Rhode Island and the Slave Trade: Teaching the truth
When Kristin Hayes teaches slavery, she shows her students a colorful mural depicting a white man on a horse overseeing bare-chested slaves toiling in a field.
“Where is this?” she asks her high school students.
Few recognize it to be a slave plantation on Narragansett Bay.
“It’s a real eye opener for kids,” says Hayes, a Narragansett High School teacher. “This isn’t the Southern slavery they’re used to.”
About two years ago, Hayes started teaching the true story about Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade.
A native Rhode Islander who grew up in East Providence and who has been teaching American history for five years, Hayes knew little about the topic until she attended an American history program for teachers at Brown University in 2004.
Her lack of knowledge doesn’t surprise historians.
Rhode Islanders celebrate the burning of the Gaspee, the American Revolution and even the state’s early nickname, Rogue’s Island, but slavery and slave trading — rarely.
The topic remains a sensitive one.
A year ago, The Journal set out to tell the history of the Rhode Island slave trade. The six-part series, “Unrighteous Traffick,” was published last week.
Not everyone wanted to talk about slavery, or help The Journal illustrate the subject.
A caretaker of Casey Farm, the site of a former slave plantation in South County, refused a request from Journal photographer Frieda Squires to take a picture from inside the farmhouse — even though it’s open to the public.
A Newport librarian told her colleague that The Journal reporter was here to do more “furtive” research on the slave trade. And one patron at the Newport Historical Society said she was worried that an article about Newport’s heavy role in the slave trade could hurt tourism.
And when the The Journal asked to photograph paintings of two DeWolf brothers who had been in the slave trade, the owner wanted to know if the stories would be “sensational.”
“THE ISSUE OF SLAVERY in Rhode Island is a smoldering volcano that for years has been denied, submerged, lied about and misrepresented,” says Richard Lobban, an African studies and anthropology professor at Rhode Island College.
About three years ago, Lobban and others pushed successfully for a plaque on the John Brown House in Providence which acknowledges his role as a slave trader.
Last week, Lobban’s wife, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, also an anthropology professor at RIC, and Joaquina Bela Teixeira, executive director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, met with Bernard P. Fishman, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society to ask for more.
The meeting was a “chilly one,” says Fluehr-Lobban. “Our interests have definitely been sidelined. They’ve opted for the minimalist slave story.”
Fishman disagrees. He says society workers are creating a new program for the John Brown House, one that includes more social history.
In addition, the house will include an exhibit detailing the disastrous voyage of the Sally, a slave voyage underwritten by John Brown and his brothers.
“Slave trading was certainly a part of John Brown’s activities and that is made very clear in the house and on the tour,” says Fishman. But the tour also covers a 150-year history, some of it after Brown’s death. “In a 50-minute tour we can only devote a certain portion to the slave trade.”
BETWEEN 1725 and 1807, Rhode Island merchants sent more than 1,000 ships to Africa and carried more than 100,000 Africans to slave plantations in the West Indies, Havana and some of the American Colonies. Rum fueled the business. Barrels of it, made in Rhode Island, were used to buy slaves who were then traded for more molasses in the West Indies so Rhode Island distilleries could make more rum.
Rhode Island accounted for as much as 60 to 90 percent of the American slave trade. And, at its peak, tiny Rhode Island had a larger percentage of slaves — 11.5 percent — than either Massachusetts or Connecticut.
In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the history of Northern slavery and the slave trade. A handful of scholars have published books and articles about the topic, including Brown graduate Rachel Chernos Lin, now finishing a 10-year study of the Rhode Island slave trade.
New research, says Lin, will change the way Rhode Islanders think about their history.
In the past, scholars reported that only rich merchants invested in the slave trade, she says. But merchants often sought small investors to help share the cost of a slave voyage. Local artisans, shopkeepers — even a woman who owned a boarding house — invested in slave voyages, she says.
And, the trade was much more pervasive than scholars originally thought. “It was part of the day-to-day life of Rhode Island. You can’t separate it from the economy or society.”
BUT OVER the centuries, Rhode Island developed a different picture of its past. Instead of being known for its dominance in slave trading, Rhode Island became better known as an abolitionist stronghold bent on ridding the new nation of slavery, says Joanne Pope Melish, a University of Kentucky professor and the author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860.
That story has persisted, she says. Today, many school teachers rely on an outdated story of great white men — and more recently, women — who were some of America’s first revolutionaries, Melish says.
That story ignores the North’s heavy role in the slave trade, she says.
It also ignores the contribution of blacks and Indians to early American culture and the economy. And it reinforces the idea that, during the Civil War, New Englanders “marched South and shaped up those bad Southerners who had slaves,” she says.
Rhode Islanders will hear more about the slave trade soon.
The Choices for the 21st Century Education Program has produced two booklets designed to help educators.
The program, called “A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England,” sells for $18 — or $15 if teachers download it. It was designed with help from the Watson Institute at Brown University and a number of scholars, including Melish.
The Institute already has sold about 200 copies of the booklet to Rhode Island teachers, who will reach about 5,000 students with the slavery program, says Susan Graseck, director of the Choices for the 21st Century Education Program, which produced the booklet.
“It’s a significant number. We expect it to build further.”
In addition, Brown University is finishing a two-year investigation into the school’s ties to slavery. A report by the university’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, due soon, will include a history of the Browns and a series of recommendations on how the university should deal with its past.
At a conference on historical injustice last March, Brown President Ruth J. Simmons — a great granddaughter of slaves — told an audience that some people felt her probe was risky.
a distinguished professor — called me and said, ‘Girl, are you out of your mind?’ ” Simmons said.
“People feared for my safety and some were absolutely opposed to any discussion. But history still exerts a powerful influence on us . . . I welcome any discomfort this process causes as necessary. It’s there on the edge we learn.”
Paul Davis is a former staff writer for The Providence Journal.