Civil Rights leader and Rutland native was nation’s first black college president
By Victoria Gaither
The sculpture honoring Rutland native and leading abolitionist Martin Henry Freeman will be formally dedicated May 13 at noon in the Center Street Marketplace – 195 years after his birth.
The Martin Henry Freeman sculpture took its place on the Rutland Sculpture Trail and Vermont African American Heritage Trail on Nov. 20, 2020. But the coronavirus sidelined an official dedication ceremony until now when organizers invite the public to pay a proper tribute to Freeman. The event and all those attending are required to follow state Covid-19 protocols.
Steve Costello, vice president of Green Mountain Power and one of the organizers, said, “I am so excited to finally be able to gather with the artists, funders, and some descendants of Martin Henry Freeman to celebrate his contributions to mankind. He was largely forgotten in Rutland, but more than ever, we should remember people like him and the sacrifices they made and leadership they provided.”
The Freeman sculpture was designed by Mark Burnett of Leominster, Massachusetts, and carved by Don Ramey of West Rutland. The sculpture features an oversized bust of Freeman atop three huge books and a rectangular base. Based on the only known photograph of Freeman, Burnett created a powerful but welcoming expression, executed in Danby White marble donated by Vermont Quarries.
Daniel Smith of Burlington, Vermont, stopped to look at Freeman; he said, “I see pride and power in his face.” Smith had been snowboarding at Killington Ski Resort and stopped off in Rutland with his kids to see the sculpture and walk around.
Costello said, “I hope the sculpture gives people pause as they think about their own lives, and how we all must work to improve our community and the lives of our friends and neighbors, for the benefit of everyone.”
Kaifa Dennis, a descendant of Freeman who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, said, “We are very excited about the formal dedication and look forward to the family’s representatives meeting the people of Rutland, especially all of the officials, organizations, and individuals who contributed to the realization of this sculpture honoring our ancestor.”
Dennis also hinted at a Martin Henry Freeman scholarship for Rutland students; he explained, “I’m in charge of this project. It’s just a natural extension since he was an educator.”
More details on the scholarship will come in fall, he said.
Freeman was born in 1826 and lived on North Main Street. Most records say he was born May 11, but various sources also say he was born in February or September. He attended Middlebury College, graduating in 1849 as salutatorian. He became a stalwart abolitionist and advocate for the education of Black Americans.
The grandson of a slave who earned his freedom by fighting in the Revolutionary War, Freeman became president of the Allegheny Institute, later known as Avery College, in Pennsylvania. Despite his professional success, Freeman grew disillusioned by Civil War-era America, and was convinced that Black men and women would never be treated as equals in this country.
He became a leading advocate for former slaves to return to Africa for a greater chance at self-determination, and he emigrated to Africa, where he became a professor, and later president, at Liberia College until his death in 1889.
The Freeman sculpture is the eighth artwork added to the Rutland Sculpture Trail. The sculpture was funded by the Wakefield family, Jennifer and Fred Bagley, and Donald Billings and Sara Pratt, and is located in the Center Street Marketplace, directly opposite City Hall.
The Rutland Sculpture Trail is a collaboration of the Carving Studio & Sculpture Center, Green Mountain Power, MKF Properties, and Vermont Quarries to create art and beautify downtown, generate community pride, and honor local and regional history.