Friday, December 4, 2009
Slavery in Rhode Island? You betcha
I was in New England for Thanksgiving. My stepmom was talking about some bad experiences she had in the south regarding racism, and remarked that she was proud that she came from the north where they kept away from this stuff.
Without thinking, I (cruelly?) burst her bubble.
"Phyllis, you know that Rhode Island was a main importer of slaves, right? That's where a lot of the old Newport and Providence money came from."
She was shocked. "They didn't teach that in grade school in Rhode Island," she said.
"No," I said. "I didn't learn it in grade school either."
Turns out I learned it on the job at the Rhode Island Jewish Herald in 2001, where I covered a story by a man named Keith Stokes who is a descendant of Rhode Island slaves (here is his lengthy genealogy).
Brown University, which was heavily indebted to slavery, has some impressive research on the topic. Here is an excerpt:
Rhode Island played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade. Not only did Rhode Islanders have slaves—they had more per capita than any other New England state—but they also entered with gusto into the trade. By the close of the eighteenth century, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages from Africa to the Americas...
In 1652, Rhode Island passed a law abolishing African slavery, similar to those governing indentured European servants, where “black mankinde” could not be indentured more than ten years. The law was evidently never enforced and the demand for cheap labor prevailed. The market for sugar and its related product, rum, was too compelling. During the colonial period, Rhode Island was one corner of what has been named the “triangular trade,” by which slave-produced sugar and molasses from the Caribbean were carried to Rhode Island and made into rum. The rum was then carried to West Africa and exchanged for slaves, to produce more sugar, more rum, and more slaves.
(The complete article is here.)