February is over...but our history goes on.
Here are the 28 Days of African Heritage History as posted for Black History Month 2019 by Keith Stokes on Facebook.
Joseph G. LeCount – Admitted to the Rhode Island Bar in 1914, he was the leading civil rights attorney in 20th century Rhode Island championing fair labor practices, equal employment and fair housing.
George A. Wiley – A 1953 graduate of University of Rhode Island, he became one of the foremost state and national antipoverty and civil rights leaders, most notably the National Welfare Rights Organization.
Clifford R. Monteiro – A major champion of Civil Rights in Rhode Island and the nation. He was an organizer of the Rhode Island Chapter of CORE, President of the Providence Branch of the NAACP, Fair Housing advocate and the primary founder of the OIC of Rhode Island.
Mary Dickerson and her husband Silas arrived in Newport from New Haven, Ct. around 1865. By 1872 she established a “Fashionable Dressmaking Establishment” at 5 Travers Block along Newport’s Bellevue Avenue servicing the needs of Newport’s summer residents. Dickerson and her husband also owned numerous rental properties in Newport, providing housing and business space for Newport’s large African American community.
In 1895 Dickerson was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. Dickerson would also organized the New England Federation of Colored Women's Clubs that was later changed to the Northeast Federation of Women's Clubs. Mrs. Dickerson went on to become the first President of the Rhode Island Association of Colored Women's Clubs. In 1895 she also organized the Women’s Newport League still active today as one of the oldest women of color civic clubs. During her life, Dickerson was considered one of the most influential woman of color in the nation leading issues that promoted the social uplift of women, children and families.
This is part of an ongoing series by Keith W. Stokes, Lead Researcher for the NPS Grant - Civil Rights in 20th Century Rhode Island.
Born in 1867 in Providence to Henry and Amelia Jackson, Mary Elizabeth Jackson was a member of Pond Street Baptist Church and charter member of the Providence NAACP. One of the best known woman of color of her day, Jackson worked tirelessly to halt discriminatory practices and improve working conditions for women of color. A statistician at Rhode Island Labor Department, during WWI she was appointed as a Special Worker for Colored Girls on the YWCA War Work Council, analyzing employment trends and recommending programs to encourage fair employment of women of color across the country.
As an early advocate of the rights of working women, she wrote an article in NAACP’s Crisis Magazine in November 1918 entitled, “The Colored Woman in Industry” detailing the working conditions of many of the women in factories, the many industries that they were working in, and the hopeful future of colored women in industry. This forward thinking woman not only discusses the prejudice and poor working conditions these women faced, but also the inequality of wages between blacks and whites, and between men and women. Jackson was also a member of Rhode Island Colored Women’s Club, Anti-Lynching Crusaders, League of Women Voters, and Women’s Beneficial Association.
Reverend Van Horne was Pastor at Newport’s Union Colored Congregational Church between 1868 & 1898. The historic church was established in 1824 as a religious extension of the 18th century Free African Benevolent Society. 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 Civil Rights Movement. A legacy that would influence 20th century leaders including Rev Martin Luther King, Jr.
Later, Van Horne would become 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.
Arriving in Newport by the mid 1840’s, George T. Downing would become one of 19th century Newport’s most successful hospitality entrepreneurs.
A nationally recognized Abolitionist, Downing also lobbied tirelessly to officially desegregate Rhode Island public schools, beginning in 1857, by which time he was well-established in Newport as the proprietor of the Sea Girt House luxury hotel with confectionary and catering businesses on the Downing Block along historic Bellevue Avenue.
Downing would later lead the repeal of the state’s ban on interracial marriage, and racial discrimination in the reorganization of the Rhode Island militia. Downing helped purchased Touro Park and founded the American Colored Union Labor League.
Civil and equal rights Renaissance man, Alfred Niger of Providence would represent Rhode Island in the first “American Society of Free Persons of Colour Convention” in Philadelphia in 1830. The Convention assembled free and emancipated African heritage Americans to promote educational, labor, and legal justice during the years before the Civil War and when Black rights were constricted nationally and locally. Niger was a leader before and after the Rhode Island Dorr Rebellion to champion the reinstatement of Black voting rights in 1842. He was also a Rhode Island delegate to the American Anti-slavery Society and officer of the Hiram Lodge No.3 which was chartered in Providence in 1797, the second African heritage Lodge of Freemasonry in America. A Barber by trade, Niger and his family lived in Providence’s sixth ward for most of his life.
