Preserving the Stories of Our Creative Survival

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  • 19 Aug 2020 5:30 PM | Theresa Guzman Stokes (Administrator)

    As we are in the midst of a worldwide Black Lives Matter and social justice movement, the right to be heard as people of African heritage is tantamount with building a more just society. Here in Rhode Island there are many historic documents that amplifies what black voices have said about Rhode Island and America within the legacies of slavery, discrimination, and economic isolation. The challenge oftentimes is before achieving solidarity and action, we need to listen, and we need to learn from those in history that have led and bear witness to the struggles to achieve equal rights for all. One of the Black voices in Rhode Island’s rich history is a man of both the cloth and political affairs.

    Reverend Mahlon Van Horne was pastor of the Union Congregational Church at Newport, Rhode Island for nearly thirty years between 1869 and 1898. The historic church was established in 1824 as a religious and civic evolution of Newport’s Free African Union Society, organized as the nation’s first African benevolent organization in 1780. Van Horne became a part of a new generation of post-Civil War, African heritage leaders who would lead Black churches into major leadership roles within the Reconstruction and civil rights movement of late 19th century America. A legacy that would influence 20th century leaders including Rev Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Van Horne’s stellar career as a religious and political leader was highlighted as becoming the first African heritage member elected to the Newport School Board in 1871 and the first to serve in the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1885. That year he help to lead the passage of the state’s first Civil Rights bill that stated, “No person within the State shall be debarred from the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any licensed inn, public conveyance, on land or water or from any licensed places of public amusement on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In 1898 he was appointed General Counsel to Danish West Indies by President McKinley during Spanish American War. He was featured in major news stories about his service during the war including a major story within the Colored American Newspaper in 1900. Van Horne was also a social historian who collected and preserved the history of African heritage people in Newport, Rhode Island and across America.

    For all of Van Horne’s accomplishments, one important document that survives to this day is a sermon that he composed in 1887 entitled, “The Negro in Rhode Island: His Past, Present and Future.” His introduction captures the bitter irony of the often touted religious freedom established in Rhode Island and America that would simultaneously include the enslavement of Africans. His words then are at the very core of the racial divide that still consumes Rhode Island and America today. Most importantly, he provides a roadmap on how best to achieve racial reconciliation in Rhode Island and America. These are his words, his voice, the voice of Black Rhode Island that speaks to all of us in the present day.

    Read his original Sermon here:

    Negro in RI (1).pdf

  • 12 Jul 2020 4:55 PM | Theresa Guzman Stokes (Administrator)

    Creative Survival

    a Publication of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society

    RIBHS in the News

    Now is the Time to Advance African American History Newport Daily News

    RIBHS Receives Grant to Develop Documentary Script - view video at here

    Upcoming Events

    Providence Preservation Society: Race, Power, and Preservation

    July 15 / 5:30 pm
    Free / Advance registration required

    A Season of Change

    2020 will go down in history as the year that we stood up and said “ENOUGH!” Protests after the death of George Floyd are some of the largest and longest running in our history, and the Black Lives Matter movement has taken center-stage in a number of states, including Rhode Island. In the midst of this we have statues being overturned or demolished, and people demanding that public buildings and schools named after known slave-traders be renamed.

    RIBHS has been working hard to move forward the establishment of an African heritage history curriculum in Rhode Island schools K-12. We believe that reconciliation cannot happen without recognition – not only recognizing slavery and emancipation, but the real accomplishments and contributions of African heritage people; contributions that date back to the founding of this country.

    We hope you will join us in supporting these efforts as we move forward toward a more inclusive society.


    What Does the Fourth of July Mean to the African American?

    A Historical Perspective

    (click title for full story)

    Frederick Douglass, perhaps one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders, presented a speech in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852 entitled, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro." The first part of his speech praises what the founding fathers did for this country, but the speech soon expands into a denunciation of the attitude of American society toward African heritage enslavement and equality.

    Return to Africa with the HACSA Summit!

    The history of the African-American is a silenced past. While many African Americans, be they historians, scholars, or individuals have documented this history there is still so much deep richness and truth in our history and culture that has been whitewashed, watered down, written out of the textbooks, unspoken or unshared. This has left the African-American community feeling disconnected to their own history with little understanding of the truth of their heritage. Despite this palpable feeling of distance from our own history, we know that the story begins on the shores of Africa. Recently, across America there has been a renewed interest in the opportunity for African-Americans to reclaim their African heritage and culture. In their 1967 book Black Power, Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokley Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton assert that, “It is absolutely essential that black people know this history, that they know their roots, that they develop an awareness of their cultural heritage.[…] If black people are to know themselves as a vibrant, valiant people, they must know their roots,” (Ture 38-39).

    This sentiment carries a weighty significance, which is not dissimilar to the weight of the legacy of African-Americans in the United States. This renewed interest in many African-Americans to reclaim their history comes from a desire to know their roots. Yet how can African-Americans reconnect to their roots?

    One organization, which provides both access to the richness of both the heritage and culture of Africa as well as access to connections throughout the diaspora is an organization called The Heritage and Cultural Society of Africa (HACSA). HACSA is a non-profit, NGO and civil society organization, with a mission to highlight the importance of heritage and culture for sustainable socioeconomic development in Africa and the diaspora. HACSA promotes and celebrates African heritage and culture and the dynamism and blending of cultures. HACSA “[strives] to project the richness and beauty which can be found in the land, the people, and the culture and create for a (opportunities) in which serious debate can take place on how to harness its abundant resources for the improvement of the quality of life of its people both in Africa and in the Diaspora.” ( One of the most powerful parts of HACSA’s mission is their focus on unifying the diaspora. HACSA understands that through these connections across continents and cultures, Africans, African-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Europeans can pool their significant talents and resources to build a better future and improve the lives of their people. 

    In August 2020 it will launch HACSA USA and offer membership registration on its website to those individuals and institutions in the U.S. that seek to make these connections and join the HACSA family network.

    HACSA organizes an international summit in Africa which acts as a meeting place for the African diaspora. The most recent summit held in Ghana in 2019 coincided with Ghana’s national “Year of Return” which marked the 400 year anniversary of the beginning of the slave trade in the United States of America. The summit brought together heads of state, opinion leaders, practitioners, academics and participants from Africa and the diaspora to have open and meaningful debate on the 400 year legacy of the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved African people, to link, reunite and reconcile affected communities and share examples of innovation and creative strategies to overcome its debilitating and persisting effects. The HACSA Summit included keynote speakers, panel discussions, academic presentations, exhibitions, film screenings, a remembrance and candlelight vigil, a gala dinner dance showcasing African food, fashion and music and guided tours of key heritage sites in Ghana.

    HACSA’s mission to reunite African-Americans with their heritage as well as tell an uplifting, nuanced and more complete narrative of Africa is critically important because unity enables more effective and holistic, growth, healing and understanding, and the addressing of centuries old separation, systemic oppression and inequality. It also creates a strong sense of connection between America and the continent of Africa which enriches the experiences of the diaspora and brings about the confidence and empowerment that a strong sense of identity confers. HACSA has created an important movement that many have already been moved to join. For more information visit and follow @thehacsa on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.


    "The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society is constituted for the purpose of: Procuring, collecting, and preserving books, pamphlets, letters, manuscripts, prints, photographs, paintings, and any other historical material relating to the history of the Blacks of Rhode Island; encouraging and promoting the study of such history by lectures and otherwise; and publishing and diffusing information as to such history."

  • 03 Jul 2020 10:00 AM | Theresa Guzman Stokes (Administrator)

    Frederick Douglass, perhaps one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders, presented a speech in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852 entitled, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro." The first part of his speech praises what the founding fathers did for this country, but the speech soon expands into a denunciation of the attitude of American society toward African heritage enslavement and equality. In his historic speech, Douglas points out the bitter irony of America celebrating the nation’s birth of freedom and independence, while embracing the enslavement of nearly four million declaring:

    “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”

    Fifty years later, after the abolishment of slavery and the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution, a group of leading African heritage political and social justice leaders in Newport, Rhode Island, led by one of Fredrick Douglas’s closet civil rights allies, George T. Downing, published a narrative entitled, “An Expression from the Oppressed.” Like Douglas before them, the Rhode Island men point out the unfair treatment of citizens of color by a legal and political system that still embraces Jim Crow laws and separate and unequal life between the races.

    The 1902 call to action reminded the community that the rampant discrimination against citizens of African heritage still existed across Rhode Island and America. As in the case of Douglas’s plea that America would never achieve true freedom and unity until slavery was abolished, the Newport men added that Rhode Island and America would not achieve freedom and unity until laws were in place to ensure that all men were created and treated as equals stating:

    “We ask, where does the right obtain to look upon the complexion of citizens of a common country and make individual distinctions among them? We are colored, but we feel ourselves the peers of our fellow countrymen. We refer to the proud fact that Negro blood was the first blood to flow for American Independence and that it is flowing ever since, freely in a very marked manner in defense of the Nation in all its battles. Why treat us as you do?”

    Frederick Douglas’s narrative in 1852 Rochester and George Downing’s narrative in 1902 Rhode Island takes on added significance today during a Black Lives Matter movement that is yet again calling for social justice and equal rights for African heritage citizens - but is anyone listening?

