The Emancipation of the Enslaved in Rhode Island, Part I

(Note: This is the eighth essay in a series on Slavery in Rhode Island. It was originally published by the Newport Daily News on February 25, 2020.)

The enslavement of people of color in the colony of Rhode Island began probably with the founding of the colony in 1636. The process of emancipation of the enslaved began on a colony-wide basis with Quaker manumissions in 1773 and ended with the General Assembly abolishing slavery in 1842.

Change of this order requires ideas and agents of change. In this case, the idea of the natural inequality of humans had to be displaced by the idea of their inherent equality and right to freedom. Western civilization recognizes these new profound ideas emerging with force in the 18th century, known as the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. Its core ideas included the inherent dignity, worth, beauty, and potential of humans and the agency of humans to reform society for the better.

Thomas Jefferson enshrined some of these new ideas in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” He spoke to the agency and role of humans in continuing: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”

When coupled to the basic beliefs of Christianity, these ideas became exceptionally compelling to some, even those deeply benefiting from the business of slavery.

To effect such a dramatic change, these ideas needed human agents—white people and people of color—to drive them. For whites, the Quakers took the lead. As historian Christy Clark-Pujara states in her book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island: “The Quakers were the first European-descended religious group in the Americas to publicly question and eventually prohibit slaveholding among its members; they were also the driving political force behind legal restrictions placed on slaveholding.”

Quakers believed in the spiritual equality of all humans, that they all shared the ability to receive the “inner light” from God, a concept with its roots in the ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism. Their commitment to emancipation evolved. Initially they saw no conflict with slavery. They believed they could remain holy as long as they treated their slaves well. Many educated their slaves and brought them to their Quaker meetings.

However, eventually many Quakers came to believe that slaveholding was “contrary to true Christianity” and tied slaveholding to slave-trading, making both the focus of their actions. Not only did they free slaves under their control, they also became fervent abolitionists, seeking to legislate the end of slavery. They published broadsides, commentary, and homilies roundly criticizing the horrors of slavery. They sent petitions to legislators. They claimed that the slave trade and slaveholding were “the most barbarous” institutions in history, and they declared that God would punish the entire nation because of these sins.

Other Protestant ministers also served as agents of change. Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins was exceptional in this regard. Serving as pastor in Newport, 1770-1803, he became a very vocal, resolute abolitionist after his first few years there. As historian Joseph Conforti writes: “For the first time in his life, the backcountry minister confronted the slave trade’s grim reality. Chained Africans were sometimes unloaded in Newport and sold before his eyes.”

Hopkins came to believe that British tyranny was God’s retribution for the slaveholding and slave trading of the colonists. Moved to action, he preached against slavery and sought to convince wealthy slaveholders and other ministers to join the cause.

Once the War for Independence began, the new nation needed soldiers to fill its ranks. By 1778, with the British offering freedom to slaves and with the Continental Congress calling for more battalions, the Rhode Island General Assembly decided to allow slaves to enlist in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which came to be known as the “Black Regiment.” The 1778 Slave Enlistment Act declared: “That every slave so enlisting shall, upon passing muster …, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely FREE.” Fighting in Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey, the regiment grew eventually to 226 officers and enlisted—perhaps 110 of the latter being former black slaves.

Christy Clark-Pujara indicates that this was “the first … step in the legal dismantling of the institution of slavery.” Though the act was revoked five months later because of stiff opposition, this act and the performance of the 1st Rhode Island in the war greatly undermined slavery in Rhode Island. Former slaves and free blacks had enlisted and were fighting next to whites against British tyranny and for “unalienable” human rights. Were not enslaved blacks also human and deserving of these same rights? (See “The Emancipation of the Enslaved in R.I., Part II.”)

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

 

 

 

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Palmer Raids Attack Anarchists, Communists, but Also Rights

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 31, 2020.)

One hundred years ago this month, the second and final set of “Palmer Raids” took place. These government raids, named after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, targeted mainly Eastern Europeans and Italian immigrants with ties to radical left organizations. This episode in US history again highlighted a recurrent issue for all liberal democracies like the US: In an emergency, when and to what extent is a government allowed to curtail civil liberties and rights in order to protect lives?

To understand the raids, one must understand the context. During World War I (1914-18), there was a strong nationalistic movement in the US against immigrants suspected of possessing excessive loyalty to their countries of origin. The xenophobia was especially strong against Germans, because the war pitted Germany against the United Kingdom, a country with strong ties to the US, and also strong against Irish, because they were in revolt against the British.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson warned against those immigrants who “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”

Time.com

In the fall of 1917, as WW I continued, the Russian Revolution erupted. The Russian monarchy was dissolved and replaced eventually by a communist government, led by Vladimir Lenin. Rooted in Marxism, communist ideology not only called capitalism an enemy, it also predicted its ultimate demise, spreading fears in Western democracies. One of the reasons that Lenin withdrew Russia from the allied war effort was his belief that workers of all warring countries, inspired by Russia’s example, would place class identity above national loyalty, forcing a peace settlement. This Revolution and its communist ideology gave rise to the Red Scare in the US, the fear of communist infiltration and subversion.

The fears of many in the US were confirmed when Italian radical anarchists (those shunning all government structures) conducted a series of bombings in 1919. In April, 30 letter bombs were mailed to prominent government and law enforcement officials and businessmen, some exploding and causing harm. On June 2, a second wave of bombings occurred. Italian anarchists exploded large package bombs in eight American cities. One damaged the home of Attorney General Palmer in Washington, DC. Accompanying each package were flyers declaring war on capitalism.

In October, the US Senate demanded action. In response on November 7, agents of the newly-formed General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation, headed by 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, executed raids against the Union of Russian Workers in 12 cities. Exceeding the number of official warrants, the arrests made were sometimes indiscriminate and included innocents who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Of 650 arrested in New York City, the government succeeded in deporting only 43.

On January 2, 1920, the Justice Department launched another series of raids, extending over six weeks. The raids, many again indiscriminate, were conducted in over 30 cities and towns and 23 states. At least 3000 were arrested, with some of the arrests and seizures made without search warrants and with the detentions conducted under harsh conditions.

Criticism of the raids eventually erupted. Resigning in protest, Francis Fisher Kane, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania stated: “It seems to me that the policy of raids against large numbers of individuals is generally unwise and very apt to result in injustice. People not really guilty are likely to be arrested and railroaded through their hearings….” Palmer replied that the raids were warranted given the “epidemic” and asserted the government’s “right for its own preservation….” The Washington Post supported him, indicating: “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties.”

In May, 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union, established only five months earlier, published a report documenting and criticizing the unlawful and excessive government actions.

In June, a decision by the Massachusetts District Court Judge George Anderson ordered the discharge of 17 arrested aliens and criticized the government’s actions. He wrote: “…a mob is a mob, whether made up of Government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and the vicious classes.” This decision essentially halted any further raids.

The anarchist bombing campaign continued intermittently for another 12 years.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

 

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Young Aware of Danger of Smartphones

(This essay is the second in a series on Technology, Society, and the Human Being. It was originally published on January 18, 2020, in the Newport Daily News.)

It is easy for the Baby-Boom Generation to criticize the younger generations for spending too much time on individual screens; however, maybe there is hope. If my undergrad students are any indication, more and more of them are aware of the downside of smartphones and social media.

Over the past several years, I have watched individual screens come to dominate the lives of some of my grandchildren. In some cases one screen is not enough; they need two. Sitting together in front of a large TV, some are not satisfied. Simultaneously most of them are also busy on their smartphones. Regrettably, smartphones tend to be used inside and while stationary.

On a beautiful, sunny Saturday last September at a beach cottage in Little Compton, after devouring the scrambled eggs I had prepared for them, my four youngest grandchildren returned to their bunkbeds and individual screens rather than bike to the beach, explore the woods, climb a tree, shoot hoops, or explore the neighbor’s blackberry patch. Regrettably, this was not a singular event. They tend to default to the smartphone rather than other activity.

In a survey by the Common Sense Media non-profit, released in October, of 1677 young people, ages 8 to 18, it was found that the average tween, 8-12, spent four hours and 44 minutes daily with entertainment devices. For teens, the figure was an incredible seven hours, 22 minutes. (This did not include time spent in cyberspace listening to music, doing homework, or reading books.)

Since their introduction in 2007, I have been amazed at the places I find people using smartphones: driving a car, driving a lawn mower, riding a skateboard, riding a bike, using the urinal, sitting in a library surrounded by a million books, between sets at the fitness center, and walking out of a college classroom and bumping into me entering.

