Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rhode Island: Slavery's "Deep North"

Once upon a time in a parallel universe, I was trying to enlighten my History 101students about the economy of the American colonies in the 18th century. As an illustration, I mentioned the "Triangular Trade," in which ships loaded with rum sailed from the ports of lower New England to West Africa, where they exchanged their cargo for newly captured slaves, whom they then transported to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. This leg of the journey was the horrendous "Middle Passage," on which countless thousands were brutalized in chains, contracted various infectious diseases, and were thrown overboard as "shark bait." Those who survived this atrocity were callously auctioned to sugar planters in "payment" for boatloads of the sweet stuff, which they carried back to their ports of origin in lower New England. The sugar was gobbled up by distillers  who combined it with maple syrup to make more rum for eventual transport to West Africa--thus completing the "Triangle."

The obscene profits from this business transaction enriched thousands of ship owners, distillers, brokers, and bankers for whom it became the basis of family fortunes for many of New England's most illustrious dynasties. Conspicuous among these were the Brown family of Providence, Rhode Island whose ill-gotten gains eventually served as a generous endowment for the founding of Brown University, which grew into one of the illustrious pillars of today's Ivy League. Ironically enough, one of my students turned out to be the girl friend of a young man who was then enrolled at Brown. I don't recall whether he was shocked or indignant when she conveyed him the news, but he clearly did not have the slightest inkling of the connection. He asked his friend to find out my sources, and added my somewhat sarcastic observation that Brown probably did not include this historical tidbit in its recruitment or orientation materials.

I forgot about the incident until I was reminded by an article in the August 23rd New York TIMES headed "Rhode Island Church Taking Unusual Step To Illuminate its Slavery Role." According to Katherine Q. Seelye, "one of the darkest chapters in Rhode Island history involved the  state's preeminence in the slave trade, beginning in the 1700s. More than half of the slaving voyages
from the United States left from ports in Providence, Newport, and Bristol--so many, and so contrary to the popular image of slavery as primarily a scourge of the South, that Rhode Island has been called "the Deep North." That history, however, she continued, will soon become common knowledge in the Episcopal diocese here, which "was steeped in the trans-Atlantic slave trade," when it "establishes a museum dedicated to telling the story, the first in the country to do so."       

Many of those involved in the Triangular Trade were Episcopalians; the church supported slavery and continued to profit by it, even after the trade was outlawed and slavery had been banned in the state. Among the most prominent Episcopalian slaveholders, as Seelye points out, were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Over the past decade, the Episcopal Church of the United States has formally acknowledged and apologized for its involvement, and several of its dioceses have begun re-examining their culpability and holding services of repentance, while starting programs of truth and reconciliation.

Under the leadership of Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely, the Rhode Island diocese has established a museum focused on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery and the North's complicity, as part of a new center for reconciliation and healing. The Bishop says that he "wants to tell the story of how the Episcopal Church and religious voices participated in supporting the institution of slavery and how they worked to abolish it.  It's a mixed bag." While some museums and historic sites touch on slavery in the North, none are devoted to the region's deep involvement, according to James DeWolf Perry VI, a direct descendant of what was probably the most prolific slave trading family in the entire country, and author of Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. He is aiding in the planning of the museum and reconciliation center, which are still in the organizing and fund-raising phases. The institutions are to be housed at the 200-year-old stone Cathedral of St. John, which is the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. The majestic, but deteriorating, cathedral was closed in 2012, due to declining membership.
"We are trying to move in concert with what's happening around the country," said the Rev. David Ames, who is helping to establish the center. "Events like those in Charleston have really focused us on the dire need to improve race relations in this country." Diocesan officials are engaging in conversations with African-American church leaders, universities, and other organizations to sponsor speakers and programs that delve into racial issues, and have scheduled more forums for the fall throughout the state where slave traders once worshipped. The region's economy was inseparable from the slave trade in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The earliest settlers to New England bartered Native Americans they had captured for slaves brought from Africa. Merchants and suppliers who grew wealthy from the slave trade founded and endowed several Ivy League colleges, including Brown. Northern textile mills hummed with Southern cotton picked by slaves.  The first slave ship is believed to have arrived in New England as early as 1638---the first one arrived in Jamestown Virginia less than two decades before. An historic marker will be placed later to mark the spot where  the first ship would have docked. The ceremony held on August 23rd was part of a larger project commemorating the two million slaves who died and the 10 million who survived the Middle Passage, only to spend the rest of their lives horrible captivity.

Thanks to Rhode Island's financiers, seafaring workforce, and officials "who turned a blind eye to the colony's antislavery laws," the colony played a major role in the trade. Many slaving ships were built in Boston, and were supplied, manned, and launched from Rhode Island ports. Between 1725 and 1807 (when Congress officially ended the importation of slaves), more than one thousand slaving voyages---about 58 percent of the total from the American colonies--left from Providence, Newport, and Bristol. Those vessels brought more than 100,000 Africans to the Americas as part of the Triangular Trade. Many of them ended up in the North, where they populated numerous households. According to an investigation by Brown University, which began to explore its own deep ties to slavery in 2003, about ten percent of the colony's people were enslaved.

According to Bishop Knisely, whose own research has revealed "shameful episodes in church history." Many New Englanders switched to the Episcopal Church because Quakers and Baptists in Newport gradually turned to anti-slavery; they were welcomed and their slave holding was not challenged. "We sounded an uncertain trumpet," the bishop confessed, and "were happy to receive their financial support. We allowed ourselves to be convinced by the prejudice of the time and didn't speak out." In establishing the museum and reconciliation center, the church is collaborating with the Brown Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and several descendants of the Bristol-based  DeWolf family, which alone imported more than 12,000 Africans. The profits of James DeWolf--speaker of the Rhode Island House , U.S. Senator, banker, merchant, privateer, and owner of numerous rum distilleries--made him the second richest man in the U.S. at the time of his death in 1837. One of his descendants, James DeWolf, became the first bishop of the Cathedral of St. John and presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States. Katrina Browne, a seventh-generation descendant of the family's first slave trader, organized a journey for ten family members to trace their legacy from Bristol through the slave forts in Ghana and old family sugar plantations in Cuba. In 2008, she produced a documentary from the trip called "Traces of the Trade." Along with Perry--a distant cousin--she founded the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery, "dedicated to educating the public about the complicity of the entire nation in slavery and the slave trade.

"The experience of seeing black audiences respond to a white family acknowledging these things ---that's a powerful starting point" Perry insists. "I want my family to remember our family history, both good and bad. I think this is how we need to approach our shared history as a nation."


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