Martin Henry Freeman

Sculpture to Trailblazing Black College President Dedicated in Vermont City

Martin Henry Freeman, who was born in Vermont, was the first Black man to lead a college in the U.S. as president

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Rutland, Vermont, celebrated a new public sculpture Thursday that honors a trailblazer in higher education.

The bust of Martin Henry Freeman was installed late last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic meant the sculpture’s dedication had to be delayed until now.

Martin Henry Freeman was born in Rutland 195 years ago. His grandfather earned his freedom from slavery by fighting in the Revolutionary War.

According to organizers of the Downtown Rutland Sculpture Trail, Freeman was among the very first Black students to go to college in Vermont. He went on to become a leading abolitionist and even the first Black man to lead a college in the United States as president — before the Civil War.

The Allegheny Institute, later known as Avery College, was a school for free people of color in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Our kids need to see role models, they need to see adults of color who have done incredible things in this state,” said Curtiss Reed of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, who spoke at the dedication ceremony.

A new sculpture debuted Wednesday in Vermont, celebrating a historic figure from the city of Rutland.

As NECN reported last year, Freeman would later move to Liberia, in West Africa, and continue his mission there of advancing access to higher education.

Following Thursday’s formal dedication, a marble tribute to Freeman is the newest part of the Downtown Rutland Sculpture Trail. 

“We stand here today in awe ,” said Robert Henry Dennis III, the great-great-great-grandson of Martin Henry Freeman, who was the guest of honor at Thursday’s dedication in Rutland. “He is officially back where he started.”

Steve Costello, a volunteer who was been working to expand the Downtown Rutland Sculpture Trail, said in an interview with NECN last fall that ,all too often, the stories of people of color have been overlooked in public art and in monuments.

Costello said he sees the Freeman sculpture, as well as another in the works honoring a renowned chef who was Black, as just one step toward correcting that under representation in Rutland — with more to come, as the region and state strive for greater inclusion.

The bust of Freeman was a co-creation — sculpted by master stoneworker Don Ramey following a design by Mark Burnett, who is a deputy fire chief in the city of Leominster, Massachusetts.

“It was a history lesson for me in itself, and I hope that people come in and see it and they take a piece of that and they learn and say, ‘Wow,’ and they realize and recognize his accomplishments,” Burnett said Thursday, following the dedication of the Freeman sculpture.

Freeman’s descendants announced they have taken the early steps to establish a scholarship in their ancestor’s name, to continue the educational legacy of Martin Henry Freeman.

“We would like to start off with a book scholarship — fitting, because he’s standing on books,” said Dennis. “Something that we can build, to help students here in Rutland.”

For more information on the sculptures in downtown Rutland, visit this website: downtownrutland.com/sculptures

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