However, I have found grounds for hope in my Gen Z (born after 1995) college students. For the past four years on their term exam, I have given Salve Regina undergrads in my Western Civilization class the opportunity to write about one “good aspect” and one “bad aspect” of their civilization. I provided a list of possible subjects to choose from, but also encouraged them to choose any subject. For three years from 25% to 33% chose to write about the negative impacts of the new technologies. (Note: In some cases they examined it also as a positive aspect.) This past fall, however, for the first time 50% of my students chose to criticize it.

Over these years, the students made different criticisms of the smartphone and social media. Camille said: “I can honestly say that my phone and other electronic devices distract me. Even when I know I need to focus on something, I can’t if I know my phone is there …” Another student indicated: “…people no longer live in the moment. They are always on their phones.”

Several female students addressed the unrealistic beauty standards set by the internet. Lindsay said: “Media in American society is toxic to adolescents. Media portrays celebrities as perfect human specimens without flaws. This causes adolescents, especially girls, to form unrealistic expectations of physical beauty.” Nicole wrote of the ad pop-ups with “…pictures of beautiful people who make normal people self-conscious.” This can lead people to think they are not “good enough,” leading to mental disorders. Hanna made the same point: Social media makes users “feel inadequate,” “…as if you aren’t living up to a social standard.”

Andrew had another criticism: “Many people use social media to put down others and make fun of people,” adding that “social media can ruin a person’s life.”

Nicole addressed an opportunity cost: Smart phone are “taking over people’s lives…. They do not enjoy nature, or other people’s company …. They miss out on parts of life, human interactions, and the many things outdoors ….”

Carla was apocalyptic: “…I think technology is ruining our generation.” “…it is difficult for the modern person to stay connected to what is real.”

By far the most common criticism was what smartphones are doing to inter-personal communication. This past fall nearly every student who criticized smartphones addressed this point. Ray said it has led to “social disconnect.” Al stated bluntly: “The art of public speaking has been lost in my generation.” Sophia said: “We are so dependent on them, a lot of us cannot have a real conversation with someone. Digital screens have completely taken over our lives….” Ainsley pointed out: “…technology has become something that divides us rather than brings us together. It encourages deception and numbs social interaction.”

Finally, several students took their criticisms to a higher level, speaking to the essence of society and human-ness. Kyle said: “…social media can corrupt a human being…. “[It] is limiting our ability to communicate with others in person, which is essential to our nature.” Kristin stated that because of the dependence on technology, “generations lack what is necessary to live fully.” There is “a loss of depth, meaning, and fulfillment in life’s experience….”

Dan addressed this same point and tied it to a giant of Western Civilization: “Smartphones prevent humans from fully exploring all the possibilities life has to offer. And as the immortal Socrates said: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

 

 

 

 

 

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Metacomet: From Heathen Savage to American Archetype

(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on December 14, 2019.)

One hundred and ninety years ago, the play “Metamora; or, the Last of the Wamponoags” opened in New York City. The play written by John Augustus Stone re-interpreted Metacomet and many events of Metacom’s/King Philip’s War (1675-76). Rather than a brutal barbarian heading a heathen race, Metacomet was presented as a hero. The play also dramatized his death. Rather than dying silently in a swamp, he gave an impassioned monologue ending in a curse on white men.

In 1662, Metacomet became chief sachem of the Wampanoag after the deaths of his father, Massasoit, and his brother, Wamsutta. Unlike his father, he did not strive for peaceful relations with the settlers; rather he became more and more irritated by their increasing numbers and their ways.

Named after Metacomet who had earlier taken the European name of Philip, the war devastated both the English settlers and the Native Americans. About one-third of the towns of New England (Connecticut to Maine) were destroyed. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his book “Mayflower” estimates that per capita the war was twice as bloody as the Civil War and seven times as deadly as the Revolutionary War. Plymouth Colony lost about 8% of its adult male population; the Native Americans lost 60-80% of their total population in southern New England. (Aquidneck Island was untouched.)

Metacomet print by Paul Revere, 1772

Granger Collection, NY

By August 11, 1676, the fighting was ending and most colonial forces were disbanded. However, Plymouth militia Captain Benjamin Church and the allied Sakonnets were still searching for Metacomet and his band. An Indian whose brother was killed by Metacomet decided to inform on him. During the early morning of August 12, he guided Church and about two dozen colonists and Sakonnets to Metacomet’s hideout near a swamp at Mount Hope, surrounding it and attacking.

