In Windsor, one street name sparks a broader discussion

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-15-2023 12:14 AM

WINDSOR — Two years after a long and passionate town debate about Jacob Street, named for a man who owned an enslaved woman, Windsor residents working to strengthen social equity and inclusivity said the name remains a problematic message.

In November 2020, the Windsor Selectboard voted, 3-2, to reject a motion by former Selectboard member Amanda Smith to hold a public hearing to consider renaming Jacob Street. A 1783 bill of sale signed by state Supreme Court Justice Stephen Jacob confirmed Jacob’s purchase of Dinah Mason, a Black woman, from a Charlestown man named Jotham White.

At a community potluck on Wednesday hosted by the Windsor Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee, several residents agreed renaming Jacob Street was still a good idea.

“The reality is that we know we have a street named after a slave owner in our town, which one would hope would be enough reason to do something about it,” said former JEDI Committee Chairperson Ethan Lawrence.

Created in 2021, the JEDI Committee serves as an advisory group to the Windsor Selectboard by recommending policies and initiatives to make Windsor more inclusive and accessible to people from all backgrounds, including race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, income, age or ability.

Since its inception, the group has hosted speakers and panels to educate the public about issues pertaining to diversity awareness, and developed informational resources for new residents.

Last year, the Selectboard adopted a resolution created by the JEDI committee in which the board pledges to eliminate bigotry and discrimination and to “strive to create a culture in which racial, gender and other disparities are openly acknowledged and addressed.”

“We are working to make Windsor a more welcoming community (to everyone),” said JEDI Committee member Moira Hershey. “And I’ve seen it change in the (four) years I have lived here.”

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Last year, a historical marker honoring Dinah was placed outside the former Jacob house, at the corner of Jacob and State streets. The marker includes a plaque with a short inscription that tells Dinah’s story.

Residents and JEDI Committee members expressed hope that Dinah’s story might help increase both public awareness of Jacob’s history and support for changing the street name.

“I think the sign was a huge step forward for building understanding,” Hershey said. “I think the more people who walk by and read it, and the more times that pressure is put on the Selectboard with different members of the community (participating), with constant pressure, hopefully there could be a good outcome.”

A townwide survey in 2020 of 263 Windsor residents and 31 community stakeholders found that 58% of those surveyed opposed changing the street name, while another 10% of survey-takers were undecided.

Lawrence, though pleased by Dinah’s historical marker, said he is still bothered by the visual presence of the Jacob Street sign, which is located in close proximity to the plaque.

“I think remembering history is so important,” Lawrence said. “But we can remember history without exalting the name of someone who was a really horrible person. It would be wonderful if Dinah’s marker is what describes Jacob’s legacy, not his street name.”

Lawrence said that any successful effort to change the street name will face conflict and opposition, though he believes conflict is an inevitable and natural part of change.

“As much as we want to change hearts and minds and meet people where they are at, the train is moving and we can’t wait for everybody to get on board,” Lawrence said. “Some people are not going to get on board.”

Resident Davis McGraw agreed, saying that some people will always resist change, even if the change will have little or no impact on them.

“Just psychologically, people react to impending change, whether it’s a big and impactful change that is going to touch their lives and cause difficulties or that it’s just the idea of change,” McGraw said.

The JEDI Committee, which consists of five residents, one youth representative and one Selectboard member, plans to host bimonthly potlucks as a way to engage the public and to discuss issues of importance to residents, said Roger Barnaby, the current chair.

“We wanted tonight’s talk to have a pretty wide theme, because we wanted to hear from people how we are doing (as a committee), what we should be focused on and any changes that people are seeing in the community,” Barnaby said, adding that the committee is in the process of determining priorities and initiatives for the new year.

Patrick Adrian can be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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