Paul Davis: How I wrote The Journal’s series on slavery in Rhode Island

Paul Davis: How I wrote The Journal’s series on slavery in Rhode Island

A statue of Esek Hopkins stands in Hopkins Square, Providence

Fourteen years ago, I wrote a series of stories about Rhode Island’s deep role in the slave trade. Not everyone was happy about it.

One Newport librarian described Abraham Redwood to me as a successful merchant.

“A slave owner,” I said. “With a sugar plantation in the West Indies.”

“Merchant,” she said.

My research took a few people by surprise. An editor in the newsroom insisted Massachusetts had no slaves. Not true, I said. According to scholars, the first slave ship in the Bay State arrived in the 1630s. Gov. John Winthrop, who owned an Indian slave, helped write the first law to sanction slavery in British North America.

Slaves worked and lived in all 13 colonies. The colonists enslaved and sold Native Americans, too.

But Rhode Island ruled the slave trade. For more than 75 years, merchants and investors bankrolled 1,000 voyages to Africa. Their ships carried some 100,000 men, women, and children into New World slavery.

I became interested in the slave trade in the late 1980s. As a history student at Brown University, I read early American poetry, Puritan sermons and political tracts. Often, the horrors of slavery intruded on the writer’s depiction of an unspoiled New World.

In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, described Virginia’s rivers, seaports, and caverns. In a passage devoted to the differences between Indians, Africans, and Europeans, Jefferson imagined a world turned upside down, a land where slaves ruled, and masters served.

“… I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events,” he wrote. “The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust …”

In writing the week-long series “Unrighteous traffick,” I relied on several groundbreaking works, including Jay Coughtry’s “The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807.” Finding it wasn’t easy. The state’s library system had one or two copies. A librarian told me other copies had “disappeared” over the years.

Coughtry documented Rhode Island’s involvement in the slave trade through ship logs, letters, newspaper accounts, and colonial trade records. Other scholars tackled the topic from different angles, including Joanne Pope Melish, a classmate at Brown and the author of the brilliant “Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1789-1860.”

As a reporter, I wanted to do something different. I approached the topic like a City Hall reporter.

Paul Davis

I flipped open a spiral notepad and started asking questions: What was it really like to be a slave trader in Newport, Providence, and Bristol? Who were the key players? Did they hang out? Did they break any laws? Where did they go to church? Who got rich? Who denounced it? And how did it end?

Cross-referencing hundreds of texts — letters, the diary of Newport pastor Ezra Stiles, scholarly works — I cobbled together a ground-level picture of the Rhode Island slave trade. I followed slave captains as they outfitted their ships. I watched the Newport minister Ezra Stiles close the eyes of a dead slave ship captain. I shadowed influential slave traders — John Brown and James DeWolf — who skirted laws and outwitted customs agents. In Newport, historians Keith and Theresa Guzman Stokes urged me to tell the stories of the enslaved and free Blacks, too.

Photographer Freida Squires helped bring the story to moody life; graphic artist George Sylvia created a timeline; Journal deputy executive editor Carol Young sharpened my stories through many rewrites. A few bleary sessions ended after 9 p.m. with pizza in Young’s office.

A few times, I traded notes with Brown University professor James Campbell, at work on a 107-page report on Brown University’s connection to slavery and the slave trade.

The series made a splash.

It garnered an unprecedented 24,471 advance orders from Rhode Island schools, won the top spot for investigative journalism from the Rhode Island Press Association, and earned the first-ever “Bringing History Alive” Michael P. Metcalf Award from Rhode Island for Community and Justice. The Journal submitted the work for a Pulitzer Prize.

“You’ve rendered a great service to Rhode Island,” said Nan Sumner-Mack, a program director at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Now, in 2020, discussions of slavery, race, and racism are everywhere. Protestors are decrying police violence against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and other Blacks. High school students are demanding more Black history classes.

In June alone:

— The top 10 books on the New York Times bestseller list — e-book and print sales combined centered on race and racism.

— Charleston, S.C. crews removed a statue honoring John C. Calhoun, a U.S. vice president whose defense of slavery led the nation toward civil war.

—Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced a “Truth-Telling, Reconciliation and Municipal Reparations Process,” a first step in accepting the city’s role in slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans.

Last year, the New York Times launched “The 1619 Project,” which argues that American history started not at Plymouth Rock but with the arrival of more than 20 enslaved Africans in Virginia.

“Most Americans still don’t know the full story of slavery,” the Times said. “This is the history you didn’t learn in school.”

The Providence Journal published part of that story 14 years ago. I’m glad to see it back.

Paul Davis worked for The Providence Journal from 1988 to 2015. A board member of the South Carolina Writers Association, he now lives in Aiken, S.C., where he is working on a book about the Rhode Island and South Carolina slave trade.

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