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.
While President Roosevelt designated the second Monday in October as the national federal holiday, October 12th marks the recognized anniversary date of Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean. Many Americans will associate Columbus Day with the discovery and unveiling of the New World—supposedly marking the inception of the Americas while bringing honor and glory to the pioneering explorers of Western Europe. Popular culture celebrates the legacy of Columbus from a lens that magnifies the spirit of discovery, establishing a mythological heroism disproportionate to true historical accounts of the man. Publicly held views of Columbus and Columbus Day celebrations fail to acknowledge the accuracy in more morbid accounts of his ventures. From popular perspective, Columbus’s work sought to enlighten and expand the world view of his time, however, knowledge of the New World predated Columbus’s accounts by centuries. The optimism and forward leaning hope characteristic of American culture seeks to highlight the best of humanity, but even so, we would be remiss to ignore the historical facts revealing the darkness in histories that have not been sufficiently exposed.
Academic scholars can attest to true accounts of Columbus in their totality. As a nautical expert and master navigator of his time, Columbus possessed great talents; but it is integral to demystify the man who committed horrible crimes against humanity for the sake of fame and glory. The carefully crafted well-intentions projected by some academic spheres fail to address the reality of the times and does a great injustice to the realities of the indigenous people. Let’s not allow ourselves to be disillusioned by the socially constructed mythical historical figure of Columbus; historians have a responsibility to present all facts and preserve all histories.
Let’s tell the Truth…the WHOLE truth
Grade school history books and lesson plans paint the hyper-romanticized vision of Columbus as a national hero, charting unknown waters and destined for new lands in the name of patriotism and adventure. History books do not teach of the pre-Columbus ‘discoveries’ and exploration of the New World nor do they address how Columbus’ ideology and strategy laid the groundwork for the foundation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The trans-oceanic discoveries of explorers long before the time of Columbus are neither openly acknowledged nor widely celebrated during Columbus Day in America. The glory and fame associated with Columbus, further perpetuated though the subliminal association of colonization with the establishment of ‘civilized’ society, dangerously assumes the superiority of Western theory and documentation over the very real historic accomplishments, discoveries and realizations of other preceding cultures.
The widely held belief surrounding the famed name of Christopher Columbus suggests that as a legendary explorer, his expeditions paved the way for European colonization of the Americas. However, Columbus did not actually discover the Americas: not only did Columbus never set foot on the mainland continent of the Americas, his observations and records served only as revelations for the Western worlds of the Spanish realm on the Iberian Peninsula. Seldom are people taught about the explorers and other peoples of the world whose previous travels informed and inspired Columbus himself! Cultures hundreds of years before Columbus, including Polynesian explorers, Irish priests and even other western European peoples (just to name a few) had made earlier contact with the Americas, expanding beliefs of worlds outside of their own.
We credit one man with an accomplishment achieved by many others before him solely because he belongs to a culture that traditionally dominated the construction and dissemination of historic narratives. Viewing history solely through an ethnocentric lens that highlights a skewed Eurocentric perspective of greatness, intelligence, progress and civility deprives us of the richness of other cultures that existed simultaneously and were equally integral to the formation of our modern world. Competing timelines around the globe reveal the discoveries and accomplishments of cultures that existed in isolation of each other. Through intercommunication, discovery and colonization, the natural progression of historic world events would expand and blend knowledge of diverse ways of life while challenging perceptions of self and other. We do ourselves no justice and instead debase and decry the validity of underrepresented historical facts when we choose not to honor the Truth in its totality. Even Columbus himself was inspired to dream based on the earlier findings of other scholars whose accounts make note of a new world beyond their own.
True, Columbus was a renowned navigator of his time,
but history reveals much more than that…
Columbus’s navigated his way to Hispañola in the Caribbean, what is today known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As a natural inquirer and explorer, Columbus’s diary entries show a deep appreciation for nature and truly his knowledge depth of botany and love of geography are impressive. If only his appreciation of and admiration for nature could be translated to equal compassion and respect towards the native peoples of the islands upon which he landed… In the same breath that he describes the physical flora and fauna of the New World with such grace and admiration, Columbus proudly notes his conquest of and control over the native peoples. As he took captives from one island of San Salvador (present Bahamas), Columbus noted:
*“My desire was not to pass any island without taking possession, so that, one having been taken, the same may be said of all. I anchored, and remained until to-day, Tuesday, when I went to the shore with the boats armed, and landed.”
In order to justify his crusades to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Columbus had to prove that their investment in his ventures would yield profit for the King and Queen. Thus, Columbus was charged with securing riches for the crown as well as spreading their religious beliefs. Believing that the native peoples possessed gold and could be further utilized as a work force, Columbus noted that *“they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” Considering that the Catholic church did not allow for the enslavement of Christians, Columbus and his men did not baptize the natives or convert them to their religion—it was regarded as more advantageous to enslave the natives and force them to mine for gold. The notion that foreign people could be colonized and forced to labor in captivity is not uncommon to the time considering the possession of slaves as spoils of war during La Reconquista, the war between the Moors and Spaniards on the Iberian Peninsula. However, Columbus had no respect for the Natives and employed the most brutal and dehumanizing tactics in asserting his control over the people and resources of the New World.
“I have given order for a tower and a fort, both well-built… not because I believe that such defenses will be necessary. I believe that with the force I have with me I could subjugate the whole island, which I believe to be larger than Portugal, and the population double. But they are naked and without arms and hopelessly timid… The people may thus know the skill of the subjects of your highnesses, and what they can do; and will obey them with love and fear.”
Through the process of trial and error, Columbus and those under his command worked to establish a slave trade that would benefit their efforts in the colonized lands as well as Spain: Natives were shipped from their homeland to Spain and sold as slaves in addition to being forced into servitude in their own land. While the treatment of natives varied depending on the time and colonizing power, Columbus’s own accounts show little to no respect for the native peoples of the land on which he arrived. True, there were no such concepts as human rights or woman’s rights during the time of Columbus… but the inhumane acts committed and permitted through and in the colonization efforts were far from noble. This process of exploiting captured peoples and trading slaves for financial gain evolved as a process, setting the tone for the foundation of the African enslavement. When efforts to enslave native people failed, colonists would later transport African slaves to the Caribbean, marking the beginning of the slave trade system that would soon define the Americas. The ancestral blood and stories of these African survivors live on in the people that we know today to reside in the Caribbean.
In all our scholarly studies, we strive to uncover and honor the truth. The painful and tragic atrocities committed in the name of discovery by Columbus are neither widely taught nor openly acknowledged in common American history. To separate out the happenings of the brutal acts of colonization and solely celebrate Columbus’s vision would be a travesty. It is not commendable to justify and legitimize the treatment of native peoples and the atrocities committed in the name of science and discovery through the celebration of Columbus.
Just as we advocate for transparency and equal acknowledgement of ALL histories in the diversity of our nation, to disregard the foundation of the slave trade while ignoring the plight of Native peoples under Columbus does our own efforts a huge disservice. However, while Columbus was neither saint or hero, the actions and crimes of the men under his command cannot be attributed wholly unto him. But the brutality and inhumanity scribed in Columbus’s own hand chronicle his experience in telling ways that contradict the flowery portrayal of him as a legendary hero. We discredit ourselves and our own efforts in racial equity in scholarship and the education system if we over simplify and fail to accurately recount history and instead pick and choose which aspects of Columbus’s accounts we embrace.
