Work of UB Scholar Leads to Public Recognition of a Remarkable Life

Release Date: October 2, 2008 This content is archived.


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The remarkable life of an African-born slave will be memorialized in Vermont, thanks to the research of Kari Winter, associate professor of American studies.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The remarkable story of Jeffrey Brace, an African-born slave who won his freedom after fighting on the side of the colonial army during the American Revolution, might very well have been lost to history but for the work of historian Kari J. Winter, Ph.D., professor of American studies at the University at Buffalo.

Fortunately, however, her scholarship and the interest it generated in the residents of Poultney, Vt., where Brace lived much of his life, has produced a very different outcome.

Brace's life will be memorialized on Oct. 12 at public ceremonies sponsored by the Poultney Historical Society and the Green Mountain College African American Culture Club. Winter will participate in the dedication of a Vermont Roadside Historic Site Marker in East Poultney and the ceremony will include Brace's long-lost relatives, uncovered in the course of Winter's research.

Winter says it was in the mid-1990s that she discovered the memoir, "The Blind African Slave: Or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace" in the special collections of the Bailey-Howe Library at the University of Vermont.

"Memoirs of former slaves who remembered Africa are extremely rare, as are first-person accounts of black soldiers who served in the American Revolution," Winter says, "which accounts for its value and great historical interest."

Brace, who became blind late in his life, narrated a story documenting the horrors of American slavery to Benjamin F. Prentiss, Esq., who published the account in 1810.

"It is," Winter says, "a fascinating story of what was by any measure an extraordinary life."

Winter spent eight years corroborating the memoir's accuracy and in 2004, the University of Wisconsin Press published her updated edition of the book, along with Winter's historical introduction, original documents and new material that verifies and supplements the original.

The distinguished historian Ira Berlin, past president of the Organization of American Historians and author of "Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves," called Winter's edition, "a unique narrative" and congratulated her "for reconstructing Brace's life, the circumstances of the publication (of the original book) and the strange career of Benjamin F. Prentiss."

Brace was born Boyrereau Brinch in Mali, West Africa, around 1742, captured by slave traders at age 16 and taken to Barbados where he was sold to a Captain Isaac Mills. As an enslaved sailor, he fought in the Seven Years War, fought from 1756-1763 in both European and colonial theaters and participated in the British capture of Havana in 1762. He later was sold to a series of cruel masters in Connecticut and later purchased by a widow named Mary Stiles, who taught him how to read.

Brace enlisted in the Continental Army in 1777, received an honorary discharge after five years of service and later moved to Poultney, Vt., where he settled down and married an ex-slave named Susannah (Susan) Dublin. He moved his family to northern Vermont around 1802, where he lived as a respected abolitionist until his death in 1827.

Winter notes that John Nassivera, assistant professor of theater and speech at Vermont's Green Mountain College, and students in the college's African American Culture Club took an interest in the project, and spearheaded the effort to create a permanent memorial to Brace's extraordinary life.

"The discovery of the memoir has changed, complicated, personalized and enriched our understanding of ourselves and the history of two small Vermont towns," Nassivera said.

Winter has published and lectured on human quests for physical well-being; the ways oppression is written on the body through trauma, deprivation, violence and degradation; and how oppressed peoples attempt to endure and to affirm the value of their bodies. She is currently at work on several projects, including a social history of the Atlantic world in the age of revolution through the lens of Jeffrey Brace's life.

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