10 Things to Know About Alexander Twilight

middlebury college in fall setting
Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont. GoodNeighbors-Middlebury. Caleb Kenna for the Chronicle of Higher Education

Vermonters adore Alexander Lucius Twilight (1795-1857) for his great ambition, his notable achievements, and for his “unconquerable will.” He was the first person of African descent to receive a college degree from an American college—Middlebury College in 1823—and to be elected to a state legislature—Vermont’s in 1836. For more than twenty years, he was the headmaster of the Orleans County Grammar School (1829-47, 1852-55) in Brownington, VT, and served for many years as acting pastor at the Brownington Congregational Church. Vermonters rightly celebrate these remarkable achievements. However, here are 10 things to know about Alexander Twilight that offer a more complete and nuanced picture of the man:

1. Alexander Twilight didn’t “become Black” until 1974.

In fact, Alexander Twilight “became Black” in 1974 when Gregor Hileman, the editor of the College’s alumnae magazine, published in the News Letter that year that the Twilight family of six appears in the 1800 census for Corinth, VT, in the category of “All other free person except Indians not taxed”—in other words, free Blacks.  Alexander is also tallied in that category in 1810 while serving as an apprentice in a neighboring White household, but the rest of his family is counted as “White”–as Alexander would be in all subsequent censuses.  Twilight, who was one-quarter Black, neither identified nor was identified as Black during his lifetime.

2. Twilight’s father was biracial.

Ichabod Twilight, Alexander’s father, born in Boston around 1765, was also biracial. He served with Massachusetts and New Hampshire regiments during the American Revolution, and is described in his identity papers as having a “yellow complexion.”  Historians surmise that Ichabod’s adoptive White parents may have given him the surname “Twilight” because his complexion lay between light and dark.

3. Twilight started at Middlebury College as a junior.

President Joshua Bates, the third president of Middlebury College (1818-39), most likely invited Twilight to enroll at Middlebury when the two men met in Corinth, VT, in 1821 at the ordination of Twilight’s pastor, Charles Chace, into the Corinth Congregational. Twilight began his education at Middlebury that year with advance junior standing.

4. Twilight was married to a younger White woman.

Between 1823 and 1829 before settling in Brownington, Twilight taught in Peru, NY, where he met and married Mercy Ladd Merrill, a young White woman ten years his junior. Twilight also taught school in Vergennes, VT, and preached at nearby churches.

5. Twilight was funny but he could also be feared.

Twilight had a great sense of humor. His students at the Grammar School loved his scientific experiments–especially when he administered nitrous oxide–laughing gas–to them. But they also respected him as a strict disciplinarian, who “strapped” his male students when they misbehaved and frightened his female students when they drifted off–as he did once when he pulled out his pocketknife and threatened to “sharpen the fingertips” of one of his slower female pupils. 

6. Twilight was strong in body and mind.

Twilight, described as “rotund,” was physically strong.  Lore has it that he built single-handedly with the aid of an ox the four-story granite dormitory he named  “Athenian Hall,” patterned after Painter Hall at Middlebury College. Actually, many friends and neighbors lent him money and their labors over a period of three years because the Board of Trustees did not support the construction of this building, considering it too expensive and not neighborly, as many of Twilight’s students boarded with town’s people. Thus, the Board withheld all financial and material assistance.

7. Twilight served in the Vermont legislature.

Twilight ran for and was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in summer of 1836 to prevent the new grammar school in nearby Craftsbury from sharing the limited county revenues that Twilight had until now enjoyed solely in support of his school. When the measure came up for a vote in the House in November 1836, Twilight “moved to dismiss the bill.” He lost, by a vote of 141 to 29. He served only one one-year term in the Vermont legislature.

8. Twilight was a gifted preacher.

Twilight’s reputation as a par excellence teacher was without question. But he was also known as a gifted preacher. His preaching style was eclectic, combining Calvinism, Methodism, and Natural Theology.  Many of the deacons at the Brownington Church objected to Twilight’s unorthodox style, while many congregants applauded it.  This may explain why Twilight was never more than “acting pastor” at the church.

9. Twilight lived in Quebec for a while.

In 1847, the Trustees of Brownington Academy (formerly the Orleans County Grammar School) lost confidence in Twilight, a strong-willed, stubborn man.  In response, Alexander and Mercy moved to southern Quebec, where he taught at two different schools and served as principal at one.  During his absence, Brownington Academy declined and had to shutter its doors for the 1851-52 academic year.  The Trustees then begged Twilight to return – which he did in 1852, self-contentedly.    

10. Twilight had a paralyzing stroke.

Twilight suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1855 and died in 1857.  After the school closed in 1859, Mercy, who along with Alexander strongly supported temperance, turned Athenian Hall into a boarding house, where she lived and held a liquor license! Mercy died in 1878 and is buried next to Alexander in the Congregational Church’s graveyard. They had no children. 

king bed four poster
Alexander Twilight Room 34 at Swift House Inn, Middlebury, Vermont. Caleb Kenna Photography

To this day, Vermont honors Alexander Twilight as a significant historic figure of African descent. Middlebury College named a classroom building after him in 1986. Northern Vermont University: Lyndonville named a theatre after Twilight.  And in 2020, the Vermont State Legislature designated each September 23—the day of his birthday in 1795—“Alexander Twilight Day.” Twilight’s portrait, painted by Middlebury artist Katie Runde, now hangs in the lobby of the Vermont State House. We at Swift House Inn join in honoring Twilight as an amazing agent of change and have christened Room 34 the Alexander Twilight Room.

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