Personal narratives of the enslaved people who built Newport have been largely unknown, until now

The voices of tradesmen and women, ropemakers, masons, and carpenters inform a new tour and exhibit, illuminating the history of early Black Americans and its ongoing impact in Rhode Island.

Charles Roberts is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Rhode Island Slave History Medallions. “We’re trying to make the public aware of this history and the contributions of enslaved people,” he said, in Newport and across Rhode Island.
Charles Roberts is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Rhode Island Slave History Medallions. “We’re trying to make the public aware of this history and the contributions of enslaved people,” he said, in Newport and across Rhode Island.

NEWPORT, R.I. — Duchess (Channing) Quamino was said to be the daughter of an African prince, and became an accomplished baker and businesswoman. Newport Gardner was a musician, community activist, and spoke three languages. Cato Vernon was a Revolutionary War soldier.

These Black individuals were enslaved against their will to white merchants in late 18th-century Newport, one of the largest ports in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in a state with the most slaves per capita in New England.

Until now, their personal narratives and experiences here have been largely unknown. But their voices — tradesmen and women, ropemakers, masons, and carpenters who built the city into a bustling destination for commerce — highlight a new tour and exhibit that illuminate “the untold history of early Black Americans” and its widespread, ongoing impact in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island Slave History Medallions tour walks through the history of the enslaved people who lived and worked in homes and businesses here. Nearby, the Newport Historical Society’s latest exhibit, “A Name, A Voice, A Life: The Black Newporters of the 17th-19th Centuries,” supports these narratives.

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