Metacomet leaped to his feet, grabbed his powder horn, bullet pouch, and musket, and began to run into the swamp. He approached Caleb Cook and a Pocasset Indian named John Alderman. When Cook’s weapon failed to fire, Alderman shot Metacomet through the heart.

Church gathered his men and told them of Metacomet’s death. The group cheered “Huzzah!” three times, a common cheer at that time. Church stated that because Metacomet “had caused many an Englishman’s body to lie unburied and rot above ground, that not one of his bones should be buried.” He then directed a Sakonnet to quarter the body, a common treatment for criminals in that era. Church awarded Metacomet’s distinctively scarred hand to Alderman, who later preserved it in rum and exhibited it for “many a penny” for years to come.

On August 17, Pastor John Cotton led his Plymouth congregation in a day of Thanksgiving. Shortly after the service, Church and his men arrived with Metacomet’s head, a great prize of war. For more than two decades, the head remained on a stake as the town’s main attraction.

One hundred years later, as Americans fought for their independence from the British, the image of Metacomet was still negative. Americans generally viewed him and the indigenous peoples as savages who wanted to oppress them, just as the British were doing. As the colonists fought the Indians to live in freedom, so now patriots had to fight British tyranny. In the earlier war they were fighting to remain good English citizens in America; in the War for Independence they fought not to be English, but rather to be American.

In the first decades of the 19th century, Americans were still trying to define themselves. It appears that American writer Washington Irving started the transformation of Metacomet in the American mind with his “Philip of Pokanoket,” first published in 1814. In it, Irving encouraged his readers to see beyond the prejudices of earlier historical accounts of such writers as Increase Mather and John Cotton Jr. He argued that the sachem should be seen as a brave leader who struggled to free his people from the tyranny of colonial authorities.
At opening night, December 15, 1829, Edwin Forrest, one of America’s leading actors and the man playing Metacomet, ended with a curse: “My curses on you, white men! May the Great Spirit curse you when he speaks in his war voice from the clouds! Murderers! The last of the Wamponoags’ curse be on you!”

As Jill Lepore indicates in her book, “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,” “…the audience at the Park Theater rose in wild and reportedly ‘rapturous’ applause.” Americans were now looking to the native peoples to help define themselves.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University.

Sources:

Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. NY: Random House, 1999.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. NY: Penguin Group, 2006.
Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians Against the Puritans of New England. NY: Scribner, 2018.

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Legislating Slavery and Race in Colonial Rhode Island

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on November 7, 2019.)

The first slaves in colonial Rhode Island were Native Americans, prisoners of war from the conflicts with the colonists in southern New England. The first African slaves entered the colony sometime after 1638, in exchange for Native American slaves.

In the second half of the 17th century, Rhode Islanders were of two minds regarding slavery. On the one hand, only Rhode Islanders among all northern colonies explicitly banned both Native American and African slavery in the 17th century. In 1652 officials in Providence and Warwick prohibited the lifelong enslavement of whites and blacks. In 1676 these same towns prohibited the enslavement of Native Americans. Despite these bans, by 1680 there were 175 slaves in Rhode Island of Native American and African descent.

On the other hand, as the Atlantic slave trade grew and the role of slavery in the economy of colonial Rhode Island expanded in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, town officials and the colonial General Assembly increasingly enacted laws institutionalizing slavery of both Native Americans and Africans. This occurred even though lawmakers never legalized slavery. Historian Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, states: “white Rhode Islanders just assumed slavery was legitimate, inherited through the mother, and restricted to people of African and Native American descent.” This ensured white, race-based supremacy.

In the first two decades of the 18th century, not only Rhode Island, but also nearly all other northern colonies prohibited Native Americans from moving into the colonies. Viewing Native Americans as undesirable neighbors, hard to keep as slaves and difficult to control because of their intimate knowledge of the terrain, whites wanted them expunged from their communities. In 1715, the colonial General Assembly prohibited the importation of Native Americans. The Newport town council made it illegal to sell firearms of any sort to Native Americans. Portsmouth banished them to “live in the woods.”

While the institution of slavery began as a system for the control of Native Americans, it became more complex and comprehensive as a system for the enslavement of people of African descent. In the first decades of the 18th century, white Rhode Islanders replaced Native Americans, considered “dangerous,” with blacks “strangers,” now easily acquired from the burgeoning Atlantic slave trade. The colonists’ mindset of Native Americans as a heathen, uncivilized, inferior race was evidently applied eventually to people of African descent.

