This article was first published on Feb. 18, 2021
We didn’t know that Frederick Douglass, the great Black abolitionist and orator, spent an enormous amount of time in Providence, advocating for an end to slavery, Black suffrage and a woman’s right to vote. “In one trip, he spoke six times,” says Ray Rickman, cofounder of Stages of Freedom, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering city youth and showcasing Rhode Island’s African-American history.
We didn’t know that America’s first Black opera diva, who sang for four US presidents, grew up in Providence, or that the first artist in America to receive a national award was a Black man named Edward M. Bannister, who cofounded the Providence Art Club, the second oldest art club in the country.
We didn’t know that University Hall at Brown University was built by enslaved men, and that by the mid-1700s, Rhode Island slave traders were a dominant force in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We didn’t know that the state was also one of the largest producers of “Negro cloth,” supplying the plantation market with cheap, low-quality fabric worn by enslaved people.
Apparently, we were not alone in our ignorance.
“The most surprising thing about Black history in Providence is that it is so unknown,” says Debra Sharpe, executive director of the Center for Reconciliation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering racial justice and racial reconciliation. “We don’t teach it, and we don’t do a good job lifting it up, and that’s why the trail was developed.”
Sharpe is talking about the Early Black History Walking Tour, part of the “Providence Walks” series produced by the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, in collaboration with The Center for Reconciliation, Stages of Freedom, and Rhode Island Historical Society.
“We realized how little people know about Providence’s rich and compelling African-American history,” says Rickman about the impetus to create the trail. “The tour teaches Providence’s deep involvement in the slave trade and reveals Black folks’ extraordinary accomplishments in politics, religion, the arts, business, education, and the economy of Providence.”
The trail includes a map and descriptions that you can download here. It’s a compact tour, with 18 sights and four other points of interest within about a 25-block radius.
We began at the North Burial Ground. Established in 1700, the cemetery sprawls some 110 acres and includes more than 40,000 gravestones. We were looking for the gravestone of Patience Borden, who, according to our map, was a free woman of color who donated all of her money to “the relief of poor people of colour.” It’s a simple gravestone, but clearly stated her pride of being free, and wealthy enough to provide for others. It’s representative of the types of gravestones that free African-Americans bought for themselves after emancipation.
We left the cemetery and walked to the Rhode Island State House and nearby Roger Williams National Memorial, with a cluster of notable sites, including the Cathedral of St. John & Burial Ground. The church, where enslaved people and enslavers both worshipped, was built in 1722 with money earned from the Triangle Trade. In the burial ground is the grave of an enslaved family, marked with one stone.
We learned that the State House was built on the site of Snowtown, a predominantly Black community. “Following the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1784, newly emancipated, indentured and freeborn Black Rhode Islanders needed places to live, work, play and build community,” we read. “In a pattern typical to the U.S., a statewide social, legal and economic system of white supremacy replaced the social, legal and economic system of slavery.” Black residents settled in marginalized Providence neighborhoods like Snowtown, which were often targets of oppression and violence. A nearby plaque recalls the 1831 Snowtown Riot, when a white mob terrorized the neighborhood for four days, resulting in the death of five people, and the damage and destruction of 18 buildings.
It began to snow as we made our way up Main Street to the next cluster of sites along the trail: the 1769 Old Brick School House, which, beginning in 1828, housed a separate school for “students of color,” and the Congdon Street Baptist Church, the oldest continually operating Black church in Providence. We hopped back in the car to warm up, enjoyed sandwiches we’d brought from home, and read about some other Providence personalities. Thomas Howland was the first Black man elected to public office in Providence but was denied a US passport. Pero Paget was an enslaved laborer and stonemason who worked on buildings throughout the city, including Market House and Brown’s University Hall. The “Shoemaker Family” was enslaved to Jacob Shoemaker, and when Jacob died, they became the property of Providence. They were freed on the condition that their labor was not needed to pay their enslaver’s debts.
We bundled up — neck-ups, hats, gloves and masks — to complete the tour. We saw the grand Stephen Hopkins House, where the 10-time governor of Rhode Island and signer of the Declaration of Independence enslaved at least six people. The Sally Gallery at John Brown House was closed because of COVID-19. However, we later took a virtual look inside, where exhibits tell the somber and cruel story of the slave ship Sally and its devastating 1764-1765 passage from Providence to West Africa to Antigua and back. (Virtual visits are held on Saturdays, $5 per connecting device, www.rihs.org/locations/the-john-brown-house-museum). Original bookkeeping ledgers show that deaths were marked as a “business expense.” The house was owned by John Brown, who’s family’s shipping business included privateering and the Triangle Trade.
It’s not a pretty history, but as Rickman says, “It’s essential that all of us engage with our shared Black and white history, the good and the bad, as we move toward creating a unified community.”
For more information, visit www.goprovidence.com/things-to-do/providence-walking-tours/early-black-history-historic-walking-tour.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org