Vergennes unveils historical marker for Vt.’s first Black sheriff, police chief

Published: Oct. 3, 2021 at 9:39 PM EDT
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VERGENNES, Vt. (WCAX) - Last summer, Vermont thought it had elected its first Black police chief, Brian Peete of the Montpelier Police Department. But after doing some digging, historians have since learned another man who lived more than a century ago holds that title. In Vergennes on Sunday, at least 100 people commemorated his career and remembered his roots.

The name Stephen Bates was the talk of the town Sunday, as Vergennes signified his connection to the city.

“Thank you, Stephen Bates, thank you, Stephen Bates,” speaker Lizbeth Ryan declared during the ceremony.

Bates served as Vermont’s earliest known Black sheriff and police chief for almost 25 consecutive years, between 1879 and his death in 1907.

A team of community members and historians spent the last year researching Bates’ life and bringing his story to light.

“People started to join us from historical areas,” Alicia Grangent of the Historical Marker Team said. “Conversations about who to reach out to started to happen, and people just started to naturally gravitate towards this process.”

During the process, members of the team were able to locate and talk with descendants of Stephen Bates. Larry Schuyler and his brother Nicholas traveled to Vergennes from Worcester, Massachusetts. They proudly cheered as the city unveiled a permanent dedication in their great-grandfather’s name.

“It’s very difficult not to hide my emotions when this community has come together in honor of my great-grandfather,” Larry Schuyler said. “Especially in today’s divisive society, to have this happen, at a time like this, it’s kind of hard not to get emotional.”

“It cannot be erased, it cannot be doubted,” Nicholas Schuyler said. “You know what I mean? As people want to do today, ‘No that didn’t happen, nothing like that ever happened.’ Oh yes, it did, and there’s proof that it did.”

Bates’ legacy will live on, as the event was capped off with an announcement from Gov. Phil Scott’s office.

“Now, therefore, I Philip B. Scott, Governor, hereby proclaim October 3, 2021, as Sheriff Stephen Bates Day in Vermont,” said a member of his team.

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