ST. ALBANS — Before Joanne Polanshek’s presentation at the St. Albans Museum on Saturday, few people here had heard of Jeffrey Brace — despite the fact he was the subject of the first book ever published in St. Albans.
Brace was African, kidnapped from his home continent in the mid-1700s and sold into North American slavery. He moved to Vermont after he was freed for his service in the Revolutionary War, and spent his later days in Sheldon and Georgia.
Polanshek, a local genealogist, began researching Brace after seeing a photograph of a plaque in his honor on Facebook. That plaque is located at Green Mountain College in Poultney, where Brace initially resided upon moving to Vermont.
Polanshek soon discovered that few people even in the areas Brace once inhabited had any knowledge of the man.
“About four months ago I came into the museum,” Polanshek recalled. “I ran into Alex [Lehning, the museum’s director], and I said, ‘Do you have anything here in the museum on Jeffrey Brace?’
“He just kind of looked at me, like — ‘Who?’”
Polanshek’s primary source of information was Brace’s own memoirs, The Blind African Slave, published by the fledgling Franklin County Advertiser in 1810. Benjamin Prentiss, a St. Albans lawyer, transcribed the memoirs, as dictated to him by Brace.
Though Prentiss, Brace and the publisher hoped the book would become a best-seller, being one of the few first-hand accounts of slavery published in the country, the book ultimately sold so poorly that it bankrupted the Franklin County Advertiser, and left Brace in relative obscurity.
Now the book has been reprinted with additional notes by Kari Winter, who researched every detail of Brace’s recollections as she edited the book. It was Winter who guided Polanshek’s own research into Brace’s life.
Polanshek provided Saturday’s audience with a rapid, but comprehensive overview of Brace’s life, omitting the gory details of his time in slavery, save for a single excerpt from his memoirs describing Brace enduring several musket shots to the body during his voyage on the slave ship to America.
Polanshek did tell audiences that Brace endured unthinkable torment at the hands of his multiple “owners,” until he reached the custody of a widow who treated him with respect and taught him English through Bible study.
She made Brace into a religious man. His memoirs are rife with Bible quotations, which Brace remembered verbatim.
When the widow died, Brace fell into her son’s custody — and when her son was drafted into the Revolutionary War, Brace, too, was enlisted.
But Brace’s service during the war qualified him for legal freedom. After the war, Brace travelled north, from Connecticut to Vermont, where he met and married another former slave.
Polanshek said she could find “next to nothing” on Brace’s wife, Susan.
There is only this excerpt from Brace’s memoirs: “So long had I been acquainted with … the keen smarts of disappointment, that it seemed impossible that I should ever realize the supreme joy of being united in holy matrimony to a native African female who possessed a reciprocal aberrance to slavery, and whose sufferings had been equal [to mine]…”
Brace had a child with Susan, and adopted two of hers from a prior marriage. Those children were then loaned out as slaves, with Brace and Susan left legally helpless.
Racism drove Brace out of Poultney. He migrated north to Sheldon, where he paid Colonel Elisha Sheldon $5 per acre for a 50-plus-acre property. But Brace couldn’t make ends meet there, so he moved to Georgia, where he’d live until his death, aged nearly 85, in 1827.
Polanshek said her research has confirmed Brace’s direct descendants still live in Franklin County. She said she is hoping for the creation of a plaque recognizing Brace within Franklin County, though there are no plans currently underway.
Most important, Polanshek said, is just to increase awareness of Brace within the county — one of the first free African-Americans in the state, and one of the scarce survivors of North American slavery to discuss their experience.
“So many people have never heard of him,” Polanshek said. “The book is one of the most unique and important anti-slavery memoirs written in America. The fact that it all went down in Saint Albans and so many people have never heard of him is really surprising.”