The old photo of six children seems to capture a perfect summer idyll—flopped down in a grassy field after a round of play, the family dog wagging happily behind them. It’s pretty much what Bill Smith, father of three of the children pictured, had in mind when he moved his family to Westford, Vermont in 1946. An African-American man weary from a lifetime of racial prejudice, Smith was looking for a new start, a place that could live up to his refusal to “accept less than the birthright of human dignity.”
Mid-twentieth century Vermont, where Bill, his wife Helen, and their three children, Anne, William, and Bradley, would be the only African-American family in town, would seem an odd choice. Even Smith couldn’t fully explain his decision, but said he was drawn by the state’s historical opposition to slavery and its proximity to Canada. Smith, an author who wrote under the name Will Thomas, told the story in The Seeking, an autobiography of his life, including the Vermont years, that was originally published in 1953.
Mark Madigan G’87, professor of English at Nazareth College, shared the photo of the Smith children last Thursday during a talk in UVM Special Collections about The Seeking, Will Thomas, and Madigan’s own scholarly work bringing the book back into print through University Press of New England. It was a homecoming of sorts for Madigan, who received his master’s at UVM, and began to find his scholarly path in the library’s Special Collections with a grad-student job creating abstracts of author Willa Cather’s letters to fellow writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Both writers have continued to be a focus for Madigan throughout his career.
Madigan knew about Thomas from his years immersed in Fisher’s papers in Special Collections. Fisher and Thomas had met when Thomas moved to Vermont, and the fact that the major tastemaker in literary circles in the day wrote an introduction to The Seeking surely gave the publication a boost. At the time of the book’s release, Thomas promoted his memoir with an essay read on Edward R. Murrow’s This I Believe radio program.
But few in Vermont, or beyond, remember Thomas now. As Madigan said at the outset of his talk, “Some writers, as the saying goes, need no introduction. Will Thomas is not one of those writers.” The impetus to bring his work to the attention of more readers came when Madigan stumbled on a vintage copy of The Seeking at the now defunct North Country Books in Burlington. “I knew it was important and needed to be re-issued,” Madigan said. Placing the book in New England literary history, he makes the case that it is “arguably the first long-form book written by an African American resident of Vermont.”
On a snowy day that closed the university for the morning hours, Madigan’s talk last week drew a circle of particularly interested citizens from Westford, the small village about twenty miles northeast of Burlington. Among them was Guy Roberge, a lifetime resident of Westford, who had the author’s wife, Helen, as an elementary school teacher and counted the Smith children among his playmates. Roberge’s memory of the acceptance of the family in Westford squared with what the author wrote in The Seeking.
For scholar Madigan, it was a nice surprise to have the opportunity to meet someone who knew the family directly and remembered them well. He’s corresponded with Will and Helen’s daughter Anne, and said she’d wondered if his talk at UVM would put him in contact with anyone who remembered them from their time in Vermont.
“It’s gratifying to bring this book back into print for readers, but also for the family—to do justice to this family,” Madigan said.