Logo

In 1703, the Rhode Island General Assembly wrote race-based slavery into law. “If any negroes or Indians either freemen, servants, or slaves, do walk in the street of the town of Newport, or any other town in this Collony, after nine [o’clock pm] without a [proper] certificate … or some lawfull excuse for the same, that it shall be lawfull for any person to take them up and deliver them to a Constable.” Blacks and Native Americans, free or enslaved, found after curfew were “to be whipped at the publick whipping post in said town, not exceeding fifteen stripes upon their naked backs.” The act also forbade free whites from “entertaining men’s servants, either negroes or Indians, without [the master’s permission].”

In 1708, the assembly forbade whites from socializing with “black slaves” and “Indian servants.” Clark-Pujara observes: “Whiteness was legally endowed with privilege and power, while people of color were legally identified as suspect and in need of supervision.”
In 1714, the assembly forbade an enslaved person from boarding ferries alone, even with the master’s consent, without a certificate of ownership carried by the master or person of authority.

By 1728, people of African descent were assumed to be dependent and burdensome. As part of providing them freedom, masters were required to post a bond of 100 pounds for each freed person to protect the white public from having to support a freed slave in need. The law stated that “no mulatto or negro slave” could be set free “until sufficient security be given to the town treasurer of the town or place where such person dwells … to secure and indemnify the town ….” The law had the obvious effect of discouraging manumission.

In 1750, the General Assembly forbade any person to “sell, give, truck, barter, or exchange …any strong Beer …to any Indian, Mulatto, or Negro servant or slave.” The fine was declared as 30 pounds for each offense. The claim was that liquor made them prone to stealing. The law further stated that free persons of color present at such occasions risked becoming bound servants.

Finally in 1757, the General Assembly allowed slave owners to search private vessels for slaves if they suspected their slaves were on board.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a monthly columnist.

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To Kill A Mockingbird, Still Powerful and Popular

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on October 25, 2019.)

Almost 60 years ago, Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published and drew immediate and sustained acclaim from both critics and the public. In 1961, it won the Pulitzer Prize, and over the decades it has maintained its position at the top of America’s most beloved books.


The story takes place in the Depression Era, 1932-35, in the mythical town of Maycomb, Maycomb County, Alabama. It is told through the voice of a young girl, Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, who is six at the outset of the book. The other main characters include her older brother Jeremy (Jem), their friend Charles Baker Harris (Dill), their heroic father Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, a reclusive man who lives nearby, and Tom Robinson, an African American farm hand wrongfully accused of raping a white woman.

The story is back in the news today for several reasons. In December, 2018, the play, To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, opened on Broadway. It is based on the book and was adapted for stage by award-winning Aaron Sorkin. Second, our country is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to British North America. With its “Project 1619,” the New York Times is giving special coverage to slavery and racism in America, past and present.

Here in Rhode Island, two organizations are spear-heading drives to increase public awareness of the large role of slavery in the state’s history and to give the enslaved a measure of appreciation and dignity, denied them while living: the Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project (www.Newportmiddlepassageproject.org ) and the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions organization (RISHM.org).

The novel deals with many issues on many levels. The most notable is racism/discrimination/segregation. While racism in the North is touched on, its focus is mainly racism in the Deep South in the 1930s.


A second theme is “other-ness.” In addition to “Negroes” as “others,” additional groups include women who do not conform, girls—such as Scout—who do not conform, lower class whites (“white trash”), and poor families (the Cunninghams). Even the persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany have a presence in the book. “Other,” non-conforming individuals include Boo Radley, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and Mr. Dolphus Raymond.
A third theme is moral courage and heroism, most visibly in Atticus Finch who is the court-appointed lawyer defending Tom Robinson. While he stands out as a hero, he is not the only one. The heroism of others, including children, also emerges in several parts of the book.

A fourth theme is the unwritten codes of conduct we all follow. The book portrays several, both individual and group: that of Atticus Finch, of children, of gossipy women, of dominant whites, of oppressed blacks.

A final important theme is blatant hypocrisy, especially that of Christians behaving very un-Christ-like.

A few years after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Harper Lee stated: “I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird.’ … I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”

The novel has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold more than 40 million copies. Last year, PBS aired a program called “The Great American Read,” an eight-part series exploring America’s 100 best-loved books, based on public votes. To Kill a Mockingbird took the top spot.

