One of Rhode Island’s claims to fame is being the “Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.”
The mills and dams from that accomplishment are still standing, molding the cityscapes of the Ocean State.
A legacy less spoken of is Rhode Island’s stature as the home of this country’s slave trade.
“More than 60 percent of every slave ship that left North America, left from a port in Rhode Island,” Christy Clark-Pujara, who is an assistant professor of history in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told NBC 10 News on Friday.
That means almost every part of colonial Rhode Island’s economy was dependent on slaves.
“When you have shipbuilders, sailors, coopers the are making barrels. Foodstuffs are filling these slave ships. It was the center of the economy,” she said.
It funded infrastructure, as well.
“Duties that were paid on slaves paid for public work projects throughout the state,” she said. “The streets of Newport were paved with duties paid on slaves.”
Back to the water-powered factories that sprung up along Rhode Island rivers, the workplaces were all white, with no people of color allowed.
But the cotton that was spun into thread, and then into cloth, was all connected to slavery.
Joey DeFrancesco, also a historian and tour guide, explained.
“That cotton is all being picked, sorted, packed up and shipped up north from southern slave plantations,” DeFrancesco said.
Most Rhode Islanders are not aware of how much the state, as well as the nation, relied on slavery and its products to create the wealth that made America so powerful. That’s not an accident, according to historians.
“Slavery has always been a part of the history of this place,” Clark-Pujara said. “It hasn’t always been part of the stories that people chose to tell about Rhode Island.”
DeFrancesca said the reason is simple, noting that people are more comfortable when they “pretend it was just a southern problem pretend it was a sin that didn’t stain Northern hands.”
The problem with ignoring the history is that racial discrimination persists because white people are ignorant of the inherent advantages they’ve reaped from, initially, the free labor, and then later, from a paucity of opportunity.
“The racial disparities that we see in education, incarceration, home ownership are legacies of hundreds of years of discrimination,” said Clark-Pujara. “It isn’t as if some people worked hard and were smart with their money and others were just layabouts. Other people had opportunities that others didn’t.”
For a just society to emerge, she said, there must be as conscious an effort to undo the disadvantages imposed on black Americans, as there was a systematic effort to deny political and social rights to former slaves.
The Dig podcast put together a three-day symposium on the role of slavery in the state’s economy from May 2 to May 4. Click here to learn more.