead of His Time

Born in 1795, raised in Corinth, and graduated from Middlebury College in 1823, Twilight was a teacher and headmaster for over three decades. Most of that time he lived in Brownington, a small Orleans County town he called his “home of choice.” Under his leadership, the Orleans County Grammar School thrived. The school took local students and boarding students from around the country and Quebec. Twilight was responsible for building the “Old Stone House,” a four-story granite dormitory that is still the main attraction of historic Brownington Village. Formally named “Athenian Hall,” the building housed up to 70 students.

Sounding remarkably modern, Twilight’s commitment to adequate state funding of education led him to run for Brownington’s seat in the Vermont House. He served one term and quickly returned to his first love — teaching. 

Molly Veysey, the museum’s executive director, described Twilight as a progressive educator ahead of his time in what and how he taught and in his approach to student behavior. We celebrate STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as a modern movement, but Twilight taught those subjects and natural history 180 years ago. He embedded hands-on, experiential education in the Orleans County Grammar School curriculum and instruction.

Although Twilight also served as the town preacher, he let students decide whether or not to attend chapel. Student choice was unheard of in that era, and Veysey said it may have been one of the areas of friction between Twilight and school trustees. At one point Twilight left the school; however, it faltered during his absence, and he was asked to return. Years later, when Twilight died, the school faltered again and two years later closed permanently.

Of a Different Ethnic Background and Racially Ambiguous 

This daguerreotype of Alexander Twilight is the only photograph of him. The original is tiny: about 2 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall. Courtesy the Old Stone House Museum and Historic Village.
In early census records, Twilight’s parents were listed as Black, and Corinth records called them “the first negroes to settle in Corinth.” Years later, census records listed Twilight and his family as white.

 “It’s kind of an interesting journey that he makes from belonging to a Black family to being considered a white family later in his life,” Veysey said. “He was light-skinned, but his students certainly knew that he had perhaps a different ethnic background than many of them.” 

William Hart, professor emeritus of history at Middlebury College, taught both American history and African American history at Middlebury and is writing a book about Twilight. He hopes to have it in print for the bicentennial of Twilight’s graduation from Middlebury in September 2023, he said.

Calling himself a micro-historian, Hart said he uses “Twilight, his life, and Vermont as a window onto the larger society … . Microhistory means that you focus on an individual or a town or a movement or something seemingly small, but by probing that deeply you can expand upon a lot of cultural and national issues.”

“The book is about him, of course — the life and times of Alexander Twilight — but more importantly it’s really about how we think about race,” Hart said. “My book is interrogating how Americans — United States citizens — have thought of race over time and how the definition of how people are racialized changes over time. How that is determined. It’s not something that is fixed.”

Hart said that a racially ambiguous person — based on such issues as their education, career, spouse, friends — may “perform as white” and be accepted as such.

“I think it’s important for Vermonters to know that in Vermont — known as one of the whitest states in the union — people of color have made significant contributions to the history of the state, so Alexander Twilight is important in that way … He is the first of many more whose portraits will hang in the people’s house,” Hart said. “Vermont has always been a multiracial society with people who have made important contributions throughout its history.”

An Historic Portrait Begins an Atmospheric Change

The new portrait. Photo by John Lazenby.
Portrait artist Katie Runde usually paints from life, using live models, so painting the portrait of a man who died in 1857 and of whom the only existing photograph is a very small, scratched-up daguerreotype created extra challenges. The daguerreotype is about two inches wide and less than two-and-half inches tall, and although Twilight was known for his sense of humor, in 19th century custom, he didn’t smile for the photographer.

“What I love about portraits is you try to get the spark of humanity in a person,” Runde said. “You try to lean in to what makes them an individual. That’s the fun of it.”

Runde said that Hart, who is considered the top authority on Twilight, and the staff of the Old Stone House Museum helped her to understand Twilight. The portrait committee, which included Hart, representatives of the museum, the Friends of the Vermont State House and others, made suggestions about how to incorporate the various dimensions of Twilight’s life into the portrait. She had three different live models to help with body type, skin color, and complexion and had to hunt for men’s clothing from the 1850s.

“I never thought I would say this about any committee, but the committee was essential and so helpful and had some really good ideas that I ended up incorporating in the final portrait,” she said.

“We’re celebrating him as a person of color,” Runde said. “We’re also celebrating him for who he was in society. He was a minister, he was an educator. These represent a very different way of thinking about power, especially because at the Statehouse we have military heroes. We have white men who have a lot of money and so a lot of power. And here we have Twilight, who was predominantly a leader in service, as an educator, as a minister. That has to show up in the portrait.”

Before the unveiling of Runde’s Twilight portrait, all 86 portraits on display in the Statehouse were of white people, primarily men. Runde’s portrait is within view of the new exhibits about the Abenaki as the indigenous people of Vermont and about women in the Statehouse. Several speakers at the unveiling spoke of the Twilight portrait as a first step to bringing greater diversity into the people’s house.

“If you spent any time in the Statehouse, hopefully you’ve seen a gaggle of young girls stand under the portrait of Gov. Madeleine Kunin, just delighted to see someone who looks like them, who’s in vibrant colors, who makes them feel what’s possible,” said Vermont Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale at the unveiling ceremony last week. “Eighty-six portraits. One person of color. Three women. No women of color. We have so far to go, but now I know I can look at a portrait of Madeleine Kunin, of Rep. Alexander Twilight, and I can know that a day will come when there will also be a portrait of a woman of color who has walked these halls and served in these bodies.”

See a video of the unveiling ceremony of the Alexander Twilight portrait at the Vermont Statehouse here: montpelierbridge.org/video.

Visiting the Statehouse and the Old Stone House

Two places with special connections to Alexander Twilight, the Vermont Statehouse, right here in Montpelier, and the Old Stone House, in Brownington, in Orleans Country, are open to the public.

The Statehouse, which has the new portrait of Twilight on display in the lobby, is open to the public Monday through Friday, 7:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Guided tours stopped because of the pandemic; it is hoped they can resume this summer. Visitors are welcome to take self-guided tours. Currently, masks are required in committee rooms and recommended in other locations.

The Old Stone House Museum and Historic Village is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Mondays and Tuesdays.) This year it opens from May 18 through October 16. Both self-guided and guided tours are offered. Guided tours start at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. Details about visiting and information about Twilight, the museum, and the village can be found at oldstonehousemuseum.org.