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Public shows support for eliminating Vt. Constitution slavery references

Published: 4/5/2019 9:31:06 PM
Modified: 4/5/2019 9:31:21 PM

MONTPELIER — A public hearing on an amendment to eliminate the references to slavery in Vermont’s Constitution saw nothing but support on Thursday evening, as people from across the state came to testify in favor of the change.

However, at least one senator who testified earlier this week before the Senate Government Operations Committee, which held the hearing, says that changing the Constitution is rewriting history.

As it stands, the Constitution references slavery several times. The amendment, Proposal 2, would rid the document of all references, except to retain the language that says slavery “in any form is prohibited.”

The article bans indentured servitude, with the language: “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.”

Twelve advocates at the hearing held by the Senate Government Operations Committee spoke in support of several alternate wordings, with the general consensus being that the Constitution should make clear that slavery is prohibited regardless of a person’s age, not just for those over 21, and that indentured servitude is always illegal, with a person’s debts or consent having no bearing on the practice.

Christine Kemp-Longmore, of Burlington, told the committee that this is an issue that they’ll never quite understand in the same way people of color, like herself, do. She said it especially hit home when she first had to explain what slavery was to her kids.

“Explaining slavery to my children, one of the things where I got stuck is when my daughter asked me if it could ever happen again, and I said probably not, but I couldn’t really say that with confidence,” Kemp-Longmore said.

Mark Hughes, director of Justice for All Vermont, said the original wording of the amendment — to entirely eliminate references to slavery — fell short of its actual intent of making sure the Constitution explicitly prohibited slavery. But he said their attention is still focused in the right place.

“Our purpose remains clear, ‘to serve as the foundation for addressing sustained racism in Vermont.’” Hughes said. “I’m asking that the essence of this intent not be erased, I’m asking that we restore the purpose of the language moving forward.”

Earlier this week, the Senate Government Operations Committee heard from Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, who took a very different stance on the issue. He said that to reword the article would be to put a “smiley face” on Vermont’s history.

“If you change it, it’s not what (Vermont’s founders) said. It’s what we wish they said, what they probably should have said,” McCormack said. “It’s not what they said. It’s not real history.”

He said he’s not opposed to rewording the Constitution in general, but on this issue, which holds so much importance, particularly in Vermont — the first state to abolish slavery — he thinks the Constitution should reflect how the state’s founders really saw the issue. McCormack said he also would feel differently if the amendment would present any substantive change legally, but the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the 13th Amendment make it so that’s not the case.

“It’s often said the U.S. Constitution is a living document. Part of it is that it’s history is still in it, so if we change the language, what do we have?” McCormack said. “We don’t have law, cause the law is moot. So what do we have? We don’t have history either, because we’ve monkeyed with history. We’ve changed it.”

He said if the senators are set on a change though, he’d rather see the clause removed entirely, rather than it be changed to show something that he says is neither legally significant nor true to history.

Several people who testified on Thursday night said the amendment has the potential to make substantive change in the modern day. In particular, people spoke about human trafficking and prison labor as being the modern incarnations of indentured servitude and slavery.

“It’s known that prison is a form of slavery, if not a form of indentured servitude,” said Rasheta Butler, a student at Vermont Law School. “We have prisoners who are mostly of color in prisons doing (essentially) free labor … Vermont will not stand for institutionalized racism to continue to exist, especially in prisons.”

Kathleen Voigt Walsh, of Jericho, said that on the 51st anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the importance of taking a stand against racism in Vermont is especially apparent.

“It’s past time for us to do all that we can,” Voigt Walsh said, “and our Constitution needs to be changed.”

The passage of a constitutional amendment requires House and Senate approval in this biennium (before May 2020) and in the next biennium (before May 2022), and then a majority vote in the general election of November 2022.

“We don’t want to rush this,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham. “We want to get it right.”

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