Technology’s Incompetence with Tragedy

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

Technology is transforming our world at an alarming rate. However, as it transforms and offers such promise, we must be very cautious about it affecting the core elements of what it is to be human. This imperative has become clear to me recently as I have confronted a personal tragedy.

Many of the new technologies hold such great promise for making our lives easier and healthier. To help people with disabilities, Japanese scientists are developing a headset which can read and translate a person’s thoughts into speech. For people who have lost their voices, the Scottish company, CereProc, is developing technology which will convert their typed words into their original voices. Advances in battery life may make a pacemaker last, not for ten years, but for hundreds.

Last December, USA Today reported that the Kroger Company, the world’s largest grocery chain teaming with the robotics company, Nuro, began delivering groceries in driverless vehicles in Arizona.

For the first time scientists with nanotechnology are building materials one molecule at a time, machines as small as a human hair. Some of these microscopic computers, “micro-doctors,” will swim in our bloodstream, analyze, seek out, and destroy cancer cells. Unravelling the secrets of the human genome, engineers now predict that within two decades, technology will exist to extend life expectancy.

These are all wonderful developments with great promise. I am all for them, and even if many of us were not, history has shown that technology will march on inexorably.

However, technology is no elixir or panacea when tragedy strikes. All the technologies of the world will not bring back my son. And while it assisted in what might be called the administration of tragedy, it showed remarkable incompetence and fecklessness in addressing the deepest human needs of me and my family. While it was good at spreading his obituary, it could not show up, show empathy, or express sympathy very well. Cell phones proved to be destructively distracting. Of the 526 people in my Linked In network, two used the platform to express their condolences; one of those followed with a card. (I am not on Facebook.) The more important point is that even if hundreds had, the messages would not touch my deepest needs.

Thomas Zilian (1973-2019)

The things that really helped me and my family were those friends and family who gave the gift of presence: they showed up, touched, hugged, wept, and came bearing gifts—chicken soup, mounds of fruit, muffins, calzones, chicken soup, rice pudding, tuna-noodle casserole, gallons of ice cream, and Brenda’s baked ham which I ate every day for ten days straight.

Klaus Schwab, writing in Foreign Affairs, on “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” December12, 2015, was correct in questioning the impact of the digital revolution on “not only what we do but also who we are.” He said: “I am a great enthusiast and early adopter of technology, but sometimes I wonder whether the inexorable integration of technology in our lives could diminish some of our quintessential human capacities, such as compassion and cooperation.”

This subject is so important that Senator Ben Sasse, in his latest book, Them, Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal, calls for a national discussion on the subject. “Now is the time to pause for a national family meeting—and lots more individual family meetings—to discuss what we want from these coming technologies, before they make the decisions for us.” In so doing, let’s give little credence to the bold but self-serving proclamations of some of the big tech companies that they are “making the world a better place.”

During the hours of visitation, it was gratifying to see my son’s friends come through the line. Many I knew. The greater impact came from his friends I had never met and from what they said about my son. There was the stranger who came alone, limping, with a cane. He paid his respects at the coffin then came to me and related his story. “When I fell,” he said, “Tom came to me and picked me up. He spoke to me; he helped me.” The man, his walk, the scene he gave me with this story–these will forever give me comfort. No technology could ever replicate or replace that.

Fred Zilian, ( teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, is an opinion contributor to The Hill, and is a monthly columnist to the Newport Daily News.

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Song “Aquarius” Beamed Hope during Chaotic Sixties

(Note: This essay was originally published as “50 Years of ‘Aquarius,'” in the Newport Daily News on April 27, 2019.)

It is quite a feat for a song to achieve the #1 position on the Billboard charts, let alone to occupy the top spot for six weeks in a row. Fifty years ago, the song “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” sung by the Fifth Dimension, accomplished this. It hit the Top 40 chart on March 15, 1969, reached #1 in April, and remained on the chart for 16 weeks.

The song, actually a medley of two songs, was written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni with the music written by Galt MacDermott. Bill Holman wrote the instrumental backing, played by session musicians of the Wrecking Crew. The actual recording of the song was unusual in one part was recorded in Los Angeles and the other in Las Vegas, before mixed together.

