Take a tour of Rhode Island’s historic locations through the Rhode Island Slave History Medallion project.
Take a tour of Rhode Island’s historic locations through the Rhode Island Slave History Medallion project.
The Rhode Island Slave History Medallion project is a statewide public awareness program committed to marking those historic sites connected to the history of slavery in Rhode Island.
Slavery was the global economic engine prior to its abolition and Rhode Island’s role in this business of slavery was significant. By marking sites throughout the state that are connected to that past, we hope to make that history easily accessible by telling a more complete story of the cultural and economic development of the State of Rhode Island.
In each city or town, a QR coded Medallion with the history of its designated locations will appear on the website. The QR code on the Medallion will provide a link to this website with historical content about each location.
We welcome participation in the Rhode Island Slave History Medallion project. Please help us accomplish this landmark achievement in education.
By Sean Flynn
Daily News staff writer
Posted Jun 20, 2019 at 11:11 AM
Charles Roberts, the chairman and founder of the project, unveiled the medallion that will be mounted at sites beginning with Patriots Park in Portsmouth on Aug. 25
NEWPORT — The Rhode Island Slave History Medallions project kicked off Wednesday night at the Colony House with speeches and a presentation before almost 125 people.
“The objective is to identify and mark sites throughout the state that have a historical connection to the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans, either by their involvement in the slave trade and the economy of slavery, or by their association with the lives and labor of enslaved people themselves,” said Ruth Taylor, executive director of the Newport Historical Society, a sponsor of the project.
Charles Roberts, the chairman and founder of the project, unveiled the medallion that will be mounted at sites beginning with Patriots Park in Portsmouth on Aug. 25. The monument commemorates the heroic actions of the First Rhode Island Regiment, better known as the “Black Regiment,” in the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. These soldiers were enslaved Blacks and Native Americans who were promised freedom if they enlisted to fight against British and Hessian forces in the Revolutionary War.
In this sense, they were “mercenaries of the state,” purchased for a price from slave owners, said Joanne Pope Melish, the featured speaker at Wednesday’s event.
Melish, a history professor emerita of the University of Kentucky, is currently a visiting scholar at Brown University, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as a doctorate. She is the author of the 1998 book “Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race In New England, 1780-1860.”
Slaves of colonial times were not only in the cities like Newport and Providence, but were on the large Narragansett country farms that encompassed all of southern Rhode Island and extended partly into what is today North Kingstown, she said.
Between 1644 and 1807, there were about 2,000 ship voyages that left Rhode Island to bring back slaves from Africa, to be sold in the Caribbean Islands or to plantations in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, but also to Rhode Islanders, Melish said. Altogether, the Rhode Island ships and slave traders brought in a quarter million slaves to the Americas, she said.
“Every part of Rhode Island was involved in and profited from the slave trade,” she said.
The earliest banks in Rhode Island — like Bank of Rhode Island in Newport with slave trader Moses Seixas and Bristol Bank founded by notorious slave trader James DeWolf — were capitalized in the 1790s with the profits of slaving, she said.
The Providence Bank was founded in 1791 with slave profits. It became in the following years Providence Union Bank & Trust, Industrial National Bank, and finally Fleet National Bank before it was bought by Bank of America in 2004.
“I’d love to put a medallion on the Bank of America, but I won’t live long enough to see that,” Melish said.
She cited census figures from past centuries and decades to show how widespread the institution of slavery was in Rhode Island.
For example, in 1755, there were 4,697 enslaved “Blacks,” or 11.5% of the state’s population at that time. About one-third of them were in the port cities like Providence, Bristol and Newport and one-fourth were on Narragansett country plantations.
“Only five of the 25 cities and towns at that time had fewer than 50 enslaved laborers,” Melish said.
Later in the century, many of the First Regiment soldiers after the war returned to the farm plantations where they had been slaves, but now worked as low-paid farm laborers, Melish said.
Bob Geake, who volunteers at Smith Castle in North Kingstown and is the author of the 2016 book, “From Slaves to Soldiers: The Story of the First Rhode Island Regiment,” added that at its height from about 1740 to 1750, Smith Castle had 3,000 acres. When owner Daniel Updike died in 1757, his will shows he owned 20 slaves, he said.
Geake said Smith Castle has agreed to mount one of the medallions. Among the other agreed sites for medallions are the Colony House, Quaker Meeting House and the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House in Newport; DeWolf Tavern and Linden Place in Bristol; and the Stephen Hopkins House in Providence, Roberts said.
Allison Newsome of Warren is the sculptor who created the medallion.
She based her work on the sculpted design on a gravestone created by Pompei Stevens, a slave artisan in the John Stevens Shop on Thames Street that opened in 1705. Pompei Stevens made gravestones for slaves who are buried in “God’s Little Acre” in the Common Burying Ground on Farewell Street.
