By Travel Writer Dwight Brown – The first impression of the picturesque, alpine village of Brattleboro, Vermont is that it’s nestled in geographical beauty. Framed by the majestic Connecticut River and backdropped by the imposingly verdant and beautiful Wantastiquet Mountain, the city has an innate allure.
Residents and visitors tend to hover around downtown, where the life is as vibrant as this 12,000-person town can be. For black travelers who arrive here wondering if they’ll be well received in a place where there are few people of color, that conjecturing stops as they gaze at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center(BMAC). Its dazzling, exterior exhibit “Delita Martin: Between Worlds” displays gigantic photographs of black women. It’s an indelible image that speaks volumes for the museum, town and Martin herself.
Whoever you are in the African Diaspora, you know from this heartwarming installation that Brattleboro has put out a welcome mat—for you. And what you will also learn is that today’s Black travelers follow in the footsteps of other African Americans who found a haven here.
Black History, Heritage and Life – Vermont Style
Forty-three-year resident Curtis Reed Jr., Executive Director, Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, an emissary for the Vermont government, beckons us all. Reed, an African American Vermonter, says: “If you scratch beneath the surface, you will find exhibits, lectures and film that celebrate black life in the most unlikely places and evidence of the important role African Americans played and continue to play in Vermont’s history.” Reed has amassed plenty of examples and put them in his statewide initiative the Vermont African American Heritage Trail.
Blacks came, homesteaded and were welcomed to the area pre-American Revolutionary War. In fact Vermont’s famed Green Mountain Boys, a militia group that fought in the U.S.’s war of independence, included black men and Brattleboro provided several documented underground railroad stations. Lucy Terry Prince, an 18th century African American poet, lived in nearby Guilford and composed the classic poem “Bars Fight” in 1746, which became one of the earliest known works of African American literature. Former slaves Alec and Sally Turner settled in nearby Grafton, post-Civil War, clearing acres of land and leaving behind a legacy kept alive by their daughter Daisy Turner, who became a pillar of southeast Vermont and shared her family’s story in the book Daisy Turner’s Kin.
Brattleboro’s black heritage is carried on today by poet/journalist/photographer Shanta Lee Gander, who lectures on Terry Prince, hosts poetry readings (“A Celebration of Black Girlhood & Womanhood Through Films, Poetry, Food + Chocolate) and contributes to the Brattleboro Words Trail, a listening app that assists travelers as they explore historic sites in the area, including the place where Frederick Douglass gave his famous Fourth of July speech. Also, ex-circus performer and now poet and multi-disciplinary artist William Forchion resides in town, gives one-man shows and is a local celebrity.
That’s the lineage. That’s the kind of cordiality travelers can expect as they explore this hamlet that was chartered back in 1753. And there is a lot to explore.
Get Down to Earth at a Community Farm
Set on 500 acres, on what was once the land of the Abenaki Native American Nation and then the property of the Brattleboro Retreat Mental Hospital in 1837, the Retreat Farm is owned by a private non-profit that allows townspeople and visitors to connect with the terrain in the most communal ways. There’s a huge man-made pond on one side of the road, and the other side features gigantic red barns, petting pens with goats, sheep, pigs, chicken and Carlos the Ox and gardens and fields that produce vegetables and fruits sold or given free to those in need.
SUSU commUNITY Farm is an Afro Indigenous stewarded farm and part of the Retreat. It’s a healing center designed to help connect Black, Indigenous and People of Color to the land. Run by Co-executive Directors Amber Skye Arnold and Naomi Doe Moody, the collective offers free classes, medicinal herbs, access to free cooking, harvesting, gardening rituals and free boxes of organically grown veggies that are relevant to BIPOC cultures—from collard greens to Jamaican Callaloo.
Thursday evenings, July 1st to September 2nd thousands of folks gather for the jubilant Food Truck Roundup, which is set in a green-lawn square surrounded by barns. Local food, craft brews, live music and lawn games abound. Prices are cheap and under-resourced families are given coupon booklets good for food truck meals. Thai cuisine, pizza, BBQ and creperies are part of the international flair, and some of the longest lines are for dosas (South India’s version of the crepe) at Dosa Kitchen Food Truck and the tender Jerk Chicken at Jamaican Jewelz, run by the gregarious and popular Jamaican expat, Julian “Chef Jewelz” Johnson.
