Historical Highlights of Rhode Islandís Black Community
It is difficult to determine when the first slaves came to Rhode Island, but there is an indication that black slaves were here as early as 1652, By the late 17th century, Rhode Island had become the only colony in New England to use slaves for both labor and trade. Newport and Bristol were the major slave markets in the American colonies.
In 1765, the Nicholas Brown Company sent the ship"Sally" to Africa to get a shipload of black people to bring back to Rhode Island. During this treacherous journey, 109 of the 167 Africans perished at sea.
Although slave trade and plantations were considered to be a southern way of life, they also existed outside the south. In Rhode Island, they took the form of the Narragansett plantation family, the Middletown crop workers, and the indentured and slave craftsmen of Newport.
The first positive legislation against slavery in Rhode Island was passed as early as 1652, but there was little compliance and even less enforcement.
There were those who continued to oppose slavery. Moses Brown freed his slaves after becoming a Quaker and let a strong abolitionist force that made Rhode Island among the first or the colonies to pass legislation to end slave-trading. John Bower, however, did not share his brother Mosesí philosophy. A merchant, state representative, and powerful slave holder. John was tried for slave -trading in 1796 and was found "not guilty". This acquittal convinced many that the new legislation was useless, especially against the wealthy and powerful who engaged in this practice.
Some slaves gained their freedom by enlisting in the famous Black Regiment of Rhode Island, when it was formed in the spring of 1778, the first black army unit in history. Fighting in the battle of Rhode Island in Portsmouth, they were part of what Lafayette described as the "best fought action of the war." Even after participating in other battles, the soldiers were disbanded in 1783, without pay, and abandoned to find their way home from Saratoga, New York. A monument to these 138 loyal troops is located at the junction of Routes 114 and 24 in Portsmouth.
Freedom did not come easily. In 1784, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed the Negro Emancipation Act, freeing the children of slaves when the men became 21 and the women 18.
As the black community became established, organizations were formed which would enhance the social fabric of the people. Some of the groups were the African Union Society, the African Benevolent Society, the African Colonization Society, several churches and schools and the Shelter for Colored Children.
All was not peaceful, and tensions mounted between the white working class and the black community. The blacks were stripped of voting rights and segregated in schools in the 1820ís. White rioters damaged property in Hard-Scrabble, the first separate black neighborhood, off what is now North Main Street, near University Heights.
In the 1830ís, the black population had grown to become 7.2% of Providenceís residents. Two-thirds lived in their own homes, and many owned their own businesses. Racial tensions once again escalated and resulted in a four-day riot between the white and black citizenry. Stations of the Underground Railroad, a clandestine escape route for slaves moving from the south to Canada, were developed. Moses Brown, a key abolitionist, was station master in Providence, and Elizabeth Buffum Chace opened her home as an active station. Her home still stands in Central Falls.
The Dorr Rebellion of the early 1840ís resulted in the Legal Party approving a new constitution which gave voting privileges to all native born males who met a three-year residency requirement.
Formation of the 14th Heavy Artillery Regiment, development of the Rhode Island Association of Freedmen, and school integration in Rhode Island highlighted the Civil War years.
Blacks continued to gain recognition. Edward Bannister, landscape artist and winner of the bronze medal in the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, co-founded the Providence Art Club and was part of the founding of the Rhode Island School of Design. Sisseretta Jones, trained at the Providence Academy of Music, was a premiere black singer who performed for President Harrison and for Europeís royalty.
The John Hope Settlement, named in honor of Dr. John Hope, an 1894 graduate of Brown University and a former President of Atlanta University, was created to meet the social and recreational needs of black people and anyone else wanting to participate. Dr. Julius Robinson, a Providence physician, was the first President of the Providence branch of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Today, The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, is dedicated to finding, preserving and telling the history and culture of African-Americans in our state. It is ranked as one the top Ten Black Museums in the country. The Rhode Island Historical Society, the Rhode Island Heritage Commission, and the Providence Preservation Society also are treasures of historical and cultural resources for Black history.
February is Black History Month, a celebration of the rich and diverse heritage of African-Americans in Rhode Island and nationwide, which we promote every day. For additional information, contact The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society at 401-751-3490, 202 Washington Street, Providence, RI 02903
The Rhode Island
The first Black Regiment in America, under the leadership of General Nathaniel Green was an important contribution to the victorious conclusion of the Revoluntionary War.
The Famous Black Regiment of Rhode Island was formed in the Spring of 1778 to replace the members of the First Rhode Island Regiment who had died through the early campaigns of the Revoluntionary War.
Blacks in The Revolutionary War
In February, 1778, to meet growing manpower needs, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law promising black recruits "all the bounties, wages and encouragements of other troops." Upon passing muster, slaves were to be immediately discharged from the service of their master or mistress and freed, as though never encumbered with either servitude or slavery. Free Black men from Providence (including, Richard Cozzens, Pomp Reaves, and Felix Holbrook) also volunteered and served in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, where they were segregated in all black companies serving under white officers. After fighting for five years, black veterans returned at the end of the war to the continuing struggle for jobs, equality and the money due them for participation in the war.
Battle of Rhode Island
August 29, 1778
The colored regiment under Col. Greeneís fought against the Hessian Troops (reinforcements for the British) displayed courage "not surpassed by any regiment during the War." The regiment was sent South [Battles, Charles A. The Negroes on the Island of Rhode Island, 1932 p.13]