2014-06-19 / Around Town

Slavery in Rhode Island

By Pat Blakeley

Although June 19, 1865 - known as “Juneteenth” to students of black history- is the date celebrated as when the last slaves were freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery wasn’t abolished across America until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865.

Beginning as early as 1756, however, June was also the time of year when Negro Election Day was held in Newport, and African Americans, both free and enslaved, would elect their own governor in a celebration that took place over several days. The ceremonies combined aspects of both African and European traditions and included electioneering, merrymaking, food, and many social activities. The events took on a festive air, with participants dressing in their finery, often borrowing items from their owners.

By the 1770s, many of these elections took place in the colonies but Newport was among the first. Historian Theresa Guzman Stokes says that ‘Lection Day, as it was referred to in local parlance, took place at the public commons, where the Liberty Trees would later be planted. The African Governor was feted at a parade in his honor, and was widely regarded as the leader and informal spokesman for the African American community in the community at large. During the Revolution several governors served with the patriot army; Guy Watson was a leading figure in the capture of British General Richard Prescott in 1777.

Newport had a very early and multifaceted relationship with slavery, perhaps even more so than the other colonies.

The first documentation of an African slave ship coming to Newport was the Sea Flower in 1696, although the presence of African slaves in the town was recorded decades earlier. The Sea Flower might have been the first slave ship to arrive, but during the next 100 years more than 1,000 voyages sponsored by Newport merchants would carry 100,000 Africans into slavery. Most of the slaves were traded in the West Indies but many ended up in Newport.

Ironically, Rhode Island had passed the first abolition law in the thirteen colonies in 1652, banning African slavery, but the law was not enforced.

By the mid-1700s, the slave population in this colony was twice that of any other in New England, and the economy was largely dependent on the Triangle Trade.

Slavery was different here than in the Southern states, with the majority living in homes with their owners as opposed to their plantation-based counterparts. The booming maritime economy demanded educated craftsmen, and slaves were often apprenticed to learn much-needed skills to support the growing commercial ventures and expanding urban landscape. Many of Newport's grandest public buildings were forged by African slaves, including Touro Synagogue, Redwood Library, and Brick Market. The trade skills and craftsmanship acquired during their servitude would later enable most manumitted slaves to function independently and integrate into the free community with relative ease.

Even as the Triangle Trade-based economy thrived, abolitionist voices grew stronger, aided by very vocal members of the local clergy who would chastise parishioners from the pulpit, and in 1774 a bill was introduced to prohibit the importation of slaves into the colony.

In 1787, the Rhode Island legislature passed a law banning participation in the slave trade, but the industry actually experienced an overall increase between 1787 and the federal abolition of the trade in 1807.

The General Assembly passed the Negro Emancipation Act of March 1, 1784, which said that children of slaves born after that date were to remain slaves as children, but girls would become free at age 18 and boys at 21. By 1840, the census reported only five African Americans enslaved in Rhode Island.

Stokes says records indicate that the last slave to be manumitted on the island was Jeremiah Easton in 1824, owned by Nicholas Easton, a descendant of one of Newport’s founders. The last known slave in Rhode Island, James Howland of Jamestown, died at age 100 in 1859.

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