- Historic Sites
The Washed Window
For the young ex-slave a Vermont schoolteacher opened the door to civilization
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
Older people in Arlington, Vermont, have a special interest in the last house you pass as you leave our village to drive to Cambridge. It was built and lived in for many years by our first, local skilled cabinetmaker. In the early days nearly every house had one or a few good pieces of professionally made furniture, brought up from Connecticut on horseback or in an oxcart. These were highly treasured. But the furniture made here was, for the first generation after 1764, put together by men who just wanted chairs, beds, and a table for the family meals—and those as fast as they could be slammed into shape.
For many years Silas Knapp lived in that last house practicing his remarkable skill. Nearly every house of our town acquired in those years one or two pieces of his workmanship. They are now highly prized as “early Nineteenth-Century locally made antiques.”
He not only made many a fine chest of drawers and bedside stand there; he also brought up a fine family of children. You may never have noticed this house as you drove by, but once, some twenty or thirty years ago, a great American leader, who chanced to pass through Vermont, asked to be shown the old Knapp home. He had been delivering an important address to a large audience in Rutland. When he stood in front of the low old house he took oft his hat and bowed his gray head in silence. Then he explained to the person who had driven him down to Arlington, “For me it is a shrine.”
This is the story behind that visit and of why it was to him a shrine. It goes back to the exciting, heartshaking years of the Civil War. When that terrible passage in our history ended, it left in the South thousands and thousands of newly emancipated Negroes, free, but dishearteningly ignorant—ignorant not only of their letters but of the simplest ways of civilized life. In prewar days in the South, it had been a grave legal offense, punishable with heavy social and legal penalties, to help a Negro to literacy. Naturally, the white people of the South could not at once shift gears into the opposite attitude. Many of the first schools were taught by northern girls, keyed up to the crusader tensity of purpose by the four years of war.
Among these was young Viola Knapp, the schoolteacher daughter of the cabinetmaker who lived in that small house which we Arlington people pass every time we go to see a “down-the-river” friend. To the accompaniment of great anxiety, and great pride in her courage from her Arlington family and neighbors, she made the difficult trip from Arlington down South to one of the newly established schools for illiterate Negroes—they were all illiterate.
When she arrived at the rough, improvised little school, not nearly as well built or well equipped as the little district schools on our back roads, Viola Knapp found that she was regarded as a social outcast by all the white people in town. No one spoke to her, no one even looked at her. She had great difficulty in finding a place to live, and finally moved herself into a tumble-down, two-room, abandoned poor-white frame house close to the new school.
The ostracism was as complete as human imagination could make it. Her existence was ignored with great ingenuity. If she walked down one side of the street, any white person who happened to be on that side silently and instantly crossed over and walked on the other side, ft she went into a shop to buy something, every white person present turned at once and went out, leaving her alone with the clerk, who served her without speaking or looking at her.
One would have thought that a blooming young woman in her twenties away from a good home for the first time would have suffered a good deal from this. So she might, except that she was from Vermont, and wasn’t too much cast down, even by disapproval from others, if she herself felt sure she was doing the right thing. I won’t say that she did not also find considerable satisfaction (she was human) in undergoing some martyrdom for a cause she considered good.
But evidently, from what followed, what most helped her ignore the disagreeable parts of her experience was her liking for another northern white person who was being ignored and ostracised in the same way. This was young Lieutenant Ruffner of the U.S. Army, stationed there to care for the military cemetery where Federal soldiers, killed in a battle near the town, were buried.
It did not take the two lively young outlasts long to make each other’s acquaintance, and the acquaintance soon became an engagement. After a while, a suitable while, they were married. It turned out a very happy, lifelong mating. As time went on, the young lieutenant rose in the Army, became a major, became a general. The Ruffners lived in many cities, towns and army posts, bringing up a fine crop of children who also turned out well.
Our Vermont Viola had a much more colorful and wide-horizoned life than she would have had if she had not gone a-crusading. Many years later, after his wile’s death, Major Ruffner (f never understood why we always called him Major) used to come every once in a while to Arlington to see the people who had known his wife in her girlhood. He was quite an old man then, and glad to talk about his past to any younger generationer who would listen. I’ve heard him, many’s the time, tell the story I’m setting down here.
But I have also heard it from the lips of the distinguished American educator who, as a boy, had been a student of Viola Knapp Ruffner. He became one of my father’s valued friends in later years. This is about as he used to tell it to us, with many more details than I ever saw it given in print.