Rhode Island African Heritage Civil Rights Exhibit

by Carla Charter

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – An exhibit of Rhode Island’s African Heritage Civil Rights History will open at the Rhode Island Historical Society on February 13. The exhibit will focus on the people, places and events, from 1652 to the 20th century, highlighting the continuing struggle for African American Civil Rights.

A teacher’s workshop and panel discussion featuring Onna Moniz-John, Keith Stokes and James Vincent will also be held. The event is being sponsored by the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) and the Rhode Island Historical Society, according to Geralyn Ducady, Director, Newell D. Goff Center for Education and Public Programs.

Among those Civil Rights activists highlighted will be Rev. Mahlon Van Horne, the first person of African heritage elected to a school board in 1872 in Newport. In 1885 he was elected to the General Assembly of Rhode Island.

George Downing, a restauranteur and vocal civil rights advocate will also be highlighted. Downing led successful campaigns against slavery and segregated schools. In 1866, due to Downing’s efforts, segregated schools were outlawed in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island passed a gradual emancipation for its enslaved people beginning in 1784.  The gradual emancipation permitted any person of African heritage born after 1784, to be considered free. Any other enslaved person of African heritage was considered free at age 21 if they were a male and age 20 if they were a female.

Rhode Island had a large slave trade. Slave ships would sail to Africa, take on enslaved Africans on the coast, then sail to the Caribbean. There they would unload a number of enslaved Africans and load sugar, chocolate and mahogany. The ship would then sail home to Rhode Island with the remainder of the enslaved Africans as well as the Caribbean goods.  Once unloaded the remaining enslaved Africans would be sold throughout the colonies.

In more recent times the exhibit covers the Civil Rights era as well as the issues of fair housing and fair employment. It will also cover the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, an organization formerly known the African Heritage Society, a benevolent society which originally assisted emancipated enslaved people of African heritage and continued their benevolent work through World War II.

The exhibit is the third part of a two-year National Park Service Grant. The first phase of the grant allowed the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society to complete Oral History Interviews with people who had lived through and participated in the civil rights era.  During this phase background and archival research with different libraries and collections in the state was also done, Ducady explained.

During Phase 2 the RIHPHC hired a company called the Public Archeology Lab who are currently surveying and identifying 20th century buildings significant during the civil rights era. These were buildings where meetings were held and where prominent people lived. There are currently 100 buildings on the list being surveyed.

The third phase not only supports the exhibit, teacher workshops and panel discussions, it will also support a second exhibit in the fall which will focus in part on the oral histories which have been collected and locations being preserved

The African Heritage Civil Rights History exhibit will be held at the Rhode Island Historic Society Headquarters 110 Benevolent Street, Providence.  The teachers workshop begins at 4 p.m. and the panel discussion begins at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.   More information about the exhibit can be found at https://www.rihs.org/ri-civil-rights-nps-exhibit/



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