2016-02-11 / News Briefs

History 'Through Their Eyes'

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Harriet Alleyne Rice, an 1882 graduate of Rogers High School in Newport, was the first African- American woman to graduate from Wellesley College. She went on to graduate from the University of Michigan medical school. Once a full-fledged doctor, no hospital would hire her because of her race. At the outbreak of World War I she attempted to join the American Red Cross and was again turned down – a view not shared by the French, so she spent the war treating wounded French soldiers. In 1919 at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., she was presented with the Medal of French Gratitude.

How amazing is that? One thinks. Yet, in response to a Wellesley alumni questionnaire in 1937 about what disabilities, if any, had an impact on her career, she wrote, “I am colored, which is worse than any crime in this God blessed Christian country.”

Rice’s story, and the stories of countless other Newporters of African heritage, can be found on The 1696 Heritage Project, a website launched in 2012 by Keith Stokes and Theresa Guzman Stokes. It is also the name of an ongoing project that seems to be perpetually reinventing itself. Stokes, who can trace his Newport lineage (which is both African and Jewish) back to 1739, is well-known as a scholar of early African-American and Jewish American history. Theresa Guzman Stokes, a writer and ethnic historian, is the president of the project.


Dr. Harriet Alleyne Rice, in her World War I passport photo. In July 1919, the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. presented Dr. Rice the "Medaille de Reconnaissance de la Francaise," or Medal of French Gratitude, for her outstanding services in French military hospitals. Dr. Harriet Alleyne Rice, in her World War I passport photo. In July 1919, the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. presented Dr. Rice the "Medaille de Reconnaissance de la Francaise," or Medal of French Gratitude, for her outstanding services in French military hospitals. Their mission: to tell these stories in a way that is authentic, firsthand, personal, and – perhaps most important - instantly accessible. It is a remarkable – epic – compilation of stories, photographs, and genealogical digging.


Keith Stokes' uncles and an aunt: Malcolm, Richard, Naomi, George, and Harold, five of George and Bessie Barclay's 11 children, pose for an Easter Sunday photo at Easton's Beach in 1913. Stokes can trace his Newport lineage back to 1769 and the arrival, from New York, of Moses Michael Hayes and Isaac Touro. Keith Stokes' uncles and an aunt: Malcolm, Richard, Naomi, George, and Harold, five of George and Bessie Barclay's 11 children, pose for an Easter Sunday photo at Easton's Beach in 1913. Stokes can trace his Newport lineage back to 1769 and the arrival, from New York, of Moses Michael Hayes and Isaac Touro. February is Black History Month, that time of year when libraries and community centers across the country host presentations and lectures about famous African Americans. In schools, students are telling their classmates stories of African-American men and women (Booker T. Washington, Jackie Robinson, and Rosa Parks usually top the list), descendants of the enslaved, who rose to prominence while overcoming racial prejudice and discrimination. All well and good, say both Stokes, but what about Dr. Rice, or Pompe Stevens, Marcus Wheatland, Mahlon Van Horne, or even Stokes’ own grandmother, Bessie Barclay – local sons and daughters whose accomplishments would do the city proud? If they had their way those Newport names, and the names of countless others dating back nearly 400 years, should be as commonly known as Washington, Robinson, and Parks.

“Three or four years ago,” Keith Stokes said, “it occurred to me that there was not an online repository of African-American history in Newport. The information we have,” he added, ”is just the tip of the iceberg.” His idea was to “digitize and repackage all the information. I thought we would reach a new audience.

“I have been inspired to do this by my Newport grandmother,” he explained, “who used to tell me that, ‘slavery is how we got here, but it tells you little to who we are as a people.’"

From the many “companion pieces” – links that usher the reader from story to story to family to different cities, different wars, and different levels of racial discrimination – we learn that Pompe Stevens was a stonecutter trained in his owner’s trade whose work is on many of the markers at the burial ground on Farewell Street. Marcus Wheatland, for whom the boulevard is named, is believed to be the first African- American to practice medicine in Newport and the first physician to use the x-ray machine. Van Horne was the first to serve on the Newport School Committee; the first in the R.I. General Assembly, and was general counsel for President McKinley in the West Indies during the Spanish-American War.

The first story to go up on the website in 2012 was “God’s Little Acre.” “We wanted to tell the story of the cemetery,” he said, “more from the eyes of the people who are buried there.” From there other companion pieces have been added. “Newport’s Gilded Age in Color” was a PSNC lecture in 2014. Harriet Rice’s story is told in “Eyes of Glory,” which also details everything from the fascinating genealogical traverse of Stokes’ family to the present (originally a family of Sephardic Jews, they arrived in Newport in 1769 from New York via Spain via Holland), to advertisements in the Newport Mercury of slaves being offered for sale. A more recent project is "Sable Soldiers," about the African-American experience in World War I. One of the most recent additions on the blog is a comprehensive African Heritage timeline. Stokes is always quick to credit the city’s many cultural and historical institutions as collaborators and supporters of the project.

Many know Stokes as a former executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce. He is now with the Providence-based Mayforth Group as president of strategic economic planning and development. Yet the 1696 Heritage

Project is never far from his mind. He has been working with Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea to draft and introduce a required African-American curriculum for all Rhode Island students in grades K -12. It would make the state one of a handful to do so, an enormous accomplishment.

There is great power in harnessing the impact of memories. The 1696 Heritage Project will undoubtedly comprise a substantial part of the new curriculum. The source of its name is especially poignant: 1696 was the year the Sea Flower— the first ship to bring slaves to Newport—entered the harbor. “The only truly dead,” reads a line from “God’s Little Acre,” their work on the Colonial burying ground on Farewell Street, “are those who have been forgotten.”

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