The idea for the song came from serendipity. Billy Davis, Jr., the lead singer of the Fifth Dimension, left his wallet in a New York City cab. The man who found it was involved in the production of the musical Hair. He invited the group to see the show, in which they heard a segment of music entitled “Aquarius.” Enthused with the segment, they contacted music producer and engineer Bones Howe who took two segments of music and “jam[med] them together like two trains.”

The singing group, the Fifth Dimension, originated in Los Angeles in 1966, and included Marilyn McCoo, Florence LaRue, Billy Davis, Jr., Lamont McLemore, and Ron Towson. Before “Aquarius,” they had seven Top 40 hits, the biggest being “Up, Up, and Away,” and “Stoned Soul Picnic.” During the group’s high period, 1967-73, it had a total of 20 Top-40 hits.

Fifth Dimension, wiki
After the original group ended in 1975, the group with different members has continued to perform. Their music, published on many labels, includes the genres of R & B, pop, soul, sunshine pop, and psychedelic soul.

The lyrics of the song were rooted in astrology. Though astrologers differed on the year this new age would begin, the song proclaimed that a new “Age of Aquarius” was at hand sometime after the 20th century. This age was to be characterized by love, light, and humane, kind relationships, unlike the current “Age of Pisces.”

The lyrics:
When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius

Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in
Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in
Let the…

The singles version ran for 4 minutes, 49 seconds and finished with lead singer Billy Davis pumping out words of exhortation, “open up your heart” and “you got to feel it,” while the rest of the group sang “let the sunshine in” in bursts of three for a total of eleven times to end the song.

The song won Grammys in 1970 for “Record of the Year” and “Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Group.” In the US Billboard Hot 100 list (1958-2018) it ranked #73.

In the divisive and discordant Sixties, this song was so popular, I believe, because it offered the hope that larger cosmic forces were mysteriously at work to bring peace and harmony to an America—and a world—marked by chaos.

This could not have contrasted more with my ordered, predictable life at the time. When the song hit #1, I was finishing my junior year at West Point, very much in love with my future wife, and trying to win the conference title as a member of the Army baseball team.

Fred Zilian ( teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, is an opinion contributor for The Hill, and is a monthly columnist for The Daily News.

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Thomas Zilian–Obituary & Eulogy

(Contributions for his children: Checks should be made to the Alex and Sonie Zilian Fund and sent to BankNewport, 2628 East Main Rd, Portsmouth, RI, 02871.)

Thomas Zilian, 46, of Portsmouth, RI, died unexpectedly at his home on April 2, 2019.

Tom was born into his military family in Wiesbaden, Germany, and attended high schools in Portsmouth and also Bonn, Germany. He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree (painting) from the Massachusetts College of Art. He founded and owned Madstone, a company specializing in creating fine finishes for concrete surfaces.

Tom loved many things: first and foremost, his family, and also camping and fishing with his two children, music, Italian food, chunky monkey ice cream, his mother’s cooking, Nicki’s warm and welcoming home, James’s unfailing support and devotion to Tom’s talent, and his father’s example. Art and painting were his passions.

Tom is survived by his fiancée Anna Lubiner, son Alex 10, daughter Sonie 13, mother Geri, father Fred, brother James, sister-in-law Zoe Zilian, sister Nicole Milici, and brother-in-law, Marc Milici; his nieces and nephews, Mary Jane, Sofia, Vincent, and Anthony Milici, and Ava and Mia Zilian. He is also survived by his ex-wife and mother of his children, Dorota Hapek.

Visiting hours at Connors Funeral Home, 55 W. Main Rd, Rte 114, Portsmouth, RI, 02871, 3-5 and 7-9 pm, Tuesday, April 9, and funeral mass at 10 am, Wednesday, April 10, at St. Barnabas Catholic Church 1697 East Main Rd, Portsmouth, RI .

In lieu of flowers, our family would prefer contributions to a fund established for his children. Checks should be made to Alex and Sonie Zilian and sent to BankNewport, 2628 East Main Rd, Portsmouth, RI, 02871.

Eulogy—Thomas Zilian

(Note: I delivered this eulogy at the Mass of Christian Burial at St. Barnabas Church, Portsmouth, RI, on April 10, 2019.)

