(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on August 24, 2019. A version of it was published the same day as “My Turn: Fred Zilian: Opening Our Eyes to the Enslaved,” in the Providence Journal.)
Whether unconsciously or by my father’s conscious decision, the history of my grandmother, Zenobia Dubois Zilian, was essentially erased from my family’s history. When I asked my father about her, long dead when I was born, he would tell me scant little about her. “She was from the island of Martinique,” he would say and then drop the subject. I possessed only two, very old, poor-quality photographs of her which suggested that she might have African blood.
Nonetheless, it came as somewhat of a surprise when I was able to find through an ancestry organization my father’s family on the 1930 Census document and to discover that not only she but also my father, then 19, and all his siblings were categorized as “Negro”. After all my research, it has become fairly clear that she had slave blood.
As I brought my grandmother back into memory and my family’s history, so an organization called Rhode Island Slave History Medallions is seeking to “un-erase” the history of the enslaved in Rhode Island, who not only made up a significant part of the population of colonial Rhode Island but also played an enormous role in its economy in the 18th century. This organization seeks to increase public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations throughout the state with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website. (RISHM.org) The first medallion will be unveiled Sunday, 1pm, at Patriots Park, Portsmouth, an event free and open to the public.
Along with Rhode Island historian, Robert Geake, and web page designer and researcher, Peter Fay, I was honored to contribute to the content of the web page on the Park’s connection to slavery through the First Rhode Island Regiment, commonly called the “Black Regiment, and the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. We uncovered information on at least some of the former slaves who served in the regiment.
Ruttee Gardner was sold to the RI General Assembly on May 8, 1778 for £30 by Nicholas Gardner of Exeter. He served in the regiment with Capt. Lewis’ company. He appears to have served out his time with the regiment and likely was injured or became ill during his time of service. He was listed as “sick in North Kingstown” in March 1779 and was honorably discharged from service in April of that year. His illness or injuries seem to have continued to plague him, for on March 28, 1785, Hezekiah Babcock submitted a bill to the town of Hopkinton for the “boarding and nursing of Rutter Gardner, a negro man who formerly belonged to Nicholas Gardner of Exeter, and a late soldier in the Rhode Island Continental Regiment”.
Prince Brown was a slave owned by the influential Brown family of Providence. When Joseph Brown and cousin Nicholas Power discovered their slave Prince had enlisted in the 1st Regiment, they immediately petitioned and persuaded the General Assembly to “resolve that a negro man Prince belonging to [them]… be discharged from the said regiment.” He was returned to slavery on their farm in Grafton, Massachusetts.
Ichabod Northup of North Kingstown was sold to the Assembly for £120 by one of the Northups of North Kingstown. Ichabod not only fought in the Battle of Rhode Island but also at Croton, N.Y., when attacked by loyalist forces. He was captured, threatened with hanging for not divulging troop movements to the enemy, and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner. He returned after the war to East Greenwich, purchasing a house which still stands on Division Street. In 1820 he testified that he relied on charity, was unable to work—his toes having frozen in the war—was “impoverished”, “could not support himself” and family, and his house was “much out of repair”.
London Hall was 40 when he enlisted in 1778 for three years in Capt. Dexter’s Company. However, in 1790 his former master, William Hall of North Kingstown, claimed he had never been appraised for his value before enlisting and demanded his re-enslavement or £80. Luckily, by 1790 the legislature considered his required three years’ service sufficient for his freedom and dismissed the claim.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is a writer and an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI.