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Race and Reconciliation In Vermont, A Memoir

I n 1946, the town of Westford, Vt., some 13 miles northwest of Burlington, was rural and insular, not a place likely to attract an African-American family from a relatively integrated city like Los Angeles, where the black communities were well established, with their own businesses, churches and newspapers.

When Will and Helen Thomas and their children settled in Westford after the war, they were the only people of color for miles around. The story of how the Thomases grappled with their distrust of whites, and how the citizens of Westford gradually brought the Thomases into the fold of small town life is told in The Seeking , Will Thomas’ memoir of living in Vermont.

The book, which was published in 1953, has been reissued by the University Press of New England, with the original foreword by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a friend of the family, and an introduction and afterword by Mark J. Madigan and Dan Gediman, two scholars who give us the context of Thomas’ life before and after Vermont.

Thomas, whose real name was Will Smith, was Kansas City born and Chicago raised. After kicking around the U.S. and Mexico, taking up and leaving a series of jobs, he moved to Los Angeles, where he hoped to write novels. To support himself he dashed off torrid pulp fiction. The writer Chester Himes, an Angeleno, was one of his mentors.

Thomas’ wife Helen was a Pennsylvanian who’d attended Wilberforce University, a historically all-black university in Ohio, before moving to Los Angeles to work as a reporter for the California Eagle , a respected, influential newspaper for African-Americans that had been founded in 1870 as The Owl .

For the Thomases, Vermont was the last stop, a last chance at an American life. Scarred by the pervasive racism they’d seen and experienced, the couple had determined not to raise their children in a country marked by both legalized, institutional inequality and the criminal brutality of lynchings and mob violence. They dreamed of going to Haiti, where presumably race wouldn’t be an issue, and which had overthrown the yoke of slavery in 1791 under the leadership of the brilliant general and politician Toussaint Louverture.

But, almost on a whim, and perhaps because he couldn’t quite bring himself to leave his home country,Thomas , responding to an ad, decided to buy a modest, ramshackle home in Westford, much to his wife’s dismay.

Despite being the first state to outlaw slavery in its constitution in 1791, and its importance during the Civil War period as one of the major routes of exodus to Canada for people escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad, Vermont had long been considered one of the most isolated, least racially diverse states in the Union. Although current scholarship shows that, in fact, there were pockets of free blacks living in Vermont in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the image of an all-white state lingers.

And while Vermont found the institution of slavery unconstitutional, that didn’t mean it was free of prejudice. In the 1920s a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan that never gained much of a foothold had fulminated against Catholics and Jews, and although New England trumpeted its abolitionist credentials, its regard for the rights and the humanity of blacks was perhaps more observed in principle than in reality.

That disjuncture is evident in Thomas’ opening chapter. He drives up to the country store not long after arriving and has to negotiate a gantlet of white men who’ve gathered on the steps to chat. Neither overtly hostile nor welcoming, the Westford men present a united, seemingly impermeable front.

Is their dry New England understatement and reserve a facade for racial hostility, or is it to be taken at face value? Thomas feels simultaneously anxious and defiant, alert to any subtle shift in tone, facial expression or language that would confirm his fear that Vermont is no better than anywhere else.

This careful calibration of his thoughts and emotions is the book’s great strength. We feel the internal divisions, the constant, sometimes unbearable tension between the outer man, who battles living a life circumscribed by race, and the inner man, who dreams of what life could be. The memoir follows Thomas from childhood, when he read everything he could get his hands on and dreamed of glorious adventures, through adolescence, when the awareness that there is a divide between races sinks in, to adulthood, when the taste of racism is like the bitterest ash in his mouth. It eats away at him, consumes him. For Thomas, living in a country that has just defeated the racist ideology of Hitler’s Third Reich without acknowledging its own inhumane system of Jim Crow is particularly vicious irony.

Both husband and wife are skeptica l that Westford will take them for who they are. And their initiation is fraught with misunderstandings, although some of their closest neighbors welcome them with a warmth and sincerity that the couple are grateful for, but slightly suspicious of. Gradually, though, the Thomases begin to settle in, and the granite reserve of some of the villagers begins to soften. The Thomases appear to find what they sought: an acceptance based on, in Martin Luther King’s words, the content of their character.

When it was published, The Seeking was quite successful. It was one of a crop of books, like Richard Wright’s Native Son and Black Boy , that addressed the inequities of America’s shadow society. While the publication of books by African-Americans couldn’t be said to be an onslaught, there was a break in the dam. Indeed, Thomas had earned praise with his first published book, the novel he’d been working on for years, God is for White Folks , which came out in 1947.

With the support of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was a prominent member of the Book of the Month Club selection committee, The Seeking was a best seller in the Book of the Month club, and received mostly favorable reviews. Thomas had an engaging way of writing the New England character, and an ear for the way Vermonters talked, and the pained, angry honesty of the book is affecting. The notice The Seeking attracted seemed to promise the kind of career Thomas aspired to. By all rights he should have gone from strength to strength.

But, as the editors reveal in the afterward, life is more unpredictable than fiction, or memoir. The Thomases’ marriage failed, apparently because of infidelity on Thomas’s part, and perhaps alcoholism. Helen Thomas took her children and moved to Long Island. The children rarely saw their father after that, and he disappeared from their lives.

So is The Seeking a fable? Are the events described in it truthfully portrayed? Was Thomas painting, after its dissolution, an idealized portrait of life in Vermont, and of his marriage? Was he taking the liberties we expect in memoirs, in which how writers remember events, and what actually happened are often two very different things? Did the legacy of racism play a part in Thomas’ self-destruction?

There is not a wealth of information about him after the marriage broke up. What is fact is that The Seeking was his second, and last, book. Thomas’ truncated career is one of which we could ask: what might have been.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.