They toiled on large plantations, scarred by their master’s lash, grieving when their children were sold away from them, branded and maimed if they tried to run away. One enslaved African was stripped, beaten, and tied to a stake in a swamp and left for the mosquitoes.
This all happened down south before the Civil War — down in southern Rhode Island.
Amid the calls for racial justice that have swept America since George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer, the Rhode Island Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a bill to let voters decide this November whether to shorten the state’s name, “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” and strike the racially offensive “plantations.” The sponsor is the Senate’s lone African-American member, Harold M. Metts, who sponsored a similar measure a decade ago that voters emphatically rejected, 78 to 22 percent. But now, with other racist tropes drawing fresh scrutiny — from Confederate flags and statues to the movie “Gone With the Wind” — it’s time for Rhode Island to make the change.
The notion of a plantation has changed through history, from the medieval Latin “planting” to a settlement or farm when the Pilgrims founded Plimoth Plantation in 1620 and Roger Williams followed 16 years later with Providence Plantations. There, he planted the seed of religious freedom that would bloom a century-and-a-half later in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Regardless of its original meaning, Metts, who traces his lineage to an enslaved woman on a Virginia plantation, says the word is “hurtful,” conjuring images of enslaved blacks toiling in Southern fields. A similar history has been buried in Rhode Island, he says. Look no farther than remarks this week by Rhode Island Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who said that while the question should go to voters, he has to educate himself because “I originally did not think we had actual slavery in Rhode Island.”
Within a generation, Roger Williams’ “lively experiment” in tolerance was subverted by greed, commerce and land speculation. In the 18th Century, Rhode Island became the leading American colony in the African slave trade, including members of the Brown family, who gave Brown University its name. Rhode Island slave traders transported more than 100,000 Africans into bondage. A Bristol slaver told his nephew, “I would plow the ocean into pea-porridge to make money.”
History has largely forgotten, though, that Rhode Island also had plantations, and not the kind cultivated by yeoman New England farmers. By the early 1700s, enslaved Africans were working on farms in the East Bay communities near Newport — Portsmouth, Middletown, Bristol, Jamestown — harvesting crops, shearing sheep and pressing apples for cider.
On the west side of Narragansett Bay, an aristocratic class known as Narragansett planters operated large plantations, some covering a few hundred acres, in what is now Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown. Their Southern-style agricultural economy relied on slave labor to produce exports of meat, dairy products and livestock, including the prized Narragansett Pacer horse, to the American South and the Caribbean. This enabled the notorious slave plantations of the West Indies to exclusively grow sugar cane.
The Narragansett planters grew wealthy, investing in slave-trading voyages and building manor houses modeled after English country gentry, filled with imported linens and silks, porcelain and silver. They enjoyed hunting parties and horse races on Narragansett beach. In South Kingstown, 1 in 5 residents were enslaved, compared to less than 3 percent in the rest of New England.
As in the South, enslaved Africans in Rhode Island were forced to attend church. At the Anglican meeting house in South Kingstown, the Rev. James MacSparran, who owned nine Africans (not counting the daughter of one that he baptized and then sold), preached of the sanctity of the master-slave relationship and the importance of holding the next world above their present suffering. The enslaved were buried at the bottom of the hill outside, in the segregated cemetery, their graves marked by plain fieldstones.
Discipline was harsh. The Rev. MacSparran wrote in his diary of a disobedient slave, “I got up this morning early, and finding Hannibal had been out . . . I stript and gave him a few lashes till he begged. As Harry was untying him, my poor passionate dear (wife) saying I had not given him enough, gave him a lash or two, upon which he ran.” Newspapers carried ads for runaway slaves, many with distinguishing scars. In Portsmouth, coroner’s inquests of Africans who had died violently concluded that they had died accidentally.
Worried about unsupervised gatherings of freed and enslaved Blacks, Rhode Island first outlawed them, then co-opted them. Mirroring rituals on Southern plantations, the Narragansett planters on the third week of June sponsored “Election Day” fairs in which slaves elected a “Negro governor.” It was both a rare opportunity for them to celebrate and a demeaning spectacle. A white South Kingstown resident described the ceremony: “The slaves assumed the power and pride and took the relative rank of their masters, and it was degrading to the reputation of the owner if his slave appeared in inferior apparel, or with less money than the slave of another master of equal wealth. The horses of the wealthy land-owners were on this day all surrendered to the use of the slaves, and with cues, real or false, head pomatumed and powdered, cocked hat, mounted on the best Narragansett pacers, sometimes with their masters’ sword, with their ladies on pillions, they pranced to election, which commenced generally, at 10 o’clock.”
By the dawn of the American Revolution, economic forces and rising abolitionist sentiment had put an end to Rhode Island’s slave plantations. In time, they were largely forgotten. Today, Rhode Islanders should reflect on that past, and pay their respects by removing “Providence Plantations” from its name.
Mike Stanton is a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut.