Marking History with the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions Project

The project designates historic sites connected to the history of slavery in Rhode Island, including markers at Patriot's Park.

Charles Roberts, chairman of the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions project, used to play in the Common Burying Ground in Newport as a boy. To him, it was just open space, and the section of slave graves, known as God’s Little Acre, was just part of the landscape.

Decades later, it would become the inspiration for a statewide project to resurrect the voices of the voiceless, the slaves who were a central part of Rhode Island history during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The project is producing a series of medallions tracing the history of Africans and indigenous American peoples across the state, and their stories will be linked to an informative website.

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Photography courtesy of the Rhode Island slave history medallions and Justin Walker.

“People really want to know the truth (of slavery),” Roberts says. “This history isn’t just black history or of Native American history, it’s the history of economic development of the state of Rhode Island. Almost everybody had a role to play in the business of slavery because that was the economic engine that helped build this state and who we are today.”

Each medallion will be placed at historically significant sites connected to slavery and will contain a QR code that will provide information about the people and events that transpired there, a process Roberts calls “place-based education.” The medallion features an angel’s head and wings at the top, inspired by the grave marker carvings Roberts noticed in the cemetery as an adult. “I looked around me and thought, ‘I’m standing in a field of angels!’ ”

The first marker at Patriot’s Park commemorates the Battle of Rhode Island, where in 1778, the Black Regiment engaged and repelled the British and Hessians troops and allowed the Continental Army to escape. “Not every household was willing to give their sons to the fight,” Roberts says, “and they replaced them with their slaves instead. Their ranks included freed and enslaved Africans, indigenous Native Americans, poor white laborers and farm boys and indentured servants.”

The medallions also acknowledge a part of Rhode Island history that is often overlooked: the colony’s role in the infamous Triangle Trade. Ships from Rhode Island carried rum made in New England to Africa to trade for slaves who were then brought to Caribbean plantations, where molasses (liquid sugar) was purchased and brought back to New England to make rum.

“We had hundreds of distilleries in New England (processing the sugar grown by slaves in the Caribbean) to produce rum for trade in Africa. Then you had to have slaves to work the Rhode Island farms to feed this massive migration of people,” Roberts says.

Still, he says the medallions are more of an attempt to present an unbiased view of history rather than placing blame. “It’s not a story about right and wrong, good guys or bad guys. It’s just the way it is,” he says. “We hope that by telling the story of the participants of the economic development of Rhode Island, we can change the social dialogue about prejudice, injustice and racism.” rishm.org

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