Tracking the Footprints of Slavery

Rhode Island Slave History Medallions Project marks Ocean State’s slaving history across the state

By Ted Hayes, July 2, 2019

East Bay Life
Warren sculptor Allison Newsome shows her sculpture with Charles Roberts, founder and chairman of the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions Project.

Though the practice ended two centuries ago, reminders of Rhode Island’s long involvement in the international slave trade remain. Some are hidden, some not.

In Bristol, they can be found in overgrown cemeteries, next to waterfront restaurants and buried under a downtown parking lot. In Portsmouth, they remain at a small spot close to a highway and a stone’s throw from the high school. And in Warren, the reminders are built into the timbers and bricks of many grand old houses that line the historic downtown.

In late August, the first of a host of markers noting Rhode Island’s many connections to the human trade will be installed at Patriots’ Park in Portsmouth. The ceremony will mark the next step in the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions Project, a statewide effort to acknowledge and educate people on Rhode Island’s dirty secret.

 

“We are our history, and unless you know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going,” said Charles Roberts, the founder and chairman of the statewide project.

 

Mr. Roberts is a born promoter, and before founding the project he had already long established himself as a concert promoter. His youth was filled with music, and he worked with Run DMC, Chaka Kahn, Luther Vandross and many others over the years. These days, his energies have been channeled squarely into the project, and he believes the time is right.

“This is about bringing awareness,” he said. “This was never taught in schools; We’re trying to change that.”

The history is very real.

Captains of slavery

From the mid-1600s through the early 1800s, Rhode Island merchants sponsored approximately 2,000 voyages to Africa, where slaves were loaded aboard locally built ships, traded for rum in the Caribbean or sold to southern interests. Over that time period, nearly a quarter million slaves were brought here, and many prominent Rhode Islanders grew rich as a result.

Mr. Roberts said that though the history was not taught in schools — “it was easier to blame the south than accept the responsibility of the north” — nearly every city and town in the Ocean State saw some economic impact from and involvement with the trade. The big players were Newport, Providence and Bristol, home to the notorious DeWolf family of traders, but also in smaller towns from North Kingstown to Warren and beyond.

Warren built and launched dozens of vessels that participated in the trade both when it was legal and after it was officially outlawed, and records at Warren Town Hall
attest that hundreds of slaves were kept there as servants and workers. 

Along with Bristol, where efforts to acknowledge the trade have been ongoing for some time, Warren is also taking steps to record its darker history. Volunteers have participated in the Middle Passage Project, founded to shed light on the state’s slaving past, and a marker noting the town’s involvement was recently installed at the Warren Town Wharf.

The town is also where the main visual symbol of the medallion project was born.

A medallion will be placed at the DeWolf Tavern on Bristol Harbor.
The Tomb of James DeWolf, a wealthy Bristol slave trader and merchant.

The art tells the story Allison Newsome, a long-time sculptor in Warren, was given the commission to design the medallion that will be installed next month and, afterwards, at other locations across the state. Her piece, which was done in clay but will be cast in numbers, bears a winged skull based on the work of Pompe Stevens, a slave who worked in the Stevens shop in Newport in the mid-18th century.

Mr. Roberts first met Ms. Newsome during an open art gallery night in Warren several years ago, and kept her in mind when the time came to find a sculptor to put a face on the project. His wish, that the work be inspired by Pompe Stevens, was not arbitrary.

One day while walking through God’s Little Acre, an old burying ground in Newport, he came across a small stone carved by Stevens. Researching, he learned that the artisan was likely the first to carve his name into his pieces here.

A slave signing his or her name “wasn’t done,” he said. “It never happened. There have been slaves that have done their work for their masters in all kinds of furniture-making and buildings all across the state, and they never got recognition, except for this man who dared to sign his name.”

“I saw the work of an artist,” Mr. Roberts said. “I thought, (the project) needs to have a symbol; we knew that needed to be” it.

Mr. Roberts said the final design completed by Ms. Newsome is “phenomenal.” Apart from the death’s head and text, each medallion will bear a small QR code, a square bar code readable by cell phone scanners. The idea is to program each code with information particular to each location.

So far, approximately 10 sites have been selected for medallions. They include Patriots Park in Portsmouth, where a monument commemorates the First Rhode Island Regiment’s contributions during the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. The regiment, also known as Rhode Island’s “Black Regiment,” included Native Americans and slaves and servants who had been promised their freedom in exchange in taking up arms against the British.

Other sites chosen for future medallions include the DeWolf Tavern and Linden Place in Bristol, both of which were owned by or are on sites once owned by the DeWolfs. 

In Warren, two locations are in the process of being selected. Though Mr. Roberts said it is too early to disclose the locations, he said they are both downtown homes that were built by wealthy slave ship captains and merchants involved in the trade.

Other sites include various locations in Newport and Smith Castle in North Kingstown, among others, and other places are in the works, Mr. Roberts said. Since the project has received publicity, Mr. Roberts said he’s fielded many, many calls from people suggesting other places. Late last week, he was on the hunt for James DeWolf’s burial plot, a large tomb which lies down an overgrown path deep in the woods behind the DeWolf family burying ground in Bristol.

Mr. Roberts, whose family came here in the late 1880s, said he won’t stop looking for places to install medallions. 

“I was always taught to give back, and this is how I’m doing this, so that people can realize the unvarnished truth about our history.”

“To be able to go up to a medallion, scan it and have that information come up on your phone, is the goal. We’re reaching out, talking to people and trying to do as much as we can.”

Note: Donations from the Rhode Island Foundation, Heritage Harbor, Newport Historical Society, Middle Passage Project and others have been instrumental in the
medallions project. For more information, see www.rishm.org.

The first medallion will be installed in late August at Patriots’ Park in Portsmouth.

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