Black History Panorama

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African Mariner, oil on canvas. courtesy of Christian McBurney Collection. American Indian (Ninigret), portrait, oil on canvas by Charles Osgood,1837-1838, courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society, in A Matter of Truth: The Struggle for African Heritage & Indigenous People Equal Rights in Providence, Rhode Island (1620-2020)

The exhibit of historical artifacts illustrating the history contained in A Matter of Truth continues free and open to the public until the end of February on the walls of the lower level hallways in the State House, created by the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and 1690 Heritage Group in partnership with Secretary of State Gregg Amore. Groups up to 20 may arrange for a guided tour by contacting Anais La Paz Marrero at Rhode Island Black Heritage Society (anais.marrero@riblackheritage.org).

Here are some highlights, especially those concerning Providence. Did you know? In the 17th century:

  • Between 1616 and 1619, before the Mayflower landed and before slaves arrived in Virginia, Europeans and the livestock they brought with them introduced diseases that were killing up to 90% of the estimated 70,000 to 100,00 coastal Indigenous populations in New England, leaving the land cleared for settlement.
  • After the two wars with remaining Indigenous people, The Pequot War and King Philip’s War, surviving Indigenous men were forced into slavery and shipped to Barbados, leaving women and children behind.
  • Slaves in Providence would have led lives different from those on plantations in the West Indies or in the southern colonies. They were nonetheless owned, seen as inferior, and restricted in their movements.

In the 18th century:

  • Rhode Island was the colony responsible for 60% of the ships involved in the North American slave trade between 1705 and 1807, sending nearly 1,000 ships to Africa.
  • Before the Revolutionary War, most slave ships left from Newport.
Voyage of the Sanderson Sailing From Newport, R.I., in March, 1752, A Matter of Truth

In the 19th century:

  • After the Revolutionary War, Bristol and Providence dominated the slave
  • Even after Rhode Island and the US declared the trade illegal, Rhode Island ships went to Cuba for enslaved people, who were then sold to southern ports like Charleston, SC, or Savannah, GA, where slavery itself continued to be legal and the demand for enslaved labor to cultivate rice and cotton was high.
  • Newport had 22 distilleries making rum to sell throughout the slave trade.
  • Rhode Island industrialized early with 84 textile mills making “Negro cloth” sold to southern plantations. Wealthy southern families made Newport a summer destination long before the industrial barons who came after the Civil War.
  • Industrialization in Providence meant a growing population, a demand for workers and space for development. Policies that allowed local officials to declare people “unproductive” led to the ability, for example, to assign young people as “pauper apprentices.” Communities, especially in poverty, were sites of race riots, sometimes a result of spontaneous conflict, sometimes acts of resistance, after which government could resort to “‘warning out’ individuals, an old English law used to force religious nonconformists, the poor, the unproductive, and other troublemakers to settle elsewhere.” Such policies helped destabilize and remove communities to make room for developing factories and railroads.

In the 20th century:

  • The most reliable path to building wealth has been proven to be home ownership. Redlining by banks did damage especially, but not exclusively, after WWII when the federal government guaranteed FHA mortgage loans. The guarantees were federal but the decisions about who would get loans were made by local officials. Guidelines about what areas of the city merited federal guarantees systematically eliminated communities of color.
  • Areas of Providence were cleared for development. Urban Renewal allowed local officials to declare what areas were deemed “blighted,” which then could be condemned for the public good. Clearing the Lippitt Hill neighborhood, for example, a community of color, for what is now University Heights, meant taking down 455 houses and displacing 500 families. And, over 200 families were moved out of West Elmwood, an integrated neighborhood, to make way for the Huntington Industrial Park near Mashapaug Pond.
  • South Providence, already cut off from the rest of the city by construction of Interstates 95 and 195, became a concentrated refuge for impoverished families displaced from other areas.

A Matter of Truth “collected over 600 primary and secondary documents and historical artifacts highlighting 400 years of Providence and Rhode Island history.” According to Keith Stokes, of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the report was written in response to an Executive Order by Mayor Jorge Elorza in 2020 that “identified the process of Truth, Reconciliation and Municipal Reparations as the process by which to address institutional and systemlc bias and racism affecting Black, Indigenous (Indian) People, and People of Color.”

The report provides a factual basis for the discussion of “a form of race-based discrimination embedded as a normal practice within a society and its governmental system.” The report goes far beyond the selected highlights on the short list above. The whole report is accessible online, an historical narrative of 400 years, including full documentation of sources. It is officially designated by Mayor Elorza’s Executive Order to be “made available for public interpretation and future policy-making efforts.”

Following the creation of A Matter of Truth, Mayor Elorza in 2022 named the Providence Municipal Reparations Commission “to address the injuries outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation phases and provide clear recommendations to the City of appropriate policies, programs, and projects to begin repairing harm.” The City had set aside $10 million from federal funds (the American Rescue Plan Act) to address racial equality. So far Mayor Smiley has inreased the allocation to the Rhode Island United Way to $3.35 million out of the original $10 million, which will be administered by the United Way and the City of Providence.  So far, little of the money has been spent.

The 2021 signing of the City of Providence Municipal Reparations Executive Order is courtesy of the City of Providence, African American Ambassador Group.

Mayor Jorge Elorza Executive Order announcing Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations (2020)

https://www.providenceri.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Mayors-Executive-Order-2020-13-1.pdf

A Matter of Truth Report (2021)

https://www.providenceri.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Matter-of-Truth2.pdf

The Executive Order announcing formation of Providence Municipal Reparations Commission (2022)

https://www.providenceri.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Elorza-EO2022-4.pdf

Report of the Providence Municipal Reparations Commission (2022)

https://www.providenceri.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Elorza-EO2022-4.pdf

Roseanne Camacho is a retired educator who came to Providence from the South for graduate school. She has a PhD in American Civilization from Brown University, having taught students from eighth grade to graduate school. She is active in the Friends of Knight Memorial Library, The Community Library of Providence, and lives in Elmwood.