“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