Even as a little boy, we knew that Tom had a wonderful heart. I do not remember how old he was, perhaps five or six. Our young family was merrily rolling along in our car. We asked him whether he liked his mom’s casserole from the night before. He did not want to hurt his mother’s feelings, but down deep I guess he really didn’t like it. He fumbled with some words and then said: “Well, I like it, cept, cept I hate it.”

Thank you for this opportunity to address you. I would like to do this for you and for me, and also for Tom. In this holy house, I draw strength from God and from the steady and faithful pulse of your love I can feel by your presence and your faces, especially those of my grandchildren. My son is gone, but he lives on in so many ways, especially in Sonie & Alex.

Physically, Tom clearly had more of Geri’s side in him. His face, good nature and good heart reminded us all of her and my father-in-law, Jim Maida, “Pop,” as we called him. Some of you may remember him. And if you do, you know that this was a very good thing to be cut from the same cloth as my father-in-law, who never said an ill or evil word of anyone.

However, I will take some responsibility for his rich and vibrant sense of humor. I hope you got to know it. He loved reaching out to people, getting to know them, and having a laugh.

In the last few years, Tom was again back to his passion—painting fine art. I will give my wife and the Maida side credit for his vast artistic creativity, talent and passion; his steady and sure hand with a pencil and paint brush.

This talent was nurtured at the Massachusetts College of Art. In his last two years there his paintings became abstract. This was a challenge for me. Picture me standing in front of a large canvas with broad strokes of paint—brown, black, white, gray—and swatches of other stuff, perhaps a bit of burlap mixed in and raised up from the surface. Eventually I began to appreciate this type art. I might stand back, point to one corner of the painting, and say: “Tom, I think I see some tension and anger here.” “That’s it, dad,” he would say, “now you’re getting it.”

Tom could be a man of contradictions. Though a free-wheeling artist who loved unusual music from, say, Frank Zappa, he also loved physical order. No messes and misalignments. Like both his parents, he was more a hugger and lover, than one who confronts and fights; however, he could get fighting mad about principles, such as truth and social justice.

My friends & my family, we must be careful in looking for an explanation for his death. I hope that none of us are angry with God. There are no good answers here, and there is no future in being angry with God.

As he faced life’s challenges the last few years, my son launched on to a spiritual journey and found God. And God gave him strength to overcome. What a gift!

How he loved his two children, Alex and Sonie, sitting here, taking them camping and fishing, taking them to the Newport Creamery. Dorota, I thank you for bringing them into this world and for nurturing them. Geri and I pledge our support to help them grow in Tom’s image.

And how he loved his sister Nicole, his brother James, and brother-in-law, Marc, and all his nieces and nephews. We stood by him when he was troubled, and as he became healthier and stood ever stronger, yes, he aggravated us with his quirks and incessant ukulele playing, but also lifted us when we were in need.

Last September, Tom met Anna and his life soared. This is his journal entry for October 19: Brilliant, compassionate, thoughtful, conscientious, authentic, and open-minded are just a few words that come to mind when thinking of Anna. And I could go on and on about how she has integrity and is tenacious and silly and adorable and my perfect Love. During the first weeks of getting to know her, as these characteristics were revealed, I asked myself these two questions: How did she get like this? and, Why me?

Anna, now and forever, you shall be a part of our family. We are so happy and not surprised that Tom made you believe in miracles. The love that blossomed between you two was truly a miracle.

We will all miss Tom. I shall miss him coming into our house for breakfast—messy hair, leather jacket, and paint-splattered clothes. I would feed him oatmeal as we talked the issues of the day. Geri would make him a lunch, super-charged with food and love. I see him now in the next dimension, showing Saint Peter how to paint, with all the cadmium blue his heart desires.

Here is what I am going to do for my son. I am going to love my wife and family every day. Second, I will love my neighbors and friends. Even more now, shall I remember what the ancients said: “Be kind because people are engaged in great battles.” Third, I shall not take one day of life for granted. Lastly, I shall look at others who struggle with life’s challenges, not as inadequate, unredeemable human beings, but as real and genuine people who need other people who have the courage to care and who can show them the spiritual imperative.

