Voters must decide on an amendment to clarify the language of the Vt. on slavery – NECN

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As we mark June 19 this weekend, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, activists in Vermont say there is still work to be done.

The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and Vermont Interfaith Action launched a campaign on Friday asking voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment would formally abolish all forms of slavery – removing old exemptions from the historic document.

The Constitution of Vermont, in the late 1700s, said that everyone is born equally free and no one should be a slave. However, there were exceptions. People under 21 and people in debt were technically not protected by the state’s position on slavery.

“No slavery, no exceptions,” said Mark Hughes of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, urging Vermont voters to say yes to Proposition 2 in November.

The measure would update the constitution’s historic language to read, “Slavery and indentured servitude in any form shall be prohibited.”

“It’s just awesome to be alive at this point in history,” Hughes said of the significance of Proposition 2.

This week, Governor Phil Scott, R-Vermont, informed Vermonters that the ballot question to change the historic document will go before voters across the state this fall. This notice took the form of a Governor’s Proclamation.

Debbie Ingram, who led the charge for the formal abolition of all forms of slavery in Vermont when she served in the Vermont Senate, said she was happy to see the issue come before voters. This is the latest step in a multi-year process to amend the Vermont Constitution.

Ingram is the executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action.

“It is only fitting that this campaign be led by black leaders, as people directly affected by the change we seek,” Ingram said Friday at an event for the Abolish Slavery Vermont campaign. “It is only fitting that this campaign offers white people the opportunity to become effective white allies, not white saviors in the fight for racial justice, and that we as white people take responsibility for the role that we have played in the reprehensible moral institution of slavery.

Hughes and Ingram said similar work is underway in other states. They pointed out that Vermont’s constitutional language, which authorized these exemptions to the abolition of slavery, inspired approaches to constitutional language used in other states – a fact they lamented.

Prop 2 has support from across the political spectrum in Vermont.

“Vermont is proud to have been the first state in the Union to outlaw slavery in its constitution, but this proposal to clarify antiquated language is also significant,” Scott said in a written statement accompanying the proclamation announcing the vote on Prop 2. “We have come a long way since these words were originally written, but we know there is still much work to be done. It is also appropriate that this proclamation be released this week as Americans celebrate Juneteenth.”

However, some have raised questions about the initiative.

When the idea made its way through the Vermont Legislature, skeptics wondered if it would affect the work done by those incarcerated in state prisons. Such concerns caused a handful of lawmakers to vote against advancing Proposition 2 to voters, though the amendment passed with overwhelming three-party margins.

Black Vermonters NECN and NBC10 Boston spoke about Prop 2 on Friday and said they see a “yes” vote as a way to right old wrongs and move closer to full equality.

“I believe the support will mean a lot,” predicted Karla Kelley of South Burlington.

“We have to get there so we can live better,” said Jean-Christian Adrien, who grew up in Haiti and now lives in Vermont. “Living in a better society – in harmony.”

“Let’s make America better,” said Noble Julz, who attended an Abolish Slavery Vermont campaign event on Friday, adding that she was thrilled to vote yes on Prop 2 in November. “This is going to make me feel amazing because I know that my ancestors did a lot to improve my community – our community. We walked, we walked, we won a lot. So for me, fill in this dot [on the ballot] it is also me who participates in the advancement of all people here on this earth.”

Leaders of the Abolish Slavery Vermont campaign said they are planning outreach and a series of events leading up to Election Day. Click here to learn more from the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and here to access Vermont Interfaith Action information.

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