Celebrating Black History Month: Black History in Rhode Island

By Jeymys Rosario, Blackstone Valley Prep High School Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Chair

Who would’ve thought that our little state of Rhode Island is so full of history? I’ll be honest; I knew we have a lot of historic places and beautiful architecture, but the specifics of that history were not clear to me until I decided to educate myself and research what really happened here. Black history in Rhode Island is SO powerful. Make the effort to learn more about our rich and diverse history. I’d like to share with you “10 Interesting Facts About Black History in Rhode Island” courtesy of GoProvidence.

  1. Jamestown was home to the last known slave in Rhode Island, James Howland, who died Jan. 3, 1859. His death notice, published in the Providence Daily Tribune Jan. 10, 1859, stated, “James Howland, the last of the Rhode Island slaves, died at the residence of John Howland, Jamestown, R.I., on the 3rd inst., at the ripe old age of one hundred years. He had always been a faithful servant in the Howland family. Up to the time of his death he retained all his faculties unimpaired, and on the night of Jan. 2 attended to his usual duties about the house. On the morning of the 3rd he rose, dressed himself, and was about to ascend the stairs from his chamber, when he fainted, and expired in a few moments.”

  2. The “God’s Little Acre” cemetery in Newport, RI has been recognized as having possibly the oldest and largest surviving collection of markers of enslaved and free Africans, the earliest of whom were born in the late 1600s.

  3. The Dexter Training Ground in Providence, formally known as Camp Fremont, is a historically significant training ground for Colored Civil War Troops of the Union Army.

  4. America’s first African-American U.S. military regiment was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. The regiment defeated three assaults by the British during the battle for Rhode Island in 1778 and later participated in the victory at Yorktown in 1781.

  5. Hard Scrabble (Addison Hollow) and Snow Town were two African-American neighborhoods in Providence in the early-mid 1800s, and were the sites of race riots instigated by working-class whites, which destroyed black homes in the neighborhoods. As a result of the Snow Town Riot, Providence voters approved a charter for a city government containing strong police powers, which resulted in the formation of the Providence Police Department.

  6. Joseph Gomes was the only Rhode Islander to play baseball in the Negro Major Baseball League, and was named an All-Star in each of the seven years he played. He compiled a 362-41 pitching record, with a 1.74 earned-run-average in the Majors.

  7. Dr. Raymond T. Jackson, originally of Providence, is an accomplished concert pianist and graduate of the Julliard School of Music. Noted for bringing the music of African-American composers to the concert stage, he compiled a three-volume anthology containing works by two dozen African-American composers dating back to the early 1800s. He was the first African-American, first musician, and youngest person to be elected into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.

  8. Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, born in Portsmouth, Virginia, was an African-American Rhode Islander and famous concert singer of the 19th century. After becoming the first African-American artist to perform at the Wallack’s Theatre in New York, she toured South America, Europe and Canada. Known as “the Black Patti,” after Italian diva Adelina Patti, Ms. Jones performed in Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, and before the crowned heads of Europe. In addition to the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, Jones is also a member of the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame.

  9. Dr. Alonzo Van Horn was the first African-American dentist in Rhode Island, with offices at 22 and 166 Broadway in Newport.

  10. The African Union Society (AUS) was created in Newport in 1780. While most blacks from Rhode Island were free by 1807, strong prejudice and oppression were present before and after that date. The AUS developed partly in response to these difficulties, as well as to be a forum for black cultural discussion. The society is considered one of the first formal organizations founded by free blacks in the United States.

I hope these facts serve as an introduction to our big history here in little Rhode Island. There’s so much more to learn!