First Black College President Honored in New Vt. Sculpture, Designed by Mass. Firefighter

The sculpture in downtown Rutland honors Martin Henry Freeman, an abolitionist and the nation's first Black man to become a college president

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A new public sculpture made its debut Wednesday in downtown Rutland, Vermont, celebrating a figure from the city's history books.

"One more thing which continues to put Rutland on the map," beamed Al Wakefield, a resident of Rutland County.

In recent years, Rutland has been working to grow its reputation for outdoor murals and sculptures.

Wakefield, along with other donors, helped fund the newest addition. He wanted to reverse what he calls a woeful underrepresentation of Black people in public art.

"Hopefully, it'll be one of many—this is but a start," Wakefield said of the larger-than-life bust of Martin Henry Freeman now installed outside Roots, a Rutland restaurant.

The creation got its start some two and half hours south, in Leominster, Massachusetts.

"I'm very proud of it," said Mark Burnett, a lieutenant with the Leominster Fire Department who sculpts on the side.

"I still consider myself a student to the art," Burnett told NECN in August of 2019, shortly after his design was selected to inspire the Freeman sculpture.

Burnett said he loved drawing ever since he was a kid, but picked up his interest in stone carving and sculpting when he was working toward his fire science degree—and needed an elective course to round out his college requirements.

To keep sharpening his skills, he sought out Vermont's Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland.

"I took a couple classes and now I can't stop," Burnett remembered.

It was at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center where Burnett heard the Downtown Rutland Sculpture Trail wanted to add a piece honoring Martin Henry Freeman, whose grandfather earned his freedom from slavery by fighting in the Revolutionary War.

Born in 1826 in Rutland, Freeman was a leading abolitionist of his day. He graduated from Middlebury College, became an educator, and then the nation's first Black man to serve as a college president—at an all-Black school in Pennsylvania, before the Civil War.

"Art and culture and history often are explained and demonstrated by white men," observed Steve Costello, who has been volunteering to expand the Downtown Rutland Sculpture Trail. "And the reality is that women and African-Americans and indigenous people have had huge impacts in this country and here in Vermont, and we think it's really important to tell all those stories."

Freeman would later move to Liberia in West Africa to lead another college, according to information provided to NECN by the team behind the sculpture.

Using only a single 1800s photo, Burnett designed a clay model of Freeman's head and shoulders, sitting on a stack of books.

Burnett collaborated with master sculptor Don Ramey, who executed the firefighter's vision using a variety of Vermont marble which is naturally darker—so the pair didn't have to use bright white stone to portray a Black man.

"A lot of the ideas that he had were about systemic racism and the impossibility of existing and raising his children in a world where they saw their parents being treated the way they were," Ramey told NECN in the fall of 2019, when the stone block was starting to take on its human form portraying Freeman. "So that's why he ended up going to Liberia."

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Lt. Burnett said he enjoyed learning more about Black history and history in general through contributing to the project, which he hopes will now introduce others to the life and legacy of Martin Henry Freeman.

"I wanted to bring that image into the third dimension so you could see now he's visible and more people, hopefully, will be educated to who he was," Burnett said.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant there couldn't be a celebration for the new sculpture, and that Burnett was unable to travel to Rutland to witness the installation—due to Vermont's tightened rules on cross-state travel which expect a quarantine.

However, a dedication and celebration is in the works for Spring of 2021, Costello said.

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