In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Harper Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1962, the film adaptation of the book was released, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. It garnered three Oscars, including Best Actor for Peck. I invite you to a screening of the movie this Sunday, October 27, at 1:00 pm, at the Jane Pickens Theater. I shall be hosting the movie and offering commentary.

This movie can be the beginning of a great family discussion on some very important and still timely subjects. Take, for example, my favorite quote from the book and movie, stated by Atticus Finch: “…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly columnist.

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Un-Erasing Rhode Island Slave History

(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.

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Woodstock: An Amazing and Unreal Four Days

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on August 15, 2019.)

Fifty years ago in America, the summer of 1969 was punctuated by two major events. In mid-July the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon, and in mid-August the counterculture movement peaked at an amphitheater-shaped hillside on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, NY, about 100 miles north of Manhattan. It was there that 400,000 mostly young people gathered for the Woodstock Music Festival, “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.”

(woodstock.com)

But beyond the peace and music were also drugs—some bad, rain and mud, bad sanitation, food shortages, and a general no-rules atmosphere. Nonetheless, even with all that humanity gathered in one place, there was no reported violence and only two deaths, one when a farmer ran over someone sleeping in his field and the other from either insulin usage or heroin overdose.

Earlier in the year pop music hits were apt precursors for Woodstock. In April the song, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” hit #1 on the billboard charts, proclaiming a new age and promising peace, love and harmony. The month before the festival, the dark, ominous song, “In the Year 2525,” reached #1 and remained there till after the festival had concluded.

For over three days the enormous crowd listened to 33 musical acts, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the Grateful Dead.

Declining invitations to perform were The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Byrds, and Bob Dylan, who lived in the actual town of Woodstock about 43 miles away. He stated: “I didn’t want to be a part of that thing.” “I just thought it was a lot of kids out and around wearing flowers in their hair, taking a lot of acid.”

Richie Havens opened the festival at 5 pm, Friday, Aug 15. When the next act, Sweetwater, was delayed, he agreed to keep playing, belting out his improvised chant “Freedom,” which became a touchstone of the festival. He remarked: “It was about love, about sharing, about helping each other, living in peace and harmony.” Of course, “freedom” as interpreted by most of the Woodstock Generation was the shallow kind: freedom to live without restriction and obligation.

Another high point came when Country Joe MacDonald and the Fish performed “I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag,” one of the anthems of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Now come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
Got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books pick up your gun
Gonna have a whole lot of fun

And it’s 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn
The next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s 5, 6, 7 open up the Pearly Gates
Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee, we’re all gonna die.

The final signature moment came at the end with the performance of Jimi Hendrix, clad in a blue-beaded white jacket and red scarf in his Afro. Because of delays, Hendrix could not take the stage until 8:30 am, Monday, Aug 18. Central and climactic was his piercing, exploding, transfixing rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” as part of his two-hour set.
Despite the chaos, disorder, poor sanitation, and mud, most of the attendees probably had very positive memories and feelings about the event. But not all. Pete Townsend of The Who was horrified: “What was going on off the stage was beyond comprehension—stretchers and dead bodies and people throwing up and people having bad trips.”

(woodstock.com)

Mark Hosenball writing in Newsweek in 2009 said: “Woodstock was, if not a nightmare, then a massive, teeming, squalid mess.” “If you like colossal traffic jams, torrential rain, reeking portable johns, barely edible food, and sprawling, disorganized crowds, then you would have found Woodstock a treat.”

Portsmouth resident, Joe Lubiner, drove to the festival on Friday but was stopped in Monticello, NY, and was forced to walk the remaining 10 miles to the festival site. When he arrived, he could not find sufficient space to unroll his sleeping bag. Then the rain came. “I regretted it, because I never really got to experience the music, and the basics [of life] were lacking.”

At 20 and entering my senior year at West Point, I had just assumed command of the summer training camp for sophomores, “Camp Buckner.” My world of order, military training, uniforms, parades, rules and regulations, and military music rather than psychedelic rock was the polar opposite of the free and unrestrained unreal world of Woodstock.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly Daily News columnist.

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In Colonial Rhode Island, the Enslaved Resisted

(Note: This essay is the fifth in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.” This essay was originally published on July 19, 2019, by the Newport Daily News.)