(Image courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Society)
Free African, Anthony Taylor became a founding member of the first African heritage benevolent organization in America, the Free African Union Society in Newport in 1780. Taylor as Society President in 1789 would lead the effort to reach out to other free Africans across America to establish a network of African civic, religious and educational organizations. African communities he corresponded with included Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Providence. In his July 27, 1789 letter to “To All the Africans in Providence,” He called for a unification of free Africans along with a return to Africa because, “…We the members of the Union Society in Newport, taking into consideration the calamitous state into which we are brought by the righteous hand of GOD, being strangers and outcasts in a strange land…” He would organize early efforts to return to Africa, but never realized the dream of returning home, dying in Newport in 1799. He is buried in Newport’s “God’s Little Acre” burying ground, the oldest existing enslaved and free African heritage burying ground in America.
This is part of an ongoing series by Keith W. Stokes, Lead Researcher for the NPS Grant - Civil Rights in 20th Century Rhode Island.
Reverend Samuel Hopkins of Newport’s 1st Congregational Church is recognized as one of America’s earliest Abolitionist. In 1776 he publishes, “A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans: Showing it to be the Duty and Interest of the American States to Emancipate All Their African Slaves” that year and dedicates the book to members of the Continental Congress. He later raises funds to send the first two Africans to college and helps to found the Free African Union Society at Newport in 1780.
In a recent post on the 1696 Heritage Group Blog - Keith Stokes reminds us of the British Abolition of Slavery that occurred on August 1st, 1834 - and how one successful act of reparations remained ignored - then and now.
On this day August 1, 1834 the United Kingdom abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, nearly 30 years before the American Emancipation Proclamation. While British plantation owners received substantial financial compensation for the loss of their slave property, former enslaved African heritage people received nothing. Freedom without reparations. Regrettably, newly freed Africans across the Americas replaced the old chains of slavery with the new restraints of discrimination and segregation. This socio-economic burden would follow far too many persons of African descent even to this very day.
Possibly the most important effort towards slavery reparations , unmatched then and hardly recognized today, took place in 1795 when a group of twenty-eight recently emancipated Africans from Jamaica arrived in Philadelphia under a creative and organized plan to provide a form of reparations - for the personal suffering placed upon enslaved Africans by the owner class of Europe and the Americas.
Quaker David Barclay of Great Britain, recognized today as the founder of Barclay’s Bank, acquired through a settlement of a debt a plantation in Jamaica called Unity Valley Pen.
As a stanch Quaker and Abolitionist, Barclay was driven to not only free the slaves he inherited in faraway Jamaica, he underwrote an international reparations plan connecting Great Britain and Jamaica with Philadelphia, which that at the time had the largest free Black community in the Americas. Barclay had long family ties with Philadelphia and its Quaker community becoming an early member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society under friend Benjamin Franklin’s leadership.
At the direction of Barclay his agents in Jamaica transported the emancipates to Philadelphia arriving on July 22, 1795. The newly freed were placed in the care of the Quaker Abolition Society who had adopted a formal reparations plan entitled, “A Plan for Improving the Condition of the Free Blacks.” The group was initially clothed and cared for through Rev. Richard Allen and the Mother Bethel AME Church and Rev. Absalom Jones of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. St. Thomas is the first African Episcopal Church in America founded in 1792. Mother Bethel is the first African American AME Church in America founded in 1794. Each of them were set up with access to education and in a trade skill, many as indentured servants with members of the Quaker community.
One of the youngest members of the newly arrived Jamaicans was a boy of eight named October, my great, great grandfather. Upon his arrival to Philadelphia he was renamed Robert Barclay and indentured for thirteen years as a “Windsor Chair Maker.” Robert Barclay would become a successful businessman and active member in black masonic and civic organizations including the Underground Rail Road that was active in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Today, I am blessed to have many heirlooms from the Barclay family household of Philadelphia including an original 1872 printing of the “Underground Railroad” by William Still. I also have been able to follow subsequent generations of Barclay family members into the 19th and early 20th century America as they continued their journey of freedom and prosperity. A journey made possible through an organized effort to provide my ancestor the access to education, training and opportunity that was denied so many other African heritage people.
So what is the value of emancipation and freedom without some method of reparations so that the oppressed have equal access to the means to become self-sufficient? As we celebrate the history of emancipation across the Americas we should also be mindful that emancipation without repairing the hundreds of years and many generations of African heritage people who suffered greatly under that peculiar system is at best, an unfinished effort or at worst, freedom without meaning. Maybe famed African American abolitionist, Fredrick Douglas knew this when he stated in 1876:
“You say you have emancipated us…But when you turned us loose, you gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and worst of all, you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters.”
“Truth telling helps all of us to become more equal.”
—Prof. Richard Lobban
The RI Black Heritage Society fall/winter Living History lecture series provides critical opportunities to engage our diverse communities in conversations that allow us to elevate our awareness and engage each other in making an active difference. You're invited to explore American identity and Rhode Island history through a series of FREE lectures on the complex contributions, journeys, plights and experiences of African Heritage peoples. African Heritage peoples have a rich and intricate history that mirrors the strength, resilience, and forward leaning optimism that is the American core. Remember that WE are ONE: join us on this journey and open your mind to explore more complex perspectives.