The day Tom died, I turned to my book of daily prayer. The reading was from Psalm 37: Verse 37, and was entitled “Peace in Death”: But for the good man, the blameless, the upright, the man of peace—he has a wonderful future ahead. For the end of that man is peace.
Here is the poem which accompanied the verse:
How bless’d the righteous when he dies,
When sinks a weary soul to rest!
How mildly beam the closing eyes!
How gently heaves the expiring breast!
Life’s labor done, as sinks the clay,
Light from the load the spirit flies;
While heaven and earth combine to say,
“How bless’d the righteous when he dies!”

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With Low Fertility Rate, America Needs Future Migrants

(Note: This essay, abridged, was originally published at on February 25, 2019.)

The Republicans and Democrats have reached a compromise on the border issue. President Trump, not happy with the mere $1.38 billion in the compromise bill for his wall, has declared a national emergency so that he can use other appropriated funds for this wall. However, the real national emergency is not keeping people out with a wall; rather, it is getting the right people to come to America to counter its very low fertility rate.

In the long term, human economic and personal insecurity and climate change will increase the flow of migrants and refugees from points known but also unknown. Now that the U.S. fertility rate has dropped to 1.76, well below the replacement rate, America’s challenge—if it wants to remain a superpower—is not to build walls and restrict migrant flow excessively, as the Trump Administration has, but rather to manage properly a more generous migrant flow so that its population continues to grow, with all the attendant benefits.

The World Migration Report for 2018, authored by the UN International Organization for Migration, estimates a total of 244 million migrants, including over 40 million internally displaced persons and 22 million refugees. The report cites the reasons for the recent increase in displaced people, including conflict, persecution, environmental change, and a lack of human security and opportunity.

Focusing on the United States, the PEW Research Center in November 2018, presented data on migration to the United States. The U.S. has more immigrants that any other country, about 40 million, about 20% of the world’s immigrant population, people born in another country, with just about every other country in the world represented. They make up 13.5% of the U.S. population. A total of 10.7 million are unauthorized or illegal (23.7% of U.S. immigrants). Unauthorized migrants tripled in size during the period 1990-2007, and then declined after the Great Recession of 2008-2009. In the period 2007-2016, unauthorized migrants from Mexico declined while those from Central America increased. Since 2010, more Asian than Hispanic migrants have arrived each year. Regarding refugees, in FY 2017, almost 54,000 were resettled in the U.S.; the largest came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Myanmar.

Several factors suggest that migrant flow to U.S. borders will increase in the future. Just beyond Mexico lie the three countries from whom the highly publicized “caravans” of migrants have come in recent years. Over the past five years Stephanie Leutert, writing in Foreign Affairs, indicated 875,000 migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have come to the U.S. border, driven mainly by rampant gang violence and economic hardship. However, without a job or family in the U.S. these migrants, most moving in family groups, have no legal pathway into the U.S. Until the factors, pushing these migrants to leave, are dealt with, we can expect this migrant flow from Central America to continue.

A second factor which will increase migrant flow to the U.S., a land in what Thomas Friedman calls the “zone of order” , is climate change, an issue in which the U.S. once led but now, under the Trump Administration, dawdles and denies. Over three years ago at a Commencement for the Coast Guard Academy, President Barak Obama sketched the risks ahead. “Around the world, climate change increases the risk of instability and conflict. Rising seas are already swallowing low-lying lands, from Bangladesh to Pacific islands, forcing people from their homes. Caribbean islands and Central American coasts are vulnerable, as well. Globally, we could see a rise in climate change refugees. … Elsewhere, more intense droughts will exacerbate shortages of water and food, increase competition for resources, and create the potential for mass migrations and new tensions. All of which is why the Pentagon calls climate change a “threat multiplier.”

The Trump Administration has disallowed the Department of Defense from addressing the impact of climate change in any meaningful way, deleting it from the official list of national security threats. However, a recent DOD report maintains that it is, stating: “The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations.”

Climate change is manifesting itself in sea level rise here in the U.S. and beyond. Almost three years ago The New Scientist, using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, indicated that the sea level will rise 1.8 meters by the year 2100, probably displacing over 13 million people in the U.S.

Internationally, the effects of climate change were addressed at the two-week UN climate conference in Paris in December 2015. Sewall Chan’s reporting on the conference indicated that warming, in addition to other effects, can cause violence leading to the large-scale displacement of people. The conference’s report noted that between 2008-2014, an average of 26.4 million people were displaced each year by floods, storms, earthquakes, and other natural disasters (although most moved within their own countries). The accord called for developing recommendations “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”

William Lacy Swing, a retired American ambassador who now leads the International Organization for Migration, said that climate change was adding to a “perfect storm” of “unprecedented human mobility,” a result of the quadrupling of the world’s population over the last century and wars, conflicts and persecution.

The world’s many glaciers continue to melt, a clear result of global warming. Dr. Twila Moon, University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote of this in the journal Science in May 2017: “The evidence is overwhelming: Earth is losing its ice. Much of this loss is irreversible and the result of human-caused climate change,” Glaciers all over the world are disappearing and should be the subject of “international concern.” Among other effects, millions of people will be forced to leave their homes by rising seas, crucial sources of water will run dry and wildlife will lose sources of nutrients and shelter. The US Geological Survey has reported that the Glacier National Park in Montana has lost more than 120 glaciers in the last century. And Dr. Moon said this was a pattern repeated all over the world from the Antarctic Peninsular to Patagonia, Kilimanjaro, the Himalayas, Greenland and the Arctic.
Also in the journal Science, in December 2017, a team of scientists, studying weather variations from 2000-2014 in 103 countries and their effects on asylum applications to the European Union concluded that “weather-induced conflicts in developing countries spill over to developed countries through asylum application.” “Our findings support the assessment that climate change, especially continued warming, will add another ‘threat multiplier’ that induces people to seek refuge abroad.”

The final factor arguing for a less restrictive immigration policy is the dramatic fall in the U.S. total fertility rate. This rate has dropped since the Great Recession of 2008 to 1.76 births per woman in 2017, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 needed to keep a population stable. Despite this drop, the Trump Administration has moved to restrict immigration.

This trend has significant negative implications for our Social Security and Medicare programs. As medical experts John Rowe, Dana Goldman, and S. Jay Olshansky have indicated: “The significant reduction in fertility in the U.S., if not offset by enhanced immigration or greater worker productivity, puts these programs at risk.”

The white population has a very low fertility rate among all groups within the U.S. population. Therefore, it is the minority groups who are contributing the most to the U.S. population. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution has demonstrated where future gains will likely come. “The likely source of future gains among the nation’s population of children, teenagers, and young working adults is minorities—Hispanics, Asians, blacks, and others. Also Statista reported that Hispanics in 2017 had the highest fertility rate among significant minorities. (Native Hawaiians/Other Pacific Islanders had the highest.)

Military might, economic prowess, and natural resources have always been measures of a state’s power. Today we can add such things as technological capability and innovation, entrepreneurial talent, cybersecurity and strength. It is surprising that in an Administration filled with so many “realists,” including President Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton, there is such a lack of concern with one of the most fundamental sources of a state’s power—population.

The trends discussed above suggest that the U.S. will continue to be a magnet for immigrants, pulled to our borders by order and economic opportunity, and pushed by violence and climate change in their home countries. With the dramatic drop in the U.S. fertility rate over the past decade, it would be wise for the United States—rather than overly restricting immigration—to streamline its immigration policies to accept the right combination of skilled and unskilled workers, innovative entrepreneurs and also families who can give us young Americans.

Fred Zilian, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of “From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter @FredZilian.

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The Lives of the Enslaved in Colonial Newport

(Note: This essay was originally published on February 28, 2019, in the Newport Daily News. It is the fourth essay in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.”)

Enslaved African Americans of colonial Newport 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.

It is a challenge to obtain a genuine understanding of the lives of any enslaved people because of the sparseness of original documents. Slave masters certainly did not see any value in documenting the lives of their property and most of the enslaved did not have the education, wealth or certainly the luxury of time to create documents and images of themselves for posterity.

Of the 10-15 million slaves taken to the New World, Richard Youngken, in his book African Americans in Newport, estimates that only about 2% were actually brought to Newport and sold to Newporters. The rest were sold in the West Indies (Caribbean) and southern American ports.

Anthropologist Akeia Benard, in her forthcoming book, Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI, summarizes data from several sources on the black population in 18th century Newport. In 1730, the African American population represented 14% of the city’s population (1649 individuals) and in 1748, 17% (1105 individuals). The African American population peaked in 1755, representing 18% of Newport’s population (1,234 individuals). By the time of the first census in 1774, which was the first to give data on both enslaved and free blacks, it dropped to 14% of the population (1,246 individuals). Of these, 145 individuals, approximately nine percent, were listed as “Free.”

In colonial Newport, the enslaved—generally referred to as “servants” rather than “slaves”—lived and worked probably throughout the city. Whites and enslaved blacks must have lived near each other, with the enslaved living primarily in the attics, kitchens, or perhaps out-buildings of their masters.

It was primarily enslaved women, children, and elderly who worked as domestic servants. The males worked in rum production, barrel-making, wharf-warehousing, and ship-building and all its associated trades. In the maritime trades the enslaved worked as pilots, sailors, divers, linguists, porters, stewards, cooks, cabin boys, and riggers. Males were also employed in animal care, teamster and livery services, blacksmithing and silversmithing, candle-making, masonry, wood-working, furniture-making, and printing. It is tragic irony that many of the enslaved worked in trades connected to the very business system responsible for their enslavement.

Enslaved men were regularly “rented out.” Newport merchant John Banister regularly did this. In 1747 “Negro Mingo” and “Negro Toney” were rented out to help prepare the Swan for a voyage to the West Indies. “Negro Anthony” was rented six times in a two-year period to help outfit merchant ships.

Slavery corrupted and distorted the marriage and family life of the enslaved. Marriages of course had to be approved by both masters, and married slaves only rarely resided together. As property of their masters, husbands and wives could not live the normal lives of married couples by Western or African standards. The reality of slavery laced through their marriage vows. This can be seen in the “Form of a Negro Marriage” used by Rev. Samuel Phillips of Andover, Massachusetts. The vow was made contingent: “so far as shall be consistent with ye Releations [sic] which you now sustain, as a Servant.” It also included a warning: “…both of you, bear in mind, that you Remain Still as really and truly ever, your Master’s Property….”

Caesar Lyndon, the secretary and purchasing agent of Gov. Josiah Lyndon, was the rare enslaved person who kept a journal which is available to us. He was certainly well off compared to other enslaved. A successful businessman, he bought and sold items to whites and blacks, lent money, and had enough leisure time and means to go on a “pleasant ride out to Portsmouth” with friends on August 12, 1766. Their picnic included roast pig, wine, bread, rum, green corn, limes for punch, sugar, butter, tea, and coffee. Upon his death in 1826, his obituary in the Newport Mercury praised him as “well known in this town as a man of color of remarkable attainments.”

Headstone cut by Pompe Stevens for brother Cuff Gibbs

(Fred Zilian, 3-14-19)

Pompe Stevens was a slave of William Stevens, who owned a stone carving and masonry shop on Thames Street. Pompe would have laid bricks and built foundations, chimneys, steps and walks. In Newport’s Common Burying Ground stands the headstone he carved and signed for his brother, Cuff Gibbs, who died in 1768.

The enslaved Newport Gardiner, originally Occramer Marycoo, arrived in Newport in 1760 from the African coast. His master’s wife urged him to learn English, French, and western music. Oral history on him indicates he taught music in a rented room on Division Avenue in the late 1700s. He eventually became a leader of the African-American community, and founded and became first president of the African Union Society.

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. ( )

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. (


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.
Woodward, Carl R. Plantation in Yankeeland: The Story of Cocumscussoc, Mirror of Colonial Rhode Island. RI: Narragansett Publishing, 1985.
Youngken, Richard C. African Americans in Newport, An Introduction to the Heritage of African Americans in Newport, Rhode Island, 1700-1945. Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, 1998.

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The Business of Slavery in Colonial Newport

(Note: This is the third essay in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.” This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 26, 2019.)

The histories of colonial Newport and of slavery in the New World are intimately connected.

