Episcopal Diocese Reckons With Rhode Island's Slaving Past

A new center and museum are planned in Providence to encourage community discussion.

From the “Welcome to Bristol” sign at the town line, and along Hope Street’s red-white-and-blue stripe to the postcard-perfect Federal-style homes at its center, Bristol wears its Colonial past proudly. But one September evening, about forty Bristolians gathered in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church to talk about a past the town is not so eager to tell — the great crime that built Bristol: slavery.

Slavery was the economic lifeblood of the entire state for eighty years. Rhode Island passed its first law forbidding enslavement in 1652, but the law changed and the practice flourished apace with its profitability. From before the American Revolution to the Industrial Revolution, the slave trade powered Rhode Island’s rum distilleries and the textile mills, spinning cotton picked by Southern slaves into cheap “negro cloth” that was sold back to the South. Slavery employed the carpenters, the clerks, the bankers and the blacksmiths. Everyone made money from the slave trade, but few made more than the DeWolf family of Bristol.

Family patriarch Mark Anthony DeWolf started slaving in 1769. And for half a century, various DeWolfs transported 12,000 enslaved Africans. But it was Mark Anthony’s second youngest son, James DeWolf, who built the family business into an empire that included a bank, an insurance company and a distillery in Bristol, a sugar plantation in Cuba and a stake in Coventry’s Arkwright Mills.

In 1785, as Bristol was establishing what would become the nation’s oldest continuous celebration of independence, James DeWolf was piloting a slave ship. His wealth and political power insulated his business from successive anti-slaving laws. He died in 1837, a Rhode Island statesman and the second richest man in America.

The DeWolfs and Bristol remain bound today. Bristol’s Fourth of July parade sends its Colonial fife and drums corps past Linden Place, the mansion once owned by slaver George DeWolf, and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, the DeWolfs’ spiritual home.

“We found it striking the way the DeWolf family and the way Bristol remembers their history: the same kinds of amnesia, and things profoundly not remembered,” says James DeWolf Perry, a direct descendant and executive director of the Tracing Center, which produced Traces of the Trade, a PBS documentary featuring DeWolf descendants confronting their family’s involvement in the slave trade.

“We have come a long way in this country, but we just have so much farther to go,” he says. “For a lot of White America, it’s such a shock to hear, because it clashes with the narrative they are familiar with.”

On the 150th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery, with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island has embarked on a mission to challenge that narrative.The September screening of Traces of the Trade marked the first public conversation sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese’s new Center for Reconciliation. In 2014, church members voted overwhelmingly at their local convention to approve the Rhode Island Diocese’s plan to convert the closed Cathedral of St. John’s in Providence to a Center for Reconciliation, anchored by a museum interpreting the church’s role in supporting the slave trade and its work to abolish it.

“All denominations now recognize the need for the faith communities to take a lead in this — that’s our job — but to call people to repentance and reconciliation around many issues,” says the Reverend Linda Grenz, the Diocese’s Canon to the Ordinary. “The museum is the sexy part, but it’s really only 10 percent of the whole project.”

The church envisions outreach, with public forums, performances and collaborations with existing groups, such as the Tracing Center, Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. The diocese hopes to open the renovated cathedral in 2017 and has begun to raise the $1.7 million needed to complete the first phase, turning the lower hall into a small performance space, framed by museum displays around the perimeter.

“We want to be a catalyst for the conversation about race in this state,” says the center’s program manager, Elon Cook.

There are only a handful of museums in the United States devoted to slavery. The first, the Old Slave Mart Museum, opened in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1938. The most recent is the Whitney Plantation, which bills itself as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery.


The 284-year history of African enslavement in America — when it is told at all — at Civil War museums and other heritage sites tends to be soft-focused, a Southern phenomenon, and out of the spotlight of a glorious past of gracious living and great wealth. Historians and cultural anthropologists say that the reasons are partly social and partly economic. African Americans generally avoided Southern heritage sites, says Patricia G. Davis, a cultural studies professor at Georgia State University.

“One of the reasons that slavery was marginalized was that the primary constituency was typically white, and to preserve the narrative of white benevolence and white innocence,” she says. “That’s changing with the passage of time and the increasing popular cultural engagement with this history. Movies like Twelve Years a Slave show that blacks were not passive victims.”

Truthful accounting lies at the heart of reconciliation, says David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice. Governments from Latin America to Europe to Africa have started the process with a truth commission, followed by reparations — either  tangible or symbolic — reforms and education.

“It’s not an easy process, where you have a truth commission, some discussions and then we have a Kumbaya,” Tolbert says. “But having a confrontation with the past can lead to a society that respects human rights.”

Twelve years ago, Brown University undertook its own reconciliation effort. Then-President Ruth J. Simmons created a committee to investigate Brown’s relationship to slavery and to report its findings. For three years, scholars and experts explored the topic with the Brown community in lectures, film screenings, international conferences and forums. In October 2006, the committee issued its sobering history of the school’s founders and benefactors, along with a list of recommended actions. Four months later, the Brown Corporation endorsed those initiatives, including a scholarship fund for Providence Public Schools seniors.

“Brown is not post-racial,” says Anthony Bogues, a member of the original committee and the director of the Slavery and Justice Center. “But it forced the university to confront the questions it had to confront, such as how does it deal with diversity? I think the report made the university much more sensitive to those issues. [The process] was not cathartic, but it showed people how you could tackle a controversial past and use that past to make a distinctive change in the present.”

The idea of amends for slavery, however, has not taken hold in the state outside of the Van Wickle gates. In 2010, Rhode Island voters soundly defeated a constitutional amendment to change the official state name from “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” to simply “State of Rhode Island.”

Proponents argued that the word “plantation” had become hopelessly tangled with slavery. Opponents argued that the full name, emblazoned on the Royal Charter in 1633, merely meant “farmlands.” Ray Rickman, a former state legislator and African-American historian, was not surprised at the outcome.

“We wear rose-colored glasses and we like to lie,” he says. “People have a discomfort talking about slavery, and that’s our trouble: We can’t move forward on racial problems because we don’t want to talk about race and everything that comes from slavery.”

Under St. Michael’s soaring stone arches, the screening segued into a discussion of Bristol’s overwhelmingly white demo. The conversation was earnest, but stilted. The audience was racially mixed, but white voices dominated. An elderly resident offered that the only black person he could ever remember in town was the chauffeur of a local family. An African-American newcomer spoke of the cold stares she’s gotten in the grocery store.

“There are people who think we shouldn’t talk about it, absolutely,” says the Reverend Grenz. “But there is no way to be reconciled without hearing each other’s stories and learning to respect and hear each other.”