Out of the darkness comes light…
Many Americans regard the legacy of Columbus with reverence as one of transformational discovery and heroic proportions. But how do the descendants of Native peoples feel about the horrors suffered by their ancestors in the name of “discovery”? Were these chronicles of exploration motivated by untainted quest for knowledge or out of unbridled greed and thirst for glory? The story of colonization of the New World fails to address the changing human dynamics: current teachings and interpretations of Columbus’s legacy often subtly dismiss the suffering of the native peoples and seldom address the mixing of Native and African bloodlines during the slave trade. Consider how the second Monday in October is regarded as a day of discovery and achievement for some, while remembrance of the darker legacy of Columbus holds much pain for others. To celebrate (in present day) the trans-oceanic colonization of the Americas, through praising and magnifying Columbus while accepting the suffering of the native peoples as unavoidable or regrettable necessary evil, distorts interpretations of Columbus’ legacy and intentions. We do not have to condone the lack of humanity that characterizes the colonization of the New World through championing the story of Columbus.
An objective goal within the act of historic preservation is to expose and preserve historic accounts while offering factual insight into interpretations of the past. By definition of its name, history is a story that a culture tells itself of and about itself—it is how we remember who we are. Due to the diversity of the world and the plurality of contrasting world views and timelines, all world histories have different accounts. But there is more than one side to every story and storytelling, at its best, should hold Truth at its core. In all historic accounts, it would be a true travesty to ignore the aspects of our past that carry pain, shame and darkness in order to maintain an image of glory benefitting some at the expense of others.
How do we use this space of difficulty and conflict to enlighten our awareness of the Truth? The discrepancies in widely held public accounts of the happenings and effects of Columbus’ travels reveal the dichotomy between fact and fiction. In all professions and even in all academic spaces, knowledge is evolutionary in that our understanding is constantly evolving and expanding. Incomplete knowledge perpetuates false narratives that often err on the side of over simplification.
"The optimism and forward leaning hope characteristic of American culture seeks to highlight the best of humanity, but even so, we would be remiss to ignore the historical facts revealing the darkness in histories that have not been sufficiently exposed..."
While the human condition is characterized by imperfection, this does not prevent us from reconciling with our past histories to learn from them. More importantly, we must choose our heroes with great caution: the myths surrounding popularly held beliefs about Columbus’ intentions or dreams do not hold true to the reality of the man. We must criticize the discourse of any position that unilaterally highlights one aspect of history over another without honoring the Truth in all narratives, however conflicting. The truest account of any happening in history is not a monolithic account, but rather multidimensional in its complexity, made more complex by often conflicting personal accounts from different compounding vantage points. Due to the misuse of history, we must work to uncover the truth from different perspectives and historical accounts that are equally as important as those perpetuated on a national stage. Although the darker aspects of Columbus and his legacy are neither glamorous nor as uplifting as celebrated in the public sphere, it enlightens our understanding of Columbus as a historic figure and honors other accounts in their entirety.
The world becomes a whole new place
when you open up to other people’s Truths instead of taking your own for gospel…
Considering that discovery, pride, and patriotism reside at the heart of the desire to commemorate Columbus Day, let’s persist in the quest for knowledge: expand your horizons beyond what you think you know and embrace the fullness of the Truth. Choose to educate yourself… you might just learn something! The world becomes a whole new place, the more you learn.
Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading:
* Excerpts from Columbus personal accounts: http://eada.lib.umd.edu/text-entries/journal/ This text of the present edition was prepared from and proofed against Christopher Columbus, "Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus," in Julius E. Olson and Edward Gaylord Bourne, eds., The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503, Original Narratives of Early American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906).
Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen
Christopher Columbus, "Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus," in Julius E. Olson and Edward Gaylord Bourne, eds., . New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906.
“Columbus’ Confusion About the New World”, Edmund S Morgan
“Why Christopher Columbus Was The Perfect Icon For a New Nation Looking for a Hero”, Brian Handwerk
A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn
Literary works and translations of Bartolome de las Casas
The Other Slavery, Andres Resendez
“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
All for One: Setting the Stage for Worker’s Rights
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 6th of December in 1869, over 200 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.
Standing Together: The Man Behind a Movement
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, RI 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 along with a confectionary and catering business on 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 as the official manager of the dining room for the US 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 New England businessman and community leader, Downing advocated for workers’ rights and racial equity. It was the electrifying speech by George T. Downing in 1869 that set the tone for not only the fledging organization, but for African American 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 fulfil 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.”
On this September 5, 2016 as we celebrate across the nation Labor Day and 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.
This Labor Day, we celebrate the amazing efforts of those Americans who defied extraordinary odds, combatting injustice and inequality to give us the opportunity to dare to dream and work towards successes of our own.
We Lay Down Our Lives: Sacrifice Knows No Color
An important but little known historic fact of the First Rhode Island Regiment: of the 225 men who would serve in the regiment, possibly 150 were of African heritage. It was never a “Black Regiment,” instead blacks served in their own segregated companies within the larger integrated regiment. This level of integration between black and white soldiers was not uncommon within the Continental Army of the time, but would not be seen again until after WW2.
To know these men of African heritage of the First Rhode Island Regiment, we must travel back to the very settlement of Rhode Island. Those honored men, women and families that first settled in Portsmouth 376 years ago last year and Newport 375 years ago this year, brought with them to this island an unconquerable sense of religious liberty. As immigrants they would build not only a new home, but create a place where anyone, regardless of religious belief, could settle and prosper. But Rhode Island during those early years also embodied a distinct irony; as the Colony, particularly Newport, was founded on the principles of religious freedom and civil liberties, it would soon become one of America’s leading slave centers. The contradictions between slavery and freedom are very apparent throughout our American history. And during the mid-18th century as Rhode Island colonists prepared to go to war with Great Britain over taxation without representation, these same pioneering citizens enjoyed, directly and indirectly, vast economic prosperity through African slave labor.
“If you say you have the right to enslave (Negroes) because it is for your interest, why do you dispute the legality of Great Britain’s enslaving you?” – A True Son of Liberty, Newport Mercury, January 8, 1768
As the American Revolution wore on, depletion of fighting men opened a new opportunity for Rhode Island’s men of color. A pivotal historical moment for free and enslaved Africans comes on August 29, 1778 when the First Rhode Island Regiment sees action in the Battle of Rhode Island. Earlier that year, the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted the following:
“It is voted and resolved that every able-bodied Negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave in this state may enlist to enter either of the said two battalions to serve during the continuance of the war with Great Britain.”
The regiment, comprised of mostly enslaved and free African, Indian and Mulatto men, take the field for the first time as an organized fighting force in defense of the colony and fledging nation.
Under the new law the first note given for a slave to enlist was dated February 11, 1778. The name of the slave was Cuff Greene, owned by James Greene, son of William Greene, who was then Rhode Island Governor. The amount of the note was a hundred and twenty pounds, the highest sum allowed by the law. Their gallantry in that and future battles would provide the impetus for some individuals to recognize that men willing to fight and possibly die for a new country that did not accept them as equal was incongruous to the ideals of American liberty and freedom.
Strength in a Name:
The Fight for Liberty & Justice for ALL
The face of freedom knows no bounds in color: our collective patriotism connects our diverse backgrounds and unites us in our belief of a free nation of free people. As we celebrate and recognize the contributions of the men of the First Regiment, it is also essential we recognize the African origins of these early champions of American freedom and liberty. Many of the members of the regiment were men of direct African heritage, with some coming to these shores directly from West Africa and with several retaining their West African “Day Names.” This important naming tradition can be seen throughout the West African Diaspora and particularly throughout 18th century Rhode Island with the most notable Day Names of:
Members of the First Rhode Island Regiment with African Day Names that are remembered to this very day can been read etched into the memorial located at the Patriots Park in Portsmouth, Rhode Island close to the actual site of the historic Battle of Rhode Island. African Patriots in early America with names including:
Cuff Arnold *Cuff Blackmore *Quash Carr * Quako Chadwick * Cudjo Burrell * Cudjo Champlin * Cuff Chesebourgh * Quam Cook * Slade Cuff, Amos Cuffee, Cuff Gardner, Cuff Greene, Quam Howard, Joshua Quam, Quash, James Quaco, Jehu Quaco, John Quaco, James Quas, Gideon Quash, Cuff Roberts, Quam Simmons, Cuff Slade, Cuff Tillinghast, Quam Tanner, Kudjo Wilson, and Cudjo Wilkerson.