The first slaves in the colony of Rhode Island were Native Americans, prisoners of war from the two major Indian wars in southern New England in the 17th century—the Pequot War (1636-37) and King Philip’s/Metacom’s War (1675-76).

Sometime after 1638, the first African slaves entered Rhode Island. They were sparse in the colony throughout the 17th century, with only 175 total slaves in 1680. The first record of Rhode Islanders buying slaves directly from Africa came on May 30, 1696, when 14 enslaved Africans were bought from the ship Seaflower in Newport “for betwixt 30£ and 35£” (British pounds).

From this beginning, Rhode Island slave traders by 1730 came to dominate the American trade in slaves, and Newport became the most important slave-trading port of departure in North America, according to historian Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work. Slaves were one commodity in the greater Atlantic trading system. Newport, Bristol, and Providence merchants, with their proximity to and affinity for the sea, engaged in commerce with West Africa, the West Indies (Caribbean), and North American port cities, exporting lumber, beef, pork, salt cod, butter, cheese, onions, cider, candles, horses and rum; and importing sugar, molasses, cotton, ginger, indigo, linen, woolen clothes, Spanish iron and slaves.

In his 1740 report to the British Board of Trade, Rhode Island colonial governor Samuel Ward described the many goods Rhode Island ships provided to “neighboring governments” and also the West Indies—rum, sugar, molasses, lumber, beef, pork, flour, horses, “and our African trade often furnishes them with slaves for their plantations.”

Newport today is dotted with the names of many of the merchants who took part in this commerce: Malbone, Banister, Gardner, Wanton, Brenton, Collins, Vernon, Channing, Champlin, and Lopez.

Between 1761 and 1774, Aaron Lopez and father-in-law Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, among the many ships they launched, sent 14 slave ships to the west coast of Africa. Their first voyage contained flour from Philadelphia, beef from New York, and 15,281 gallons of rum from Newport distilleries. Over the 14 year period it is estimated that their ships brought over 1100 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and the southern colonies of America. The trade with the West Indies was key because this is where the molasses was acquired for the Newport rum distilleries. Lopez personally owned five slaves, and Rivera owned twelve.

The sloop Adventure, owned by Christopher and George Champlin, sailed from Newport in 1773, outfitted with slave shackles, vinegar, pork, beef, sugar, molasses, wine, beans, tobacco, butter, bread, flour, and 24,380 gallons of rum for the purchase of slaves. Enslaved women cost at the time an average of 190 gallons of rum, while men averaged 220 gallons.

Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, Philip Greenwood circa 1750. Public domain. Depicts various notable Rhode Islanders, including (all seated at the table): Nicholas Cooke, Esek Hopkins, Stephen Hopkins, and Joseph Wanton (passed out, being doused with vomit and punch).

Many of the trades and occupations in Rhode Island during this period were somehow related to slavery. Slave traders kept busy shipbuilders, sailors, caulkers, sailmakers, carpenters, rope-makers, painters, barrel-makers, and dock workers. Clerks and warehouse managers administered the system. In addition to these tradesmen, additional crew members were needed to control the enslaved during the voyages.

In his book, African Americans in Newport, Richard Youngken reports that Newporters prior to the Revolution took a total of 59,067 individuals from the West Coast of Africa, a small number compared to the total 10-15 million slaves taken to the New World. He estimates that only about 2% were actually brought to Newport and sold to Newporters. The rest were sold in the West Indies and southern American ports.

Anthropologist Akeia Benard, in her forthcoming book, Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI, summarizes data from several sources on the black population in 18th century Newport. In 1730, the African American population represented 14% of the population (1649 individuals) and in 1748, African Americans represented 17% of the population (1105 individuals). The African American population peaked in 1755, representing 18% of Newport’s population (1,234 individuals). The population dropped to 14% of the population (1,246 individuals) by the time of the first census (1774) that gave figures for both enslaved and free African Americans. Of the 1,246 African Americans in the census that year, 145 individuals, approximately nine percent, were listed as “Free”.

Youngken indicates that during the middle decades of the 18th century about 30% of white families in the city owned slaves. Clearly slave auctions must have been normal in Newport, and enslaved people must have been common throughout the city.

