“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.