“It’s definitely an African influence,” Newsome said about the image, especially the eyes.
A clay model of the medallion, painted to look like bronze, was on display in the Colony House on Wednesday. The medallion is now being cast in bronze at the Buccacio Sculpture Services in Canton, Massachusetts.
Nick Benson, who operates the John Stevens Shop, chose the font of the letters on the medallion and the scale, Newsome said.
“It was really hard for me to do the lettering,” she said. “That’s not what I’m used to.”
Within the medallion is a space for a QR code that people will be able to scan with their cellphones and call up the historical information about the site and its connection to slavery.
Donations from the Newport County Fund of the Rhode Island Foundation, Heritage Harbor Foundation, Bank Newport, Channing Memorial Church and the Newport Middle Passage Program, besides the Newport Historical Society, have allowed for the creation of the medallions and covered accessory costs.
For more information about the Slave History Medallions project go to RISHM.org
The Newport Historical Society in collaboration with the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions Project will present an evening of activities June 19, 2019 beginning at 5 pm at The Colony House, Washington Square, Newport, R.I. Please register here for this free event.
- 5 pm – Fifes and Drums
- 5:30 pm – Joanne Pope Melish on Remembering Slavery with R.I.S.H.M
- Charles Roberts – Pompe Stevens Medallion
Joanne Pope Melish will discuss the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions project, whose objective is to identify and mark sites throughout the state that have a historical connection to the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans, either by their involvement in the slave trade and the economy of slavery, or by their association with the lives and labor of enslaved people themselves. Dr. Melish will offer some examples of such connections in various parts of the state.
Joanne Pope Melish is Associate Professor of History Emerita at the University of Kentucky, where she also directed the American Studies Program and co-directed the Africana Studies Initiative for several years. Dr. Melish received her BA, MA, and Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University. She is the author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780-1860 (Cornell University Press, 1998) and many essays on race and slavery in early New England and slavery in public history.
Charles Roberts, Chairman of the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions project, will unveil the medallion whose design was inspired by Pompe Stevens, the enslaved stone carver who in 1768 crafted one of the first signed African-American pieces of artwork in North America right here in Newport
Charles Roberts is an artist, and a Producer/Promoter, who has coordinated concert events for Run DMC Luther Vandross, Chaka Kahn, Gladys Knight
and others. He produced Gospel Gathering Events in Newport, Donnie McClurkin at PPAC and Fred Hammond at Veterans Memorial Hall. He was the Executive Director and producer of First Night Newport’s New Year’s Eve Celebration of the Arts for ten years. His family has lived in Newport since 1889.
The Bristol County Fifes and Drums will perform at 5:00 pm, in front of the Colony House as part of the “International Day of Drumming and Healing” organized by the “400 Years of African American History Commission” established by Congress in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the British colonies .
The project’s focus is identifying and marking sites across Rhode Island that have a connection to slavery.
NEWPORT – Joanne Pope Melish will give a lecture at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Colony House about the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions Project.
The project’s focus is identifying and marking sites across Rhode Island that have a “historical connection to the enslavement of indigenous people and Africans, either by their involvement in the slave trade and the economy of slavery, or by their association with the lives and labor of enslaved people themselves,” according to the Newport Historical Society. The event is free; RSVP at newporthistory.org/event.
The Bristol County Fifes and Drums will perform in front of the Colony House at 5 p.m. Its performance dovetails with the International Day of Drumming and Healing organized by the 400 Years of African-American History Commission established by Congress.
Charles Roberts, the project’s chairman, will unveil the medallion during the lecture. The first medallion installation is scheduled for Aug. 25 at Patriots Park in Portsmouth.
Wed. March 20, 6:30 PM, Parish Hall, Channing Church, Newport
In this talk, the first outreach presentation for Rhode Island Slave History Medallions, Dr. Zilian, a board member, will describe the beginnings and growth of slavery in the colony of Rhode Island, and Rhode Island’s key role in the Atlantic trading system. He’ll examine the business, demographics and personal lives of people involved in slavery in colonial Newport, and will demonstrate the relevance of Newport’s slave history to present day concerns.
Dr. Zilian holds a PhD in international relations/strategic studies from Johns Hopkins University. He is an Adjunct Professor at Salve Regina University, where he teaches history and politics. His articles and reviews have been published widely, from the Wall Street Journal to the Newport Daily News. He has performed as an Abe Lincoln interpreter for 20 years.
CO SPONSORED BY THE SOCIAL ACTION COMMITTEE AND THE LEARNING CENTER
The Learning Center is in need of folks to help set up in advance of programs! Please contact Susan Kieronski at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (401) 662-2906 to volunteer – thanks!