Have you heard? The Center for Reconciliation is now offering walking tours of historic Providence, highlighting the City’s connection to the domestic and international slave trade. If you are interested in scheduling a College Hill & the International Slave Trade walking tour for your congregation, family, friends let us know. Groups should consist of 5-20 interested participants. Contact the Center to schedule a group tour firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently on May 6th and 7th, we hosted a tour. More than 80 people took part in a two hour walking tour of the College Hill neighborhood of Providence, and learned about its historic significance in the international and domestic slave trade. Participants came from as close as Benefit Street and as far away as Ghana and Chile. These multi-racial and multi-generational cadres of neighbors, friends, classmates and family members took a mile long hike through important though long obscured local history.
Getting started in front of the John Brown House
The United States is once again struggling through a national conversation about race. A discussion made more difficult by how little most of us know about our country’s history of slavery. Rhode Island may be our smallest state but nearly everyone from its earliest wealthy citizens, to its most recent antebellum immigrants, helped the Ocean State become one of the US’s largest contributors to the international slave trade. Sadly these local histories of slavery and slave trading which, unbeknownst to most, helped construct much of the state, instigated a legacy of restrictive social and legal structures in our state and our country, and imbedded feelings of fear, discomfort, anger or guilt into contemporary conversations about race.
During our mile walk, standing in the shadows of buildings laid with the pain of thousands of enslaved people, closed our eyes and caught glimpses of lives lived long ago in places we see every day. Along the way we stopped at six sites important to the stories of the free and the enslaved, the rich and the poor and everything in between. With every step participants followed the accounts of wealthy merchants, Ghanian insurrectionists, college students, slave traders, Episcopal church leaders and members, sailors, insurance investors, a bitter housewife, Quaker slave owners and Quaker abolitionists, enslaved chocolatiers, free black home owners, disenfranchised Irish immigrants, and three women buried as “faithful servants” beneath a single foot-stone.
We started at the apex of Brown and Power and discussed the many ways that power literally and symbolically intersected with various families, individuals and institutions in Providence. Next, we stepped inside the John Brown House museum to explore not just the Brown family’s connections to the slave trade, but also how the Rhode Island Historical Society has wrestled with interpreting slavery, worked with the community and students to improve its exhibits, and makes plans for future engagement with difficult narratives. The education and public program director at the Rhode Island Historical Society was “extremely pleased” by the tours. Most participants had never visited a Rhode Island historic house before. Several mentioned a new interest in returning to the house to see more of its exhibits in the future.
After leaving the John Brown House, we took a stroll through Power St. to Brown University. The group learned along the way about the role played by white women and Quakers in the local 18th and 19th century power structure. The group came to a stop in front of Brown University’s oldest building to consider the construction of an institution that was funded for over 100 years by slave labor or slavery related industries. We discussed how educational institutions continue to struggle with their historical connections to slavery and debated whether they should, or how they could provide reparations. The groups considered how universities continue to seek donations from wealthy individuals or corporations even when the money is connected to exploitative industries or regimes? A lively debate ensued among participants about different forms of restorative action schools can take to help the descendants of those who were forced to be involved in the school’s creation.
Next, the procession followed the trail of power and money to the surprisingly modest home of ten time governor, Stephen Hopkins. There we were treated to a balanced telling of the lives of the enslaved and the free peoples who lived and worked in the Hopkins House. Participants were led through the house to see rooms important to that history, and an exhibit that focused on the challenge of telling an inclusive history when there is a dearth of documents and first person narratives. We continued to mull over some of the more complicated points of the history as we walked to the next stop.
Despite a light rain we proceeded to the 18th century cemetery that lay hidden between the colorful 19th century homes on Benefit Street and the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island on North Main Street. Participants stood quietly among the gravestones and learned about the creation and the destruction of three vibrant black communities that have long since been cleared from the outermost edges of Providence. The racial violence, housing discrimination and social and economic exclusion that eventually drove these communities away would have been viewable from the grave laden hill. We also paused to reflect on the scant fragments of information available on the lives of three enslaved women who were memorialized by a single foot stone in the Episcopal cemetery. Was the footstone really an honor when it permanently connected the three women to the man and family who had enslaved them and left them without any sense of individuality? Participants discussed how these women or their families may have inscribed seperate headstones if given the opportunity.
Image credit_ Arielle Brown 2016. Document found at the URI archives.
Image credit: Arielle Brown 2016. Document found at the URI archives.
Image credit: Caroline Stevens 2016
Our final stop of the tour led us through tales of destruction to a site of rebirth. We stepped out of the rain and into the Cathedral of St. John. Inside the Episcopal Canon to the Ordinary, Linda Grenz, guided us through the church’s complicated history of slavery, racial integration, white privilege, neglect and a new hope for reconciliation. This exclusive behind the scenes tour also offered a first opportunity to learn about the Center for Reconciliation’s future museum on the history of slavery and slave trading, while standing in the space in which it will be installed. Jane Jacobs once said that, “new ideas must use old buildings.” That is exactly what the Center for Reconciliation was created to do. We are in the preliminary stages of turning this early 19th century cathedral into a space in which to reconcile the past with the present and the descendants of slave owners with the descendants of the enslaved. Our nation continues to be deeply divided by the legacy of slavery. While reconciliation is not a new idea, the CFR is developing new strategies, programs, performances, collaborations and events that will bring new meaning to an old building, and new beginnings for our shared community. In the footsteps of slavery we plan to guide our multi-racial, multi-generational community on new pathways toward a real chance at racial reconciliation.