Forgetting Slavery in Rhode Island

(Note: This is the 9th essay in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.” For the complete series, please go to This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News and the Providence Journal on April 13, 2020.)

In the final decades of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century, white New Englanders, including Rhode Islanders, responded to black freedom with rising hostility, seeking to distance themselves from free people of color and to bury and forget slavery.

Joanne Pope Melish, in her book, “Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780-1860,” analyzes the many dimensions of this process. Whites throughout New England took steps to exclude or segregate free people of color. They were generally excluded from juries. In houses of worship, they were restricted to the “Negro gallery” and to “Negro pews.”

This segregation emerged in burials. Whereas formerly the enslaved were buried near their master’s family, with emancipation whites began to segregate the burial plots of free people of color, as in “God’s Little Acre” in Newport’s Common Burying Ground. Also, the corpses of people of color seemed to become inordinately the target of grave robbers, probably for the purpose of dissection.

Headstone of Cuff Gibbs, engraved by his enslaved brother, Pompe Stevens, Common Burying Ground, Newport, RI (Photo: Fred Zilian)

In 1823-24, John Thompson, a free person of color, registered a complaint with the Providence Town Council that the body of his child and also of a woman of color had disappeared. While the Council did agree to offer a $100 reward to “any person who will prosecute to final conviction,” it apparently never followed up and advertised this. This case and others in New England, according to Melish, indicate that whites believed persons of color could be treated “like strangers and criminals, members of a dispossessed class that could be dispossessed of their own bodies with impunity.”

Another aspect of this segregation was the rise of separate schools for children of color. Because of white complaints over inter-racial schools, publicly-funded, separate schools for children of color emerged in Boston (1820), Hartford (1830), and Providence (1838).
In addition, people of color were denied the vote. In many New England towns, free people of color had been discouraged by custom from voting, and in 1822, Rhode Island rescinded their voting rights.

Free people of color fought back against these forms of segregation and discrimination in many ways. They organized their own schools while at the same time protesting public school segregation. They organized their own churches, mutual benefit societies, reading societies and newspapers. They held national and regional conventions to support northern equality and fight southern slavery.

But these achievements were a two-edged sword. Many New Englanders, including Rhode Islanders, derided the efforts by people of color to enact their citizenship. They constructed simple, crude caricatures of them, popularized in humorous anecdotes, cartoons, and broadsides (large posters) which, in general, ridiculed their activities and lifestyles.

A common occasion for this was the annual July 14 celebration by people of color, the anniversary of the closing of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808. Melish states that overall these broadsides sought to ridicule the public activities of free people of color as a sort of pathetic and ineffective “imitation citizenship,” a citizenship of which they simply were not capable. Once whites established this caricature of the “free Negro,” it proliferated to cartoons, stories, and eventually minstrel shows.

The caricatures also depicted people of color as disorderly, hard to control, and dependent. This led whites in New England increasingly to seek their physical removal. One strategy to achieve this was to “warn them out” of towns as “transients” to avoid a public burden.
The records of the Town Council of Providence show the method. There were periodic round-ups of people of color who were “likely to become chargeable” and who were warned out of town unless they could show clear “legal settlement.” However, the records show that many who had lived in Providence for years were still declared “strangers,” and that, compared to poor whites, they were not an inordinate financial burden to the town, according to Melish. She argues that the “menace to the town was imagined.”

By the 1830s and 40s, efforts to send people of color “back” to Africa also increased. By 1830, all New England states (except for Rhode Island) had branches of the American Colonization Society, organized in 1816. The supporters of this movement had various motives; however, as Melish states, all “cast people of color squarely in the role of strangers,” and therefore, “contributed to the effacement of their local history of enslavement and undermined their claims of entitlement to citizenship.”

The final dimension of the purging of free people of color was periodic mob violence against their communities. In Rhode Island, two incidents, both in the Providence area, stand out: In 1824, a mob of whites tore down a number of houses in the black community of Hard Scrabble. In 1831, over a thousand whites were involved in four days of rioting against the Snow Town neighborhood. Four rioters were killed, 14 were wounded, and 18 houses were damaged or destroyed.

At the Colored National Convention in Rochester, NY, in 1853, Frederick Douglass would say: “Our white fellow-countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivFrederiious of our history and progress.”

(I would like to thank Joanne Pope Melish for her assistance with this essay.)

Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

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2 Responses to Forgetting Slavery in Rhode Island

  1. Betty Ann Czech says:

    Hi Fred, Your recent Newport Daily News column on current day slavery is right-on and thought-provoking. Hopefully, the article will encourage everyone to be more alert to the signs of possible human trafficking. All the best to you and your family. Betty Ann Czech

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