So as we remember those brave African heritage men who fought for themselves, their race, and America 238 years ago, we must recognize that American history is incomplete without acknowledging the history of African heritage men and women who help to build, fight and died for it.
- Keith Stokes
Words cannot begin to express how thrilled I am to have the opportunity to be a part of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. As we start a re-inventory of our collections, I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude constantly reflecting on how this process leaves a personal impression on my perspective. I truly believe that our history is alive in that it lives through us in everything that we do, and the privilege to interact with primary historical sources firsthand is a BIG DEAL to me. By nature, everything changes. People change, our culture evolves… even our priorities and our goals are refined by and in time. But what about our history and our heritage? How do we interpret the sacrifices, struggles and miraculous achievements of our ancestry? Being able to share this journey of re-discovery is a special way to continue honor our ancestry while sharing knowledge from the past. The connection between the struggles and triumphs in our past relate directly to everything we do and experience in the present day. But how do we put the lessons of the past into action? How do we grow and where do we go from here?
Mural painted by Munir D. Mohammed, an artist from Ghana, West Africa: depicting eighteen historical Rhode Island figures from 1776 to 1976. This mural is on permanent display at RIBHS. Funding provided by RI Foundation Expansion Arts Program. Truly a reminder that we stand on the shoulders of giants, amazing men and women who made tremendous contributions to a better and brighter reality for our communities.
Through generations, African Heritage peoples have found innovative ways to become a part of the society that once considered them to be less than human. Not only have we become an integral part of American society, but we continue to thrive and have grown to define the quintessential questions of American identity and culture. This concept of “creative survival” colors the narratives of our ancestral successes and struggles. We are political forces; we are agents of social change; we are artists and doctors; we are teachers and athletes; we are scholars, thinkers and doers with revolutionary thoughts and dreams, making an active difference in our society and the world around us. We are a multifaceted people representing the African Diaspora in its entirety: we are the Caribbean, Latin America, North America and Africa, herself.
I am proud to be a part of this legacy and want to share these stories of extraordinary courage and strength with you. Black history IS American history: we all must own it and feel it as ours, collectively. Here, at the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, we believe in the power of opportunity as presented by inspiration from the past. When you know where and who you come from, you know what you’re made of. If you can appreciate all aspects of your different ancestral narratives, you can see how far we’ve come and, more importantly, how much we have yet to do. Progress is a process only made better in its continuation. Reflecting on our history is only helpful if we can draw from our roots to press forward in creating a present that more closely reflects our hopes for the future.
And so, I offer you my perspective
Graduating from college and returning to my home state of Rhode Island was bittersweet for me. Aside from constantly being told that there are “no jobs” for recent graduates or that everyone is struggling in our recovering economy, I was left wondering where I fit in. Belonging, coupled with personal and intellectual utility, are concerns of many recent grads and all people in general: most of us want to live a purpose-driven life where we feel that we are contributing to something meaningful and worthwhile. Getting involved with the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society was truly a blessing for me. I have been connected with amazing people who are fundamental pillars of our communities, individuals who are seriously invested in and dedicated to making a positive difference. It now seems like my personal returning home has begun to ‘hit home’; through my involvements with RIBHS, I now have the opportunity to be part of an organization that uplifts and empowers MY community and beyond. Anyone who knows me knows that I highly value and am an advocate for transformational and impactful work. I believe that the positive implications of the work done at RIBHS extend even further than the borders of our state. The rich history and narratives of African Heritage people here in Rhode Island have surely contributed to broader American history. Extending BEYOND slavery, African Heritage peoples have always been an integral part of this nation’s history. I believe that our stories matter, our voices matter and our lives matter.
My personal investment in the Rhode Island Black Heritage society is mirrored in a seemingly serendipitous parallel between my personal “return to origins” and this re-assessment of the RIBHS archives. The Heritage Society is embarking on a journey to re-inventory and carefully curate exhibits for our entire collection. Sorting through boxes of dated documents, pictures, books, pamphlets and artifacts is almost like rediscovering the beauty of all this history. To me, it is something quite special… almost like coming home.
Files from the FIRST trip to the archives. The beginning of reorganizing the organizational archives: “an opportunity to rediscover the treasures of our heritage and reinterpret key lessons and narratives from the past.”
I feel that the RIBHS collections are the heart of the organization. Artifacts and narratives from our past give us insight into some of the most important lessons and ideologies that our people valued and fought for. Knowledge of the past is one of the essential elements of a strong foundation. I believe that the strongest component of our present passions that will bring us continued success is our ability to not only learn from the past but to synthesize the spirit behind the most pressing issues of our past. The date and times may have changed, but many of the core conversations and struggles of identity politics, race relations and civil rights remain to be addressed. We have countless documents, books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets—almost anything you can imagine pertaining to the contributions of African Heritage peoples in Rhode Island—and all of it is relevant to our modern journey of rediscovery.
Sorting through boxes of files in the Rhode Island Blacker Heritage Society archives may seem like a daunting task to most historians… but I think of it more as an opportunity to rediscover the treasures of our heritage and reinterpret the key lessons and narratives from the past. Here at RIBHS, we have a wealth of historical references and cultural resources that can empower us to dig deeper into our organizational mission in order to reach out and empower our communities. The stories and ideas reflected in many of the historical articles and magazines we are finding in the RIBHS archives reflect the conversations we as Americans continue to have.
Excerpt from JET Magazine, June 03, 1971. Articles and narratives from our past show us that the concepts and realities of the past are more recent than some would want to acknowledge. Consider that even though Barack Obama has been president of the United States for two terms, not everyone in America acknowledges his legitimacy or appreciates the huge impact of his tenure as President of the United States. The reality for African Heritage peoples in 1971 America was different than now 2016… but even as our country continues to strive for greatness, we are still fighting to remind our nation and the world that black lives DO matter and that everyone should have the opportunity to do great things.
In an age where some would want to distance themselves from the atrocities of our nation’s past, although not surprising, it is almost uncanny how closely our past issues reflect our continued present struggles. Our many diverse communities can only effectively engage these issues through raising our voices and leveraging our collective resources.
I have become immersed in the not only the history of this Heritage Society, but also in the firm commitments of the organizational vision. As a newcomer to the organization, I am dedicated to what this institution stands for: hope. I feel that hope for a better and brighter ‘tomorrow’ is what drives The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and it is also something that sustains my passion for civic engagement and social action. As descendants of an incredible ancestry, we are the physical manifestation of generations of such hope. The abstract concept of hope, coupled with preset day aspirations for “liberty and justice for all”, serve as constant reminders that we have to actively work towards making the promises of opportunity of the American dream a reality. Maya Angelou’s words remain in the forefront of my thoughts as we continue to assess and inventory the treasures in the RIBHS archives: “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and hope of a slave”. Our history expands beyond the slavery narrative just as the connection of African Heritage peoples in RI and in this country stretches beyond the Revolutionary War. Not only am I constantly in awe of the items in our inventory, but I love rediscovering the deep connection between the “then” and “now” of African Heritage peoples in Rhode Island.
Truly, we “stand on the shoulders of giants”; everything opportunity we have has been afforded us by the sacrifices and accomplishments of those that paved the way before us. Maybe, someday, our stories will provide the foundation for future generations to aspire to greatness.
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