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UB researcher's work spurs honor for slave

The story of Jeffrey Brace is an extraordinary one.

Captured by slave traders in Africa at 16. Survived a deadly Atlantic crossing in a slave ship. Bought and sold several times in Connecticut. Fought for five years in the American Revolution to win his own freedom.

Brace will be recognized at a ceremony today in Poultney, Vt., the small New England town he once called home.

But this acknowledgment has much to do with Kari J. Winter, an associate professor of American studies at the University at Buffalo, who found Brace in some forgotten pages of history and introduced him to the public almost 180 years after his death.

"Once I got into his story," said Winter, "it really became a passion for me."

After a friend tipped her off to Brace's story in the late 1990s, Winter found one of the original copies of "The Blind African Slave: Or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace," among the special collections at the University of Vermont, where she taught at the time.

When he was in his 60s and blind, Brace told his story to a young lawyer and abolitionist, who published the account in 1810.

As Winter read the fragile copy of the memoir, she was moved by the narrator's retelling of slavery's brutality and life in Vermont in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But she was also perplexed about how such a rare first-person account -- among the few to describe abduction from Africa -- had essentially disappeared from history.

So, Winter, who came to UB in 2003 and now lives in Clarence, spent the next several years researching Brace to substantiate the memoirs. In 2004, she had an updated version of Brace's story published with her own introduction corroborating the original.

Brace, Winter learned, was a large, striking man with a good soul and remarkable memory who was known by friends to recite the Bible chapter and verse.

He was born Boyrereau Brinch into an important family in West Africa around 1742 and by his own accounts lived happily until age 16, when he and a group of friends were captured by slave traders.

Brace describes the horrors of being bound and gagged aboard a boat crossing the Atlantic, his body pressed against the other groaning, crying and praying captives.

The cords had cut the flesh, I was much bruised in many parts of my body, being most of the time gagged, and having no food only such as those brutes thought was necessary for my existence. Sometimes I courted death, but home would force upon me with all its delights and hope, that soother of all afflictions, taught me to bear with patience my present sufferings.

Brace was taken to Barbados, where he was sold to a ship's captain and became an enslaved sailor and fought in the Seven Years War.

He ended up in Connecticut, where he was bought and sold by a series of cruel masters, finally serving a widow who treated him kindly and taught him to read.

Already a war veteran, Brace enlisted in the Continental Army with the woman's two sons, in hopes he would be granted his freedom. He fought for five years, eventually earned his freedom and moved to Vermont after hearing "flattering accounts of the new state."

Here I enjoyed the pleasures of a freeman; my food was sweet, my labor pleasure; and one bright gleam of life seemed to shine upon me.

In Vermont -- which banned slavery -- Brace bought land in Poultney, found work with a tavern keeper and married a widowed ex-slave named Susannah Dublin.

Still, he endured racism and injustice. His wife's two children were taken from her and forced to become indentured servants, and Brace faced persecution from a white neighbor who coveted his land.

When he went blind in his later years, Brace was compelled to tell his story.

. . . that all may see how poor Africans have been and perhaps now are abused by a Christian and enlightened people.

After the memoir was published, Winter noted, Brace finally won pension benefits as a veteran, enabling him to live out his final years comfortably.

He died April 20, 1827.

"It's only been over the last year or two that I think it has dawned on all of us how unique this story is and what an important piece of American history it is," said John Nassivera, an assistant professor of theater and literature at Green Mountain College in Poultney.

"There are very few accounts from those that remember being captured and the passage on the ship," Nassivera said. "Likewise, with his fighting in the American Revolution, there are less than half dozen accounts that have come to us from those African-American soldiers."

Nassivera -- who was captivated by Brace's story after hearing a talk by Winter -- worked with the school's African-American Culture Club, the Poultney Historical Society and the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation to have a roadside marker honoring Brace placed in the village green today.

Some of Brace's descendents will be there. More than 50 who now live in Massachusetts chartered a bus to be on hand for the ceremony, according to Rhonda Brace.

The family never knew the story of their first ancestor in this country until they read a newspaper article about Winter publishing the memoir.

"If she had never taken an interest, we may have never known," Brace said. "For us to have this history, and have this honor being bestowed upon him posthumously, is awesome."

Winter will be there, too.

"For me, it's been a deeply spiritual experience of connecting the past to the present," Winter said. "The fact he was able to find friendship across racial lines and class is a source of hope for me."


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