In the 18th century the colony of Rhode Island came to dominant the slave trade in British North America, explaining why the colony had the highest percentage of slaves of all New England colonies. These enslaved African Americans lived and worked, and even sometimes prayed and played next to their white masters; however, without basic human and civil rights, without ownership of their own bodies and destinies, their lives were always less than whole.

So they resisted, with multiple motives and means. Some sought freedom by escaping on foot or on a water vessel; others wanted revenge and justice by burning their masters’ property or even killing them. Others simply wanted community and social connection, perhaps denied them by their masters.

In 1707, an unnamed “negro” man from Newport reportedly murdered his master and drowned himself rather than be captured. The colonial General Assembly’s reaction to this is shocking to us today; however, it was clearly at the time morally and legally sound. It ordered “that his head, legs, and arms be cut from his body, and hung up in some public place, near the town [Newport] to public view: and his body burnt to ashes, that it may, if it please God, be something of a terror to others from perpetrating of the like barbarity for the future.”

In many cases in the colony, the enslaved had easy access to waterways. Therefore, stowing away on a ship or simply paddling away must have been an attractive option, especially for a young enslaved man. In 1728, Jethro, an enslaved “negro,” stole a canoe from his master in North Kingstown and paddled to Martha’s Vineyard to live with the Native Americans.

In 1714, it was reported that a “mulatto” man ran away from Newport, depriving his owner of his work. Such actions must have been a great concern to the government because in 1714 the RI General Assembly forbade enslaved from boarding ferries alone. In 1757 the Assembly continued its attempts to control the enslaved by passing a law allowing slave masters to search private ships in search of runaways.

The resistance to slavery is also indicated by the publicized attempts by masters to find runaways. According to Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, RI slaveholders during the colonial period placed one hundred runaway slave ads (92 men and 8 women) in local and regional newspapers.
She also states that the vast majority of runaways were young men and that about 29% of the runaways in the colonial period were from Narragansett Country (South County), about 19% from Newport, and 11% from Providence.

Despite the laws to control the social lives of the enslaved, they resisted. Throughout New England the enslaved had annual celebrations usually in June called Negro Election Days, great celebrations with much dancing and music. As part of these celebrations, they would even elect a “governor” or “king,” a position that came to hold great prestige within the enslaved communities.

Anthropologist Akeia Benard, in her forthcoming book, Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI, indicates that such celebrations occurred in Newport, with elections being conducted through a formal ballot system. By 1756, elections took place at the head of Thames St. It appears that slave owners competed to have the best dressed slaves providing clothing, jewelry, wigs, horses, and carriages. Having a “governor” or “king” for a slave evidently gave a certain amount of prestige to the slave owner.

As fully feeling human beings with the range of human emotions and desires, the enslaved sought sexual intimacy, for which permission was evidently needed. Clark-Pujara states that in 1673, “negro servants” Maria and George were found guilty of fornicating and sentenced to “fifteen stripes.”

It is clear that the enslaved resisted, not only passively but also actively. They resisted the attempts by their masters to reduce them to simply cold, unfeeling property, like a chair, a horse, a fence post. The enslaved were fully human beings, with yearning hearts, minds, and souls, and they demonstrated this.

Two local organizations now exist to raise our level of awareness of slave history in Rhode Island, making it more complex and comprehensive. The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project seeks to remember, honor and commemorate the contributions of those Africans who perished in the middle passage journey and to acknowledge those survivors who helped build Newport and the nation economically and culturally. (www.Newportmiddlepassageproject.org )

The Rhode Island Slave History Medallions organization seeks to increase public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website. (RISHM.org)

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly columnist.

 

Sources

Benard, Akeia. Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI. (forthcoming)

Clark-Pujara, Christy. Dark Work, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. NY: New York University Press, 2016.

Crane, Elaine F. A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island, in the Revolutionary Era. NY: Fordham University Press, 1992.

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D-Day Invasion Succeeds: The Beginning of the End for Nazi Germany

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on June 6, 2019.)

Seventy-five years ago on June 6, 1944, the combined air, naval, and army forces of the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Canada successfully invaded the Normandy coast of France held by Nazi Germany, the beginning of the liberation of Western Europe and of the defeat of Hitler’s Germany.