Visit an Arts Incubator Center & Jazz Outpost
Musicians, artists, bakers, chocolatiers, and entrepreneurs thrive at The Cotton Mill. It’s a 107-year-old red brick building, a former cotton mill and now a progressive thinktank center where innovative people incubate ideas, start businesses, gain followers and prep for success. It’s most renown resident is the Vermont Jazz Center, which is run by jazz pianist Eugene Uman and his graphic designer/photographer wife Elsa Borrero. Jazz workshops, jam sessions, classes and community outreach to high schools and prisons are part of their programs. Their very popular monthly jazz concerts, at the 250-seat, loft-style performance hall, attracts famous musicians like Christian McBride and music lovers who pay minimal, sliding-scale entry fees or do volunteer work for a free seat.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
If you’re hungering for a good meal and the company of friendly folks, head to Echo Restaurant and Lounge on Main Street. Start with the Crisp Salt & Pepper Calamari, move on to the delicious Pan Seared Ribeye (local beef) with a side of Zucchini Noodles and Roasted Brussel Sprouts.
The line is always out the door at Yalla Vermont, a Middle Eastern café. Their loyal patrons come for the famous hummus, popular Yalla Sababa sandwiches and to socialize with the overtly friendly proprietor Zohar: “We exist to bridge communities and culture by way of the love and connection remembered from childhood meals.”
The dramatic view of the CT River and Wantastiquet Mountain make Whetson Station Restaurant & Brewery Brattleboro’s’ most visually stunning place to eat. Watch boats float by as you build your own craft burger, dine on Clams & Chorizo or Sirloin Tips and wash it down with Born 2 Run Blood Orange Gose or I’m Down Brown Ale.
If you want a night out on the town, head to the Stone Church, a well-preserved, former 140 -year-old Victorian Gothic church that has morphed into a popular live-music venue for bands, concerts and dances. Vernon Reed, of the rock group Living Colour, is just one of the many performers/musicians who have raised the roof at Stone Church.
Catacorner to the BMAC, the art deco, four-screen Latchis Theater dates back to 1938, when it premiered Hollywood movies. These days it’s screening Summer of Soul… and anticipating the new Aretha Franklin biofilm Respect. It’s an arthouse beacon that’s loved by townsfolk and hosts the annual Brattleboro Film Festival and autumn Brattleboro Literacy Festival, which attracts black writers like NAACP Award-winning author Bernice McFadden. The classic, comfortable and conveniently located Latchis Hotel is part of the same building, and with its terrazzo stairwells, stone corridors and vintage artifacts it offers guest easy walking distance to all the restaurants, stores and bars on Main Street and the scenic Connecticut River.
11 Cool Things to do in Brattleboro
- Shop until you drop at Twice Upon a Time Antiques–10,000 sq ft of gems and treasures.
- Tee off at Brattleboro Country Club. Dine on Lobster Ravioli at Bella Notte Restaurant.
- Sip on Simple Blueberry Wine at Putney Mountain Wine and Spirits.
- Fly in the air with the greatest of ease at the New England Center for Circus Arts.
- Bite into Chocolate Drops with Local Blueberries at Tavernier Chocolates.
- Stay at The Inn on Putney Road and breakfast on Smoked Swiss Baked French Toast.
- Buy local organic food at Brattleboro Food Co-Op—veggies, meat, wood-fired maple syrup.
- Pick up fresh fruits/vegetables and inexpensive Xmas trees at Walker Farm (circa 1700s).
- Splurge on the Cherry Vanilla granola at True North Granola Company of Vermont.
- Nibble on Parish Hill Creamery Cornerstone Cheese at the Brattleboro Farmers Market.
- Outdoor recreation reigns supreme: Hike, mountain bike, river raft, go rock climbing…
After a trip to Brattleboro, VT, all visitors, and particularly Black travelers, will reflect on the town’s beauty, history, strong sense of community, vibrant small-town life and impressive hospitality.