Panel to study renaming Windsor street that references slaveholder

  • There is a growing conversation in Windsor, Vt., over whether to rename Jacob Street, named for Stephen Jacob, a former Vermont Supreme Court Justice who was a slave owner. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/30/2020 9:59:21 PM
Modified: 8/5/2020 8:27:31 PM

WINDSOR — As it weighs how to honor an enslaved woman who was purchased by a prominent Windsor resident in the town’s earliest days, the Selectboard is creating a committee to study a proposal to rename Jacob Street.

Two board members, Amanda Smith, who brought forward the proposal to remove former Vermont Supreme Court Justice Stephen Jacob’s name from the street, and Chairwoman Heather Prebish, who has taken a more cautious line on the proposal, will be members of the committee. Although the board took no formal action at its meeting Tuesday evening, forming a committee to study the ramifications of the name change was a consensus view of the five-member board.

“I think I speak for us all when I say we do want to move forward with this discussion,” Prebish said during the meeting.

The proposal to change the street’s name stems from concern from Smith and others in town that a street named for a man who owned a slave sends a disturbing message about what the town values.

“I do not support holding up the name of a slaveowner,” Smith said.

Stephen Jacob, an early and prominent settler of Windsor, purchased Dinah Mason from a man in Charlestown in 1783, according to a bill of sale. Dinah, as she is known in Windsor, lived in the Jacob household until 1800, when she was either turned out or left. The town sued Jacob to recover the cost of caring for her, citing the bill of sale as evidence.

But the state Supreme Court voted 2-0 in his favor and refused to accept the bill of sale as evidence. Jacob recused himself in the matter.

The town dropped the case, and Jacob, the town and Dinah herself all paid for her care in her final years. She died in 1809.

While the outline of Dinah’s story seems clear, the particulars are not. The court case is held up as a reinforcement of Vermont’s 1777 constitution, which outlawed slavery, but it also presents an unseemly squabble among the town’s leaders over the care of a woman who had been sold to a prominent citizen.

“I would say history is still out,” Windsor resident James Haaf, who has been researching Jacob and Dinah for over a decade, told the Selectboard, whose meeting was streamed online. There is “no evidence that she was thrown out or mistreated by Stephen Jacob,” he said.

University of Vermont history professor Harvey Amani Whitfield, who devoted a chapter to Dinah in his 2014 book, The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810, sees it differently.

“The court case itself showed the willingness of the justices to accept a legal fiction … that slavery did not exist because the state constitution banned it, while ignoring the reality of slaveholding. The judges certainly knew that their fellow justice had a slave in his household. They seemed unwilling to admit that one of their own had so brazenly broken the law and defied the constitution,” Whitfield said in a talk based on his book in Windsor last year. “Just as disturbing, the court indicated that slaveholders did not owe their manumitted ex-slaves any support or sustenance even though they had spent their lives laboring for the individual or family.”

The committee also will have more mundane, but equally challenging issues to sort out, such as what it might cost to change the name of a public street and what effect the change might have on the street’s residents. Board member Paul Belaski has expressed concern that multiple state databases would need to be changed to reflect a new street name and that residents would have to have bank records, deeds, utility bills and other paperwork changed.

In addition, residents of Jacob Street who have contacted town officials have expressed skepticism of the name change.

“We believe there are other ways to honor Dinah and share her story without changing the name of our street,” Jacob Street residents Sandra and Spiro Tsimis wrote to Prebish. “We agree that her story should be told — it is part of the history of Windsor.” They also expressed concerns about the potential cost of changing property records.

Longtime Windsor resident Fred C. Knapp wrote to the Selectboard to suggest that the new name should be devoid of any reference to Jacob or to Dinah but said a historical marker seems reasonable.

To a degree, Belinda Whipple Worth, a Jacob Street resident, agreed. Until recently, no one paid much attention to the name Jacob, and renaming the street after Dinah also would result in a name that, in time, would pass unquestioned, she said in an interview. She’s lived on Jacob Street for many years, yet only started to hear the history recently.

“I’m interested in making the history more known, rather than just changing the street name,” she said. If the street could be renamed in a way that brings attention to the history, that causes people to ask questions, it would make more sense to her, she said.

The idea of taking Jacob’s name down because he’s somehow seen as an evil person also gives her pause. “Most of us are a combination of good and evil, despicable and wonderful, and that’s important for us to recognize,” said Worth, who is a psychotherapist at the Brattleboro Retreat.

The committee is still being formed and is due to report its findings to the Selectboard in August or September.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.


Windsor resident Fred C. Knapp suggested in an email that a new name for Jacob Street refer to neither Stephen Jacob nor Dinah Mason but a marker be considered. An earlier version of this story misstated who he was speaking for. Belinda Whipple Worth lives on Jacob Street in Windsor. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported her first name.


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