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