In Newport, enslaved women worked primarily as domestic servants while the men worked in candle-making, rum distillery, husbandry, metal-smithing, sailing, whaling, and manual labor. It is tragic irony that many of the enslaved worked in the very business of slavery.

Merchants from Newport paid significant taxes and duties to the city, which allowed public works projects. Clark-Pujara concludes: “The streets of Newport were paved and its bridges and country roads mended through the duties collected on slave imports. In many ways, the business of slavery literally built Rhode Island.”

Two projects 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, led by Victoria Johnson, 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. ( )

The Rhode Island Slave History Project, led by Charles Roberts, has as its mission increasing public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website.

(See essay #4: The Lives of the Enslaved in Colonial Newport.)


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.
Coughtry, Jay. The Notorious Triangle, Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
Crane, Elaine F. A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island, in the Revolutionary Era. NY: Fordham University Press, 1992.
Johnson, Cynthia M. James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2014.
Stensrud, Rockwell. Newport, A Lively Experiment, 1939-1969. London: D Giles Limited, 2015.
Youngken, Richard C. African Americans in Newport, An Introduction to the Heritage of African Americans in Newport, Rhode Island, 1700-1945. Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, 1998.








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The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19

(This essay was originally published as “Remembering the Great Influenza Pandemic” by the Newport Daily News on December 17, 2018.)

One hundred years ago this month the world was celebrating the end of World War I; however, it was still contending with what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) claim was “the most severe pandemic in recent history,” the 1918 influenza pandemic.
It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes originating in birds. A total of about 500 million people worldwide were infected with the virus, one-third of the world’s population. At least 50 million people died, with some estimates as high as 100 million; indeed, far more deaths than the fallen in World War I.

The sickness was first identified in the United States in the spring 1918 among military personnel, and it eventually claimed 675,000 lives in the US. It was so severe that in the period 1917-1918, the life expectancy in the US declined about 12 years, to 36.6 for men and to 42.2 for women, according to the CDC. It struck most age groups; however, it was unique in that it hit the 20-40 year age group especially hard.

Treatment facility in large warehouse

There were three phases of the pandemic in the U.S. It first broke out in military camps and some cities in the spring 1918. Because of the desire to keep wartime morale high, officials suppressed information on the sickness. It is commonly known as the Spanish Flu Pandemic, not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain was neutral during WW I and had no reason to censor information on its impact.

The second wave, the most lethal, hit in September 1918. It began in Fort Devens, an Army post west of Boston, and also at a naval facility in Boston. About 100,000 Americans died in October alone. The third wave came in early 1919 and lasted through the spring. The pandemic finally subsided during the summer 1919.

At a symposium on the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in May, 2018, historian John M. Barry explained the progression of the disease. He repeated the words of a military doctor at the time: “…they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission, they have the mahogany spots over the cheekbones, and a few hours later, you see the cyanosis extending from the ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the [black] men from the white. It’s only a matter of a few hours, then, until death comes.”

In a 1986 interview, Navy nurse Josie Mabel Brown, who survived the influenza, said, “The morgues were packed almost to the ceiling with bodies stacked one on top of another.”
The influenza pandemic inspired great fear. Barry quoted one person who lived through it, saying: “It kept people apart. You couldn’t play with your playmates, your classmates, your neighbors. The fear was so great, people were afraid to leave their homes. You had no school life, no church life, nothing. It destroyed all family and community life. People were afraid to kiss one another, afraid to eat with one another. Constantly afraid.”

It must be remembered that at this time there were no vaccines for protection against the infection, no antiviral drugs for treatment, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia. Efforts to control the pandemic were limited to such things as the promotion of good personal hygiene, isolation and quarantine, and the closure of public places, such as schools and theaters. Some cities passed ordinances requiring face masks in public. New York City enacted an ordinance which fined or jailed people who did not cover their coughs.

The CDC maintains that for “more than 60 years, [the] CDC has worked to address the continuing threat of flu and prepare for the next pandemic.” There now exists a “global influenza surveillance system” which includes 114 World Health Organization member states. The Center’s Influenza Division is one of six global influenza centers which monitor and track flu activity worldwide.

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, an opinion contributor for The Hill, and a monthly columnist for The Newport Daily News

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