By the spring of 1944, there were 1.5 million American soldiers in the United Kingdom. Southern England and much of the rest of the country had become a vast military camp: depot upon depot of ammunition, mines, engineer supplies, and wire; ubiquitous motor parks of tanks, wheeled vehicles, and artillery pieces. Giving life to all this materiel were the armed troops: 20 American divisions, 14 British, 3 Canadian, one French, one Polish, special forces units, and headquarters’ staffs. As Max Hastings states in Overlord: “ Week by week, the transatlantic convoys docked in British ports, unloading new cargoes of artillery shells from Illinois, blood plasma from Tennessee, jeeps from Detroit, K ration cheese from Wisconsin.”

The organizational feat which the military staffs accomplished in the 17 weeks prior to D-Day was, in Hastings words, the “greatest organizational achievement of the Second World War,” and something which “may never be surpassed in war.”

The plan for the D-Day invasion, code-named Overlord, called for amphibious assaults on five beaches over a 50 mile stretch of the Normandy coast, two American attacks on beaches code-named Omaha and Utah, two British attacks on Sword and Gold, and one Canadian assault on Juno. Three airborne divisions—two American and one British—would make supporting attacks preceding the main amphibious landings. Ranger and commando units would also assist. Two hundred warships would pound German coastal fortifications. In the first 24 hours, the Allies hoped to land 150,000 troops, requiring 1200 ships and 4100 landing craft.

A key to the Allied success would be its air supremacy, won weeks before D-Day in the skies over Europe. Once a beachhead was established, a tremendous push of men and materiel would follow. Of course, another key factor in the operation’s ultimate success were the Soviet military offensives on the eastern front which kept much of the German military might fixed and occupied.

Accompany Operation Overlord was Operation Bodyguard, an elaborate deception plan to trick the Germans into thinking that the main assault would be at Pas de Calais, the shortest distance from England to France. The Allies formulated a huge but fictional invasion force, called the First U.S. Army Group, consisting of 50 divisions preparing to invade from the Straits of Dover and under the command of Gen. George S. Patton.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower talking to troops of the 101st Airborne Division shortly before D-Day

Leading the entire operation was American Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Supreme Allied Commander with British Gen. Bernard L Montgomery commanding the land forces.
Since occupying France in 1940, the Germans led by Fuehrer Adolf Hitler, had built the Atlantic Wall, a line of defensive fortifications on the coast stretching from Norway to southern France. Hitler said in December 1943: “If they attack in the West, that attack will decide the war.” German Gen. Erwin Rommel, the commander of Army Group B along the coast of France, said: “We’ll have only one chance to stop the enemy, and that is when he is in the water. Everything we have must be on the coast. The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”

In his letter to the troops just before D-Day, Gen. Eisenhower stated: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade….” “We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”

After Pearl Harbor in 1941, song writers wrote tunes touching every sentiment of the war for lovers. These were the songs which played in the men’s minds as they waited for D-Day. “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo,” “Cleaning My Rifle (and Dreaming of You),” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams),” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

I’ll be seeing you/In all the old familiar places/That this heart of mine embraces/All day through

I will find you in the morning sun/And when the night is new/I’ll be looking at the moon/But I’ll be seeing you.

Operation Overlord was the greatest multi-service and multi-national operation in history. As planned, the three airborne divisions made their drops the night before the invasion, though many units missed their drop zones. The allied divisions successfully stormed the five beaches on the Normandy coast.

The Americans at Utah faced light resistance. One private stated: “We waded ashore like kids in a crocodile and up the beach. A couple of shells came over but nowhere near us. I think I even felt somehow disappointed, a little let down.”

This was not the case at Omaha where casualties were the heaviest of all five beaches. Sgt. Bob Slaughter of the 29th Infantry Division was in the lead elements. “About 200 to 300 yards from the shore we encountered artillery fire.” Once the ramp went down, the water was still deep for men wearing 60 pounds of gear. “Many were hit in the water and drowned.” “There were dead men floating in the water and live men acting dead, letting the tides take them in.”

By nightfall the Allied forces had succeeded in establishing beachheads one-half to three miles inland.

Not expecting an invasion during the stormy weather, German Gen. Rommel, was away on D-Day, visiting his wife on her birthday. Upon his return that night, his worst fears had come true. His forces now faced nearly 156,000 allied soldiers with their feet already on French soil.

The Allies had suffered only about 3,000 dead, a figure which Max Hastings calls “a negligible price for a decisive strategic achievement.”

A retired Army officer and paratrooper, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a monthly columnist.

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