ST. ALBANS — The project began with a passion for professional wrestling and an interest in filmmaking.
In the process, an undergraduate from Massachusetts discovered a St. Albans historical figure with a fascinating story, only now placed in the spotlight through a recent documentary.
Elliott Marquis, 26, a senior at Fitchburg State University, has uncovered the history of Viro Small, a slave from South Carolina who traveled to St. Albans, where he rose to fame as a nationally renown wrestler.
Marquis, a Leominster, Mass. native, tells the story of Small, known as “Black Sam of Vermont,” in his film documentary titled “Black Sam’s Statue,” which can be viewed at Vimeo.com (see accompanying box).
“I was always a big wrestling fan, a boxing fan, the whole gamut,” said Marquis. “I was also into the history of it, back when it was really a blood sport and not just a show. I would read a lot about it and I kept stumbling upon the name Viro Small. It was always there without a story attached.”
The documentary describes Viro Small as a former slave from South Carolina who made his way north in the post-Civil War era through the wilds to settle in St. Albans in the 1870s.
Drawing extensively from St. Albans Messenger archives, as well as the former St. Albans Advertiser and the National Police Gazette, Small is cited in the documentary as a “feared name” among the Irish immigrants who held matches in barns, stores and city halls after town meetings throughout the state.
Small had several run-ins with crime locally, according to Messenger archives, including an arrest in 1878, where he was sent to prison in Rutland. He escaped, and spent nine days on the lam. Messenger archives suggest he was popular in the community, but in 1879 and 1881 he again had troubles with the law, arrested for assault and burglary.
On March 24, 1881, the Messenger reports:
“Monday night Viro Small, Peter Brace and Henry Anderson, brethren of the colored persuasion, called on Daniel Prince, likewise colored, at his residence at what is known as ‘the block,’ and after getting him out of bed, proceeded to kick him and beat him, as a result of a little rivalry concerning who should be considered the best man of the four.”
Marquis said many of the published accounts of Small needed to be taken with a grain of salt. There were descriptions as well of him as an amiable guy who never looked for trouble, entertaining the crowd in foot races and racing the kids in town.
Small eventually settled in New York City in the winter of 1881 where the Messenger writes that St. Albans was “too quiet” for him. By 1882, Small was at the “height of his renown,” becoming one of the most accomplished black men in the sport. He even survived a shooting by a rival on Sept. 3, 1882, and went on to wrestle at the Metropolitan Arena and Madison Square Garden.
Marquis tracked the history of Small into his 60s where he lived in New York City. The date of his death and final resting place are unknown.
With help from a small grant, Marquis began his research for the undergraduate project through Fitchburg State’s film program in November of 2013, and began editing in Sept., 2014. By December, his first version was complete, although he continues to refine and edit it.
Some of the research came easily, said Marquis, who was aided by Alex Lehning and Don Miner at the St. Albans Historical Museum, as well as the University of Vermont’s library. But other tales about Small hit dead ends, or simply couldn’t be verified and thus weren’t included in the documentary.
Along with rolling panoramas of Vermont, downtown scenes of St. Albans, and reenactments of wrestling bouts, Marquis draws Small’s history back to a sculptor’s clay molding of ‘Black Sam’ as the story unfolds.
“I was not aware of the story until Elliott approached the museum about his documentary,” said Lehning, the St. Albans Historical Museum director, in an email. “The story was a surprise to most of us at the museum, but we are certainly glad it is being told now through this work. It’s especially gratifying to know that this research was performed by a student.”
Marquis, who has family in Richmond, Vt. and grew up vacationing in South Hero, said that his documentary has been received positively, especially in the wrestling community. Recently, ‘Black Sam’s Statue’ was accepted into ‘Visions,’ Fitchburg State’s 34th annual juried honors exhibition of Communications Media students’ work. It will show at the school April 29.
Lehning also said screenings are being planned at the museum for this summer and fall.
“St. Albans has a significant Civil War heritage – more than most people realize, and we are grateful that more of these stories related to our community are being discovered and shared,” Lehning wrote.
Marquis is currently doing an internship with a local television station in Boston, and is set to graduate from Fitchburg State in May. He says he hopes to continue making films and writing, and is considering a career in education.
“I want to find something creative. I can always do my own stuff, too,” Marquis said.
Despite the holes that remain unfilled in Small’s fascinating life, Marquis says he may have taken this project as far as it can go.
“I think I’m ready to move onto the next thing,” Marquis said.