2016-11-03 / Front Page

History of Black Churches Fills Redwood

By James Merolla

Newport's role in the formation of black congregations in Rhode Island is on full display at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum until Nov. 12. Newport's role in the formation of black congregations in Rhode Island is on full display at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum until Nov. 12. A groundbreaking exhibit of the 300-year history of the black church in Rhode Island will end its impressive run at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum on Saturday, Nov. 12. The venue is fitting because Newport had as much to do with growing the churches as any city in the state.

“Do Lord Remember Me: The Black Church in Rhode Island" opened Monday, Oct. 24, with a reception at the Redwood packed with clergy, politicians, historians, teachers and musicians – a reflection of the African-Americans who formed the churches and the exhibition itself.

The exhibit tells the story, in images and text, of American firsts: the first Free African Union Society, founded in 1780, which evolved into the Colored Union Church in Newport; the first piece of sacred music by an African, Newport Gardner of Newport (in 1824, Gardner became a deacon of Colored Union Church); the first black chaplain, the Rev. Chauncey Leonard of Providence, appointed by President Lincoln; and many more fascinating stories.

Ray Rickman co-authored "The Black Church in Rhode Island" with Robb Dimmick and addressed the opening of the exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Redwood Library) Ray Rickman co-authored "The Black Church in Rhode Island" with Robb Dimmick and addressed the opening of the exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Redwood Library) Augmented with artifacts from the Redwood archives, it shows how African ritual merged with European ceremony to form a powerhouse of freedom, service and survival. Accounts of burial rites, music, politics and pride show how African Americans forged a unique way out of slavery and religious restrictions to form houses of worship in Providence, South County, Newport, Bristol and Woonsocket.

National and historic figures such as Ezra Stiles, Alexander Crummell, Rev. Samuel Proctor, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Moses Brown emerge as major players in promoting, preserving and protecting basic civil rights in Rhode Island.

“I can’t think of a more important historical topic than this one,” said Benedict Leca, Redwood’s executive director, to those assembled. “I am humbled by the subject that is worthy of such attention. Part of our duty, when [Redwood was] chartered in 1747, was to be a forum where important topics of the day would be discussed. I am thrilled that we are able to host the exhibition here.”

Also present was former State Rep. Ray Rickman, who co-authored “The Black Church in Rhode Island,” as well as this exhibit with Robb Dimmick, program director of Stages of Freedom in Providence. Rickman thanked 11 churches in general, and Father Nathan Humphrey of Newport’s St. John the Evangelist in particular, for sizable donations which helped them meet their touring exhibition budget.

Rickman reminded the audience that he was born into an apartheid society.

“On race, we like to fantasize. When I was a kid, this was a brutal society. When I was a seven-year-old, my first encounter with a cop was when my mother was arrested in Loveman’s Department Store in Birmingham, Alabama, for trying on a hat,” said Rickman. “We move forward. One of the reasons we move forward is the black church. As early as 1730, 1740, there was movement.”

The foundation of the black community really is the black church, added Rickman. “The black history of Newport is so rich. You should be proud of your history and what you have done. [You have] the finest examples of religion and church building.”

A brochure commemorating the exhibit shows the prominent clergy of the last three centuries and key dates, most of which center around Newport:

*1705 – A Negro section of the Common Burying Ground in Newport is founded, later known in the black community as “God’s Little Acre”

*1741 – The first non-white church, the Indian Meeting Church in Newport, forms and attracts black followers

*1764 – Newport Gardner composes “Promise Anthem,” the first piece of music by an African in America

*1774 – John Quamine and Bristol Yamma of Newport attend the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) to study as missionaries, and are the first Africans enrolled in an American college

*1780 – Newport African men establish the first Free African Union Society in the home of Abraham Casey, holding Sunday evening services

*1823 – Black leaders in Newport gather at Newport Gardner’s home to discuss forming “the Coloured Union Church and Society”

*1841 – Alexander Crummell becomes minister of Christ Church. During the Dorr War, he writes a compelling argument, gaining blacks the vote in 1842.

At the exhibit opening, Joe Wilson Jr., among Trinity Repertory Company’s finest actors, portrayed Crummell, reading his dynamic letter aloud.

In his booming baritone so familiar to local audiences, Wilson, as Crummell, spoke of a “complexional hindrance,” without which “we could become voters. To deprive the colored people of this state, because of the color of our skin, of which we have no control… is anti-republican. We remonstrate against it!”

“Newport predominated this history,” said Dimmick, curator of the vertical placards of the exhibit and whose Stages of Freedom, with its mission to provide black culture to the entire community, co-sponsored the exhibition.

Dimmick added that the project took a year to finish. It evolved, he said, out of an exhibit that started at the Providence Public Library. “Our history is a black and white story – and when you look at churches, that fact becomes self-evident. This is a magnificent space and having the exhibit [at the Redwood] couldn’t be more important.”

The church, he explained, was also formed through sound, derived from West African songs and chants.

“Before there was a building, before there was a church, there were a series of objects that held meaning,” said Dimmick. “I show them here. Bones, fabric, nails, pins and rope; they vary from community to community. But their collective gathering imbued spiritual value.”

From song to segregation, to hope and heaven, the church became the place where “black folk” could contemplate, elucidate and celebrate freedom.

“Come back here and bring someone to see this exhibit before Nov. 12. Bring your priest,” said Rickman.

“Do Lord Remember Me” runs through Saturday, Nov. 12. Visit redwoodlibrary.org.

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