On Wednesday, October 19th, Professor Richard Lobban kicked off the beginning of this year’s Living History lecture series with his talk “History Context of the Watchman Institute: Tuskegee of the North,” as a speaker with the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society at the Aldrich House of the Rhode Island Historical Society. This history included the urban needs of Rhode Island’s Black population as well as the arson attacks by the Ku Klux Klan active in this time in the 20th century. Professor Lobban also discussed the distinctive architecture in Providence as it related to the Watchman institute itself and how construction aesthetic epitomized the wide reaching influence of the slave trade.
The far reaching hand of slavery extends well beyond stories of the antebellum South…
Professor Lobban connected the architectural history of downtown Providence, characterized by the Greek revival styled buildings of renowned architect Russell Warren (who had close ties to the infamous slave trading DeWolfe family of Bristol), to construction sponsorships by slave trade monies and Rhode Island’s architectural appeal to wealthy slave owners.
*Even the architecture of the Arcade, also former home of the RI Black Heritage Society, demonstrates the work of Russell Warren and serves as a concrete reminder of the influence of monies from the slave trade*
As Professor Lobban noted, truly, “slavery [is] integrated into the total economy” of both our nation and the state of Rhode Island. His talk further highlighted how a structure built with funds from the slave trade and slave labor would become repurposed as an institutional beacon of hope and progress for black communities in RI. Originally constructed as the Lapham Institute/ Smithville Seminary in Scituate, RI, this same building would later transform into the home of the Watchman Institute and be repurposed as a trade school inspired by the ideology of Booker T. Washington and the practices at the Tuskegee Institute. Coined by Professor Lobban as the “Tuskegee of the North,” the Watchman Institute, founded by Reverend Willian S. Holland in 1908 as the “Watchman Industrial School”, operated on Booker T. Washington’s philosophy that blacks could excel and integrate into society upon learning a practical trade and skills to better themselves. Founded in Providence and later relocated to Scituate, the Watchman Institute, while a positive force in the progress of the black community, was met with strong opposition by groups characterized by racism.
The struggle for civil rights persists:
Progress faces challenges of overt and covert racism
Events that some commonly perceive as isolated tragedies of the antebellum south are not far removed at all from nationwide experiences characterized by fear and the domestic terrorism of radicalized hatred through the efforts of the Klu Klux Klan. Klan members attributed blame for economic difficulty and depression in Rhode Island to the prosperity of the black community as made possible by the Watchman institute. Considering that members of the KKK represented people in places of power and prestige, attacks by this domestic terrorist group went widely unchecked and unchallenged in many instances. 1924, 1926, and 1934 mark recorded arson attacks on the Watchman Institute as perpetrated by the KKK. One newspaper report records the telling response of strength, sadness, and resolve expressed by Rev. Holland in response to the fires: “Dr. Holland makes no charges; he has formed the habit of smiling.” The response of the black community to the burnings of the Watchman institute demonstrated the resolve and dedication to progress characteristic of the hope of the civil rights movement and the work of those advocating for equality and prosperity in racial equity.
Understanding our history provides a platform to highlight our shared humanity.
Richard Lobban made a strong observation at the closing of his Living History presentation:
“RI History: a history of triumphs, great architects, human creativity, and challenges to overcome, and of human failures. A history of trying to make things better… and a history of slavery, denials and xenophobic fears.”
Not only is our state history highly relevant to national conversations and nationwide struggles, it also reminds us that the darkness in American history does not exist in isolation. Prejudicial fears and injustice related to racial inequality persisted all across the United States and the legacy of slavery permeated communities all over Rhode Island. But the strength and dignity of dedicated leaders in our communities have encouraged efforts striving towards the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. As Dr. Martin Luther King courageously noted, “the arc of the moral universe if long, but it bends towards justice.”
What are YOU doing today that will make our world better tomorrow? How are you making history? Our history and our heritage hold the key for understanding how to move forward through our present by using the lessons and the strength of the past. You CAN make a difference…. Join the conversation with us today.
Jordan Fowler is the Executive Assistant for 1696 Heritage Group and assists in client organizational management, social media, and programming. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Jordan served as co-producer and director of a national exhibition highlighting various multi-ethnic historical and cultural narratives across the Atlantic, funded by grants from the University of Virginia, the Institute for Shipboard Education, and the Cultural Alliance of York County.
©2016 Rhode Island Black Heritage Society
Rhode Island Black Heritage Society is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. 110 Benevolent Street, Providence RI 02906