Rhode Island Slave History Medallions honors Juneteenth with programming and inaugural Black history walking tours in Newport

Colonial Newport comes alive by remembering the lives of enslaved and free Black Newporters

Juneteenth in Newport

Rhode Island Slave History Medallions (RISHM) is hosting a free, family-friendly celebration of Juneteenth, the nation’s second independence day that marks the emancipation of all trafficked and enslaved people of African descent. Juneteenth is celebrated June 19 each year, but the RISHM event will be held Saturday, June 15 from 11 am to 4 pm at Eisenhower Park in Newport. The second annual Juneteenth programming pays tribute to the 1st Rhode Island “Black” Regiment by featuring speakers, historians, dance performances, storytelling by Valerie Tutson of the RI Black Storytellers, historic regiment demonstrations, and more. A special feature for this year’s celebration will be a reading of “The Varum Letter” by RISHM director Charles Roberts. The letter was dictated by Thomas Nichols, who was freed from enslavement to serve in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

The Juneteenth celebration also marks the inaugural opportunity for the public to experience “Newport Black History Walking Tours: Lost Stories of Resistance at Freedom,” starting at 4 pm on June 15. The tour lasts about 75 minutes, and interested attendees can sign up for the free pilot experience at RISHM’s Juneteenth table in-person on June 15. The regular season of the tour begins June 22, lasting through November 30, with tours running Saturday through Monday from 10-11:15 am. Tickets for the regular season tour can be bought online – twenty dollars for adults, fifteen dollars for military servicemembers, and ten dollars for children aged 12 and under. 

On May 29, Kate Grotteberg, director of communications, marketing, and events at the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, facilitated a ribbon cutting ceremony for RISHM’s Black history walking tours. The mission of the tour is to “recognize and educate the public about places in Newport and around Rhode Island that had played a dominate role in the slave trade, and to share the documented stories of enslaved people who had made significant contributions to Newport and the state,” explains Maria Hunter, one of the tour guides.

Like RISHM’s name suggests, there are medallions scattered all throughout Rhode Island, denominating significant spots relevant to the history of enslaved people in the state. Sixteen medallions are currently installed, from North Kingstown to Aquidneck Island, and half are in the city of Newport. Many of the Newport medallions can be seen on the tour. A total of 37 medallions are planned to be installed throughout the state. 

The first medallion can be found at Bowen’s Wharf. On each medallion is the icon of an angel. “The angel image is so significant to the history of Newport’s religious freedom,” says Roberts, and using the imagery in this context is to relate it to the freedom of Newport’s slaves. The Black history guided tours were Roberts’ brainchild. “He’s passionate about telling the stories often left untold,” says Steve Marino, one of RISHM’s tour guides. Roberts was inspired to carry this passion from his uncle’s encouragement nearly seventy years ago. The walks are a symbol of his life’s work. 

A Slave Medallion Installation in Newport

On May 29, Kate Grotteberg, director of communications, marketing, and events at the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, facilitated a ribbon cutting ceremony for RISHM’s Black history walking tours. The mission of the tour is to “recognize and educate the public about places in Newport and around Rhode Island that had played a dominate role in the slave trade, and to share the documented stories of enslaved people who had made significant contributions to Newport and the state,” explains Maria Hunter, one of the tour guides.

Like RISHM’s name suggests, there are medallions scattered all throughout Rhode Island, denominating significant spots relevant to the history of enslaved people in the state. Sixteen medallions are currently installed, from North Kingstown to Aquidneck Island, and half are in the city of Newport. Many of the Newport medallions can be seen on the tour. A total of 37 medallions are planned to be installed throughout the state. 

The first medallion can be found at Bowen’s Wharf. On each medallion is the icon of an angel. “The angel image is so significant to the history of Newport’s religious freedom,” says Roberts, and using the imagery in this context is to relate it to the freedom of Newport’s slaves. The Black history guided tours were Roberts’ brainchild. “He’s passionate about telling the stories often left untold,” says Steve Marino, one of RISHM’s tour guides. Roberts was inspired to carry this passion from his uncle’s encouragement nearly seventy years ago. The walks are a symbol of his life’s work.

The walking tour includes stops at Queen Anne Park, Trinity Church, the Samuel Hopkins House, the William Ellery Channing House, the Trinity Schoolhouse/Shiloh Baptist Church, the William Vernon House, and finishes at Eisenhower Park near the Jane Pickens Theatre.

While walking, tour guides will regale audiences with stories of “resilience” and “resistance” as told from the perspective of colonial Black Newporters. Some of the narratives include anecdotes of slaves committing acts of rebellion, buying their own freedom, or becoming highly successful craftsmen and entrepreneurs. Audience members will listen to the stories of “Ned the Negro boy,” Cuffe Gibbs and his brother Pompe Stevens, Duchess Quamino (the “Pastry Queen of Rhode Island”), and many others.

Newport’s history is rich, though most of it is taught and told from a white perspective. “These histories are often hidden,” Hunter says, referencing the tales of Black Newporters. RISHM has been working with Roger Williams University’s history department for three years to pull the threads of these narratives together, hunting through archives and documents to refocus history and give remembrance to the culture and contributions of Black people in Newport.

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