PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is not home to a “Johnny Reb” statue or any other of the Confederate memorials that are being toppled or removed throughout the South in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
But the smallest state did play a huge role in the transatlantic slave trade. And while not always widely recognized, some of the state’s most prominent memorials and well-known names and places honor men deeply involved in that history of slavery.
Most of the current controversy centers on Providence’s Christopher Columbus statue, as demonstrated by Saturday’s attempt to vandalize the now-boarded-up statue. The Italian admiral was a master navigator and adventurous explorer hailed for discovering the New World for Europeans but later vilified for the enslavement and subjugation of indigenous people in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Even the state’s official name — Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — has become the subject of renewed debate, with advocates saying that whatever its historical origin, the word “plantations” conjures up slavery.
And while the presence of certain statues prompts controversy, some say it’s the absence of commemoration — or bare-minimal recognition — of the state’s Black and Native American communities that’s most telling.
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The Christopher Columbus statue that stands in Columbus Square, in Providence, has been vandalized repeatedly over the years, each time prompting a debate over the legacy of the Italian explorer.
Recently, after vandals beheaded the Columbus statue in Boston’s North End, the Providence statue was boarded up and fenced off, with a sign warning “Danger: High Voltage Within: Keep Out.”
But that didn’t stop a teacher at Joseph Jenks Junior High School in Pawtucket and two women from allegedly trying to vandalize the statue early Saturday by lobbing containers of paint at the boxed statue, according to the police.
Raymond Two Hawks Watson, chief executive officer and founder of the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative, said the Columbus statue is on land that was once home to his CCTV, and, he said, “You have large populations of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans nearby in Providence, and that is who Columbus colonized.”
Watson called for placing the statue in a safe indoor location where it could spur a comprehensive discussion about Columbus and his legacy — including the viewpoints of the Italian community, the Native American community, and others.
“I can’t justify the statue given my people’s history of colonization,” he said. “But I want to respect and give space for other communities in the relationship they have to the statue.”
Paul F. Caranci, a former North Providence councilman and deputy secretary of state who wrote the book on Providence monuments, contended that Columbus has been blamed for the misdeeds of others, and he argued that the statue should remain where it is.
“I support history, and just because some of our history wasn’t pretty doesn't mean we should forget about it,” Caranci said. “If you move statues to museums, you are removing them from the public places where they were dedicated, and you are moving them away from the public.”
In their book “Monumental Providence,” Caranci and his daughter, Heather A. Caranci, explain that the Columbus statue was a cast of a sculpture by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, and it was dedicated in November 1893 at the intersection of Elmwood and Reservoir avenues.
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Major General Nathanael Greene is a Warwick, R.I., native celebrated as George Washington’s most gifted and dependable officer in the Revolutionary War. His name is on one of Providence’s middle schools, his portrait hangs in the State Room of the State House, and statues of him stand both outside the State House and in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol in Washington, representing the state of Rhode Island (along with a statue of Roger Williams).
But Greene also owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime, according to Gerald M. Carbone, a former Providence Journal reporter who wrote a book on Greene.
In “Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution,” Carbone explains that Washington put Greene in charge of the southern theater, and after defeating the British, three southern states voted to give Greene liberal amounts of land and money out of gratitude. After the war ended, he moved from Rhode Island to Georgia, and bought slaves to work each of his plantations, including Boone’s Barony in South Carolina.
When a Quaker questioned his decision to own slaves, Greene responded: “On the subject of slavery, nothing can be said in its defense.” Still, he tried to rationalize it this way: “The generosity of the southern states has placed an interest of this sort in my hands, and I trust their condition will not be worse but better. They are, generally, as much attached to a plantation as a man is to his family, and to remove them from one to another is their great punishment.”
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Commodore Esek Hopkins is a Scituate, R.I., native celebrated as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War. His name is on another of Providence’s public middle schools, and his statue stands in Hopkins Square in Providence.
But according to “A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England,” Hopkins also captained a slave ship, the Sally, after being hired by members of the Brown family, for whom Brown University is named.
In fact, Hopkins illustrates the outsized role Rhode Island played in slave trade: During the Colonial period, according to the John Carter Brown Library at the university, the state “was one corner of what has been named the ‘triangular trade,’ by which slave-produced sugar and molasses from the Caribbean were carried to Rhode Island and made into rum. The rum was then carried to West Africa and exchanged for slaves, to produce more sugar, more rum, and more slaves.”
Of the 196 Africans acquired by Hopkins during a voyage in 1764, at least 109 died — some in a failed insurrection, others by suicide, starvation, and disease.
Dale Fraza, a teacher at 360 High School in Providence, said some of his students attended Esek Hopkins Middle School but were unaware of the history of Hopkins and the Sally. He said his students this year read “A Forgotten History,” developed by the Choices for the 21st Century Education Program and Brown University scholars.
That document explains that Rhode Island entered the slave trade in about 1700, and over the next century, more than 60 percent of the North American ships involved in the African slave trade were based in Rhode Island.
After the disaster of the Sally, three of the Brown brothers — Nicholas, Joseph, and Moses — never again participated in the slave trade, but their brother John Brown invested in at least four other slave voyages, according to “A Forgotten History.”
Moses Brown ended up freeing his slaves, converting to Quakerism, and becoming a leader of the anti-slavery movement. His name is now on a Quaker preparatory school in Providence.
During the Revolution, the slave trade ground to a halt, but afterward many traders returned to the business, and the DeWolf family of Bristol, R.I., emerged in the 1780s as the single largest slave trading family in the United States, according to “A Forgotten History.”
Keith Stokes — vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group of Newport, who speaks around the country on early African heritage and history — said it’s indisputable that during the Colonial period, Rhode Island was at the center of the African slave trade, especially in places such as Newport, Bristol, and Providence.
“It was the Rhode Island economy,” he said.
But Stokes cautioned against simply “naming and shaming” those who were involved the slave trade at that time.
“Rather than taking statues down and removing school and street names, we should be advancing African heritage and history in our public schools and reclaiming public spaces that include memorials that represent all the people,” he said.
Stokes called for publicly recognizing the contributions that Black Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color have made to Rhode Island — and teaching today’s students about those achievements.
“Let me be clear: In many cases, racism against African-Americans is awful, but so is invisibility,” Stokes said. He said he wants Rhode Island’s young students of color to “have a sense that this is their community and their country, and they can do anything and be anything.”
Stokes said one candidate for recognition would be one of his ancestors, the Rev. Mahlon Van Horne of Newport, who was the first Black person elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly, leading the effort to pass the state’s first civil rights legislation in 1885.
Also, Stokes said the state should provide more prominent placement for a pair of memorials marking 19th-century riots in which whites destroyed the homes of Black Providence residents.
A small marker at the site of the Roger Williams National Memorial commemorates the 1831 Snow Town Riot, which was triggered by the shooting death of a sailor. But a nearby traffic island no longer contains a memorial to the 1824 Hardscrabble Riot, which began when a Black man wouldn’t step off the sidewalk so a group of approaching whites could pass by.
Meanwhile, Watson said he would like to see greater public recognition of Native Americans in Rhode Island. He said the North Burial Ground in Providence used to contain a monument to the Narragansett Chief Canonicus, but it was later moved and then disappeared.
He said he’d also like to see a statue or other recognition for one of his ancestors, Chief Sunset of the Narragansetts. And he talked about the potential of a statewide cultural tourism campaign.
“Rhode Island right now has a great opportunity to do a lot of reconciliation around history that has not been told but is of interest,” Watson said.
Richard A. Lobban Jr., who teaches African studies at the Naval War College, said former Providence mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. once gave the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society approval for a monument to the slave trade in Providence, but the plan ran into opposition.
So now, he said, one of the very few memorials to slaves in Rhode Island is a white stone in a Barrington cemetery with a plaque that says, “In memory of the slaves and their descendants who faithfully served Barrington families.”
Lobban, a former vice president of the Black Heritage Society and former chair of the Rhode Island College anthropology department, said more should be done with the flag carried by Black soldiers in the “14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored)” regiment during the Civil War. Right now, it’s just “gathering dust” at the State House, he said.
Lobban said more should be done to commemorate the signing of anti-slavery documents in 1780s at the Old State House in Providence.
And Lobban said more should be done to tell the story of the Watchman Institute, an early 20th century school and camp for Black youth that was located in Scituate. He described it as the “Tuskegee of the North,” and said it was the subject of several arson attacks by the Ku Klux Klan.
“There is so much history,” Lobban said. “A lot of people talk about reparations. The first reparation is to repair the damaged historical record.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.