  • 02 Sep 2019 2:00 PM | Theresa Guzman Stokes (Administrator)
    “The Colored, as well as the white laborers of the United States, are not satisfied as to the estimate that is placed on their labor, as to their opportunities, as to the remuneration of their labor, the call for this convention, and the very general and highly intelligent response which I gaze on in you, my fellow delegates, attest. No other class of men would be satisfied under the circumstances; why should we? We desire Union with the white laborer for a common interest.”

    - Address of George T. Downing to the Colored National Labor Convention, 1869

    In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, white laborers would come together and form in 1866 the National Labor Union. The effort would unite skilled and unskilled laborers along with farmers to advocate for an eight-hour work day and better treatment of working men. But racial equal opportunity was not universal nor were all workers regarded as equal in America. As was the custom of the day, African heritage working men were excluded from participation in the National Labor Union.

    On the sixth of December in 1869, over two hundred African heritage laborers, mechanics, artisans, tradesmen, farmers and trades-women assembled in Washington, DC to organize the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU). Over several days, working men and women of color would elect Baltimore ship-caulker Isaac Myers president and adopt a broad platform covering relations between labor, education and economic prosperity. Most extraordinary for the day, the CNLU was egalitarian, accepting men and women, skilled and unskilled workers as active members. And unlike the National Labor Union, the CHLU welcomed all workers regardless of race. Fortunately, by the mid 1880’s, the Knights of Labor Union organized under the motto, "An injury to one is a concern for all" and became an integrated organization representing the labor rights of all American workers.

    One visionary business leader sought to unite and advance African Americans through labor at a time in our country’s history when most people of color had only recently broken the chains of slavery. George T. Downing was born in 1819 in New York City to a free family of color and father who operated a highly successful Oyster House restaurant. George Downing arrived in Newport by 1844 bringing his restaurant and hospitality services to meet the fast-growing catering and lodging demands of New York and other elite American families looking to transform Newport into America’s most fashionable summer resort. By 1857, Downing was well established in Newport as the proprietor of the Sea Girt luxury hotel with confectionery and catering businesses along Bellevue Avenue which he named the “Downing Block.” As part of Downing’s business model, he also opened catering businesses in Providence, RI, Boston and Washington, DC - operating as the official manager of the dining room for the United States House of Representatives. His access to business and political leaders would enable him to put forth his own political interests and opinions on the abolition of slavery, integration of public schools and his greatest aspiration, to advance the economic prosperity of newly freed slaves through vocation and labor organization.

    As a successful Newport and businessman and community leader, Downing advocated for workers’ rights and racial equity. In 1873, Downing helped to organize Newport’s participation in the National Convention for Colored People in Washington. But it was the electrifying speech by Downing a few years earlier in 1869 that set the tone for African heritage equal and employment rights as free men and women in America. In an important part of his speech to delegates, Downing stressed the importance of African Americans in realizing all three parts of the Declaration of Independence that offered to all American citizens the sacred & undeniable rights to the “preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” Downing believed that African Americans had earned the right to life through surviving slavery. Liberty was achieved through the end of the Civil War and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. But the pursuit of happiness would only come from economic prosperity through education, training and gainful employment. Downing made the case that by organizing under the union labor banner, African American men and women could fulfill their rightful place as full American citizens declaring to the crowd:

    “The colored man’s struggle until now has been for naked existence, for the right to life and liberty; with the fifteenth amendment, henceforth his struggle will be in the pursuit of happiness; in this instance; it is to turn his labor to the most effective account, to be respected therein; the most we can hope to effect in this gathering, is a crude organization; the formation of a labor bureau to send out agents, to organize throughout the land, to effect union with laborers without color.”

    Today, as we celebrate across the nation the social and economic achievements of American workers, we need to also recognize the achievements of African American men and women who struggled mightily building our great country’s wealth and prosperity. African heritage people played a crucial role in laying our nation’s foundation, persisting through centuries of slavery and servitude while regarded as little more than chattel property. Even after the abolition of slavery, struggling against brutal sharecropping systems and then the rise of Jim Crow, blacks were dehumanized and treated as second class citizens; but with great strength, resilience and determination, African American men and women were able to thrive in the face of racism, pushing forward to build successful businesses and advocate for equal rights across all fields. Fortunately, through the vision and leadership of individuals like George T. Downing, working African American men and women would organize to obtain their rightful place in the pursuit of happiness and prosperity in America. Happy Labor Day.

    Keith W. Stokes is Vice-President of 1696 Heritage Group and a frequent researcher and contributor to RIBHS.

©2019 Rhode Island Black Heritage Society

Rhode Island Black Heritage Society is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. PO BOX 4238. Middletown, RI 02842

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