Politics

Advocacy groups kick off campaign supporting constitutional amendment to formally abolish slavery

Vermont Interfaith Action and Vermont Racial Justice Alliance held a community cookout Friday, June 17, in Burlington to launch a campaign in support of Proposal 2. Prop 2 would amend the Vermont Constitution to state that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — At the top of Church Street on Friday, people of all ages gathered for the “official kickoff” of the campaign to support Proposal 2 — a rephrasing of Vermont’s Constitution that would officially abolish slavery in Vermont. 

Sponsored by Vermont Interfaith Action and the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, the air was abuzz with sounds of friendly conversation and musical performances and the smells of freshly cooked food. But supporters hoped the message would resonate far beyond the lawn of the First Unitarian Universalist Church.

The campaign to pass Proposal 2 is part of a nationwide effort to officially abolish slavery. Vermont Interfaith Action partnered in the campaign with the Abolish Slavery National Network, a nationwide organization that aims to close similar loopholes in the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution and in individual state constitutions around the country. 

“We know that if you follow policy, you will always end up in the Constitution,” Rev. Mark Hughes, executive director of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and Justice for All, told VTDigger in an interview. “If you read the Constitution for 25 seconds and you come into three exception clauses that don’t prevent slavery, that’s problematic.” 

Friday’s event was the first of six events that the advocacy organizations are holding this weekend to mark Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, found out that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier. Juneteenth became a federal holiday last year.

“This is celebratory,” Hughes said of the effort to advance Proposal 2. “This is an opportunity for people to learn, to come together, to grow and to have an impact. In November, it’s not the end. It’s the beginning.”

Omega Jade performs at a community cookout on Friday, June 17, at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington. Vermont Interfaith Action and Vermont Racial Justice Alliance organized the cookout to launch a campaign in support of Proposal 2. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Currently, Article 1 of Vermont’s Constitution states that, “No person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person as a servant, slave or apprentice, after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person's own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.”

Come November, Vermonters will vote on whether this part of the text will be replaced. The new text would read: “Slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”

“We want to make sure that people understand that there are actually exceptions in the Vermont Constitution, and that actually, our constitution was used as a model for other state constitutions to have exceptions,” said Rev. Debbie Ingram, executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action. Ingram is a former state senator and introduced Proposal 2 in 2019, the year it first passed in the Legislature.

Amendments to the state constitution must pass both the House and Senate in two consecutive legislative bienniums before a public vote in the November general election.

Although Vermont is commonly known as the first state to abolish slavery, it was not the first to update the language in its constitution. Rhode Island is the only state that formally abolished slavery before the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Since then, Colorado, Utah and Nebraska have all successfully abolished slavery in the last four years. 

Vermont is one of twenty states that are working to update language in their constitutions and one of five where voters will consider amendments this year.

“Not many people know the more nuanced history of Vermont,” said Rajnii Eddins, a teaching artist who shared his work at Friday’s event. “A lot of the tagline that we’re taught in school is that Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery. For anybody who feels strongly about the recognition that our people are inherently, intrinsically deserving of freedom, that would seem troublesome.”

Hughes said he has received regular hate mail throughout the campaign — hate that is increasing as the movement gains publicity. Much of the backlash has come from people who are uninformed about the proposition or who feel a sense of pride in the idea that Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery, he said. But Hughes has not been surprised by the response. 

“There will be a backlash for any efforts to try to make any serious effort to really dismantle slavery in a nation that has never been a nation where slavery did not exist,” he said. 

Vermont Interfaith Action and Vermont Racial Justice Alliance held a community cookout on Friday, June 17, in Burlington to launch a campaign in support of Proposal 2. Prop 2 would amend the Vermont Constitution to state that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott proclaimed formally that Proposal 2 will be on the November general election ballot. 

“Vermont is proud to have been the first state in the Union to outlaw slavery in its constitution, but this proposal to clarify the antiquated language is meaningful as well,” Scott said in a public notice. “We have come a long way since those words were originally written, but we know there is much more work to do.”

Proposal 2 will appear on the ballot alongside another proposed amendment, Proposal 5, in November. Also known at the Reproductive Liberty Amendment, Proposal 5 would guarantee the right to abortion, contraceptive care and other reproductive care. 

Melissa Bettah, deputy director of Vermont Interfaith Action, said discussion surrounding the Reproductive Liberty Amendment has helped the campaign for Proposal 2 by raising public awareness that Vermonters will be voting on constitutional amendments this year. The last time such a proposal appeared on the ballot was 2010, when voters approved a measure to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they would be 18 by the time of the general election. 

“We have a huge amount of turnover in the Legislature and in the state offices,” Ingram said. “So we don't want (Prop 2) to get lost. We want to make sure that people are aware of it and that people really understand the need for us to do this.”

Other events this weekend include a panel discussion, spoken word poetry and a virtual prayer breakfast. 

“What we’re here to do is celebrate because we learned something new,” Hughes said. “Not only that, it’s something that is so incredibly impactful. We now see a continuous connection that leads us back for 245 years and explains a lot of the disparities that exist across all of our state policy institutions.”

Edwin Owusu, who performs as the artist SINNN, speaks at a community cookout held by Vermont Interfaith Action and Vermont Racial Justice Alliance on Friday, June 17 at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the status of proposed constitutional amendments in other states.

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Jenna Peterson

About Jenna

Jenna Peterson is a student at the University of Southern California, where she is majoring in journalism and political science. She is news editor at the Daily Trojan at USC and was an editor of the Burlington High School student newspaper when it received a special New England Newspaper & Press Association award for successfully fighting a censorship effort by school administrators.

Email: [email protected]

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