Getting the Story Straight: Slavery in Rhode Island

This guest post is by Christopher Cooney, a junior at URI. He began his career as a jazz percussion major but is now pursuing an English degree. He enjoys reading, lifting, and playing and listening to music of all kinds.

Professor Christy Clark-Pujara’s lecture on slavery in Rhode Island was both informative and eye-opening. I was not aware that the economy of Rhode Island was so reliant on the business of slavery, or for so long. Discussions of slavery often put great emphasis on the southern slave states, while the north is seen as a place where slavery was not quite as prominent. As I learned, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, Rhode Island was one of the first colonies to become involved in the slave trade, and its economy quickly became reliant upon it. Interestingly, one of the main functions of northern slavery was to sustain southern slaves, manufacturing and exporting clothing and rum. Having lived here all my life, placing all of this within the context of Rhode Island made it all the more unsettling. The vast majority of slave ships in Rhode Island left from either Newport or Providence, two places I frequent often. Another unsettling fact is this: during the peak of the slave trade, 25% of the Newport population was enslaved.

As enlightening as all this information was, Clark-Pujara made it clear that what she wanted to get across is how the business of slavery shaped the experience of slavery. To me, this is far more captivating. Facts are facts, but there’s little point in discussing them for their own sake. Facts are like compact representations. The real question is: what do they mean? What’s more important are the slaves themselves, their experience, and how these realities affected their lives. That is, in one massive way: the reliance of Rhode Island economy on slave labor effectively stalled emancipation. The well-being of slaves was held second to the well-being of the economy, as it would have been destroyed had slave labor been removed all at once. Despite this, slaves found ways to resist, rebel and stand up against the oppression.

What Clark-Pujara seemed to stress most of all was the slaves’ resilience. They did not simply lie down and accept their fate. They instead invested in themselves by establishing mutual aid societies for the welfare of their communities, and “attached these institutions to national institutions in pursuit of equality,” Clark-Pujara explained. She also emphasized the fact that slavery was essentially broken down by the slaves themselves through their actions, not simply as a result of the Gradual Emancipation Laws, illustrating their fortitude in the face of oppression. She expressed this in an extremely concise and effective way, saying that the gradual emancipation laws “reflected” the actions of the slaves rather than “catalyzed” their eventual freedom. The Gradual Emancipation Laws alone did not necessarily free the slaves; they were already in the process of freeing themselves.

This lecture was not just a stream of facts and information, it was a look at the history of people who took their lives into their own hands, and who refused to submit to the oppression thrust upon them. Clark-Pujara emphasized the importance of this particular history, and of historical knowledge in general. The slaves in Rhode Island (or anywhere else, for that matter) were not merely passive participants in their oppression; they took control and fought for freedom until it was theirs. Clark-Pujara talked about how important it is that this information persists through the years. It reminds us of how important it is to maintain autonomy, to stay conscious, and to remain vigilant in the face of injustice.

To me, this talk highlighted the importance of investigating common misconceptions within our sphere of “general knowledge.” It speaks to me even more as I become increasingly aware of the grand narratives that inhabit our lives. Today, there is an abundance of information on every subject you could possibly imagine. And often, misconceptions cut through, for example, in this case, the misconception that slavery was not prominent in the north, or that all slaves were granted freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th amendment. Thus, it is imperative that one thinks critically about the information that is being handed to them. Maybe the information that is easiest to come by isn’t the most accurate or thought through. Sometimes you need to go out of your way to find the truth. That’s precisely what happened to me in attending this lecture, as I learned things I may never have learned otherwise. And again, it’s not about the facts or the numbers, necessarily, however interesting they may be. It’s about the reality behind them. It’s about staying conscious; of history, and what it can teach us about the woclarkrld we live in today.

Clark-Pujara’s 2016 book, “Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island”, goes further in depth on the subjects she discussed in her lecture. For anyone interested in learning more, here is a fantastic opportunity to educate yourself on this crucial history.

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