This is not the usual Black History Month story that is retold about African Americans as victims who needed rescuing. This is about a woman who was an orator, activist, mother, landowner and poet who used her voice in a time that may not been favorable for her to do such a thing. This is the story of a freed landowning slave woman from the 1700’s that has become an ever-more-timely instruction for all of us about the power of voice, the human imperative to witness and the reminder that we all must address injustice even when the stakes are high.
I was introduced to Lucy Terry Prince through a series of conversations with a friend and her direct invitation for me to become involved with the project Peoples, Places and the History of Words. This project involves several community partners and is a part of a four-year National Endowment for the Humanities grant that encourages a re-engagement with the literary history of Brattleboro, Vermont, especially through some of the lesser known voices that helped to shape it.
In 2015, my friend declared that “Lucy Terry Prince should be known in her own right!” At the time, I vaguely knew about the road named after her husband, Abijah Prince, but that conversation prompted me to dig deeper. While I was reading Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s book, Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend, I realized the implications of Lucy Terry Prince’s story within my life and this socio-political climate in America.
Lucy Terry Prince is a powerful figure, but we only know a few facts about her life. We know that she was brought to Rhode Island as a slave between 1728 and 1730 at the age of either two or four. In approximately 1733 at the age of five or six, Lucy was sold to a childless couple, Reverend Ebenezer and Abigail Wells, in Deerfield, Mass., and was baptized within a few years of her arrival.
In 1746, Lucy was in her early twenties when the Deerfield Massacre took place. She documented the incident in Bars Fight, her only surviving written work; the poem, which pre-dates Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems and is the oldest known work of literature by an African American, survived in oral tradition after her death until appearing in print for the first time in 1854 on the front page of the Springfield Daily Republican.
August ’twas the twenty-fifth,
Seventeen hundred forty-six;
The Indians did in ambush lay,
Some very valiant men to slay,
The names of whom I’ll not leave out.
Samuel Allen like a hero fout,
And though he was so brave and bold,
His face no more shalt we behold
Eteazer Hawks was killed outright,
Before he had time to fight, –
Before he did the Indians see,
Was shot and killed immediately.
Oliver Amsden he was slain,
Which caused his friends much grief and pain.
Simeon Amsden they found dead,
Not many rods distant from his head.
Adonijah Gillett we do hear
Did lose his life which was so dear.
John Sadler fled across the water,
And thus escaped the dreadful slaughter.
Eunice Allen see the Indians coming,
And hopes to save herself by running,
And had not her petticoats stopped her,
The awful creatures had not catched her,
Nor tommy hawked her on the head,
And left her on the ground for dead.
Young Samuel Allen, Oh lack-a-day!
Was taken and carried to Canada.
What resonates with me from Bars Fight as a writer, poet, and storyteller, is the power that lies within naming what one sees. Lucy was a slave when she penned the poem—and as we all know, slaves were given their names from their masters. It is through this lens that Bars Fight can be seen as an act of reclamation. One may be or feel enslaved by circumstances, but that status or feeling is not synonymous with being blind.
As a part of Lucy’s duties in the Wells household, she worked in their tavern. It was likely that Lucy Terry met her husband, Abijah Prince, in this tavern—both European and African American soldiers were constantly passing through. They married in 1756, and when Ebenezer died the following year without listing her among his property, it was assumed that she was free by default. During their time in Vermont, the Princes became targets of racially-induced harassment , which prompted Lucy to present and argue—and win—a case in front of the state’s supreme executive body petitioning for protection. She returned to the Vermont Supreme Court again in 1803, years after the death of her husband, to fight for her land rights. (She died in 1821 at the age of 97.)
At the time that I started to learn more about Lucy, I was questioning the validity or strength of voice in this technological age. Our words appear to lose value because we can easily scatter them with limited thought through social media and other vehicles. I pondered the weight of our actions especially now that activism includes our keyboards more than anything else—and while our justice system has always suffered from an image problem, the continuous stories of black deaths due to police brutality added to my bleak sense of things.
What is taking place upon our local and/or national stages that calls us to bear witness? In what ways do we witness? Is it through our words, our conversations, or in other ways? What destruction of self or power has happened or is happening for any of us that can be reclaimed through our voices, through naming or simply our words?
I still have questions. But studying Lucy’s life helped me to re-cast some of my thinking, and it reminded me of our responsibilities. Art has historically played the role of bearing witness. Our words, whether they reside within a Facebook post, an email or in many of the conversations that are prompted by our social or political landscape, are all forms of our witnessing.
One does not have to be a poet or even an activist to gain inspiration from Lucy Terry Prince’s life. At the very basic level, Lucy’s legacy is a part of our historical tapestry, residing within the pantheon of all who have fought for rights and freedoms in America. At this moment, she pierces the veil of time to remind us to be better advocates for ourselves. Her story reminds us that it is our right and responsibility to bear witness through any and every vehicle we have within our reach.
Shanta Lee Gander is an artist and multi-faceted professional. She has an MBA from the University of Hartford and an undergraduate degree in Women, Gender and Sexuality from Trinity College. Her prose is sometimes incorporated into her weekly radio segments, Ponder This, for Green Mountain Mornings 100.3 FM/1490 AM WKVT; her writing has also been featured in Rebelle Society, in recent dispatches about Cuba as a guest writer in Vermont Views and in VOICES, a mixed-media show that sheco-created with her husband.