Just before 9 a.m. Friday, dozens of fourth-grade students from Smithfield and Cranston filed off school buses and into Rhode Island’s State House, jostling into groups and marveling at the massive staircases below the soaring dome. For these students, Rhode Island’s colonial history came alive, as they had the chance to read an actual letter from the 1600s and meet Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.
The field trip was timely, coming just one day before Rhode Island Independence Day on May.
The first stop brought students to the State House library, where, surrounded by hundreds of years of Rhode Island publications, they learned about the difference between primary and secondary sources from Lane Sparkman, the education and public programs coordinator in the Secretary of State’s office. From the earliest laws of the colony to the beginning of settler-Native American relations, the presentation allowed students to dive into Rhode Island’s colonial history.
“It’s really important to know our history,” Gorbea told the first group of students. “We need to protect our documents and our history so we can continue to learn from them.”
The Foundations in History program, funded by the Rhode Island Foundation’s Carter Roger Williams Initiative, has served more than 2,000 students since it was started several years ago. The program brings together several Rhode Island institutions: the Tomaquag Museum, Roger Williams Memorial National Park and the Secretary of State’s office to provide a complete look at the state’s earliest history.
“Without the Narragansett people, there would have been no Roger Williams, no ‘lively experiment.’ He would have starved to death without their help,” said Loren Spears, the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, the state’s only museum celebrating the history of indigenous people.
Students also had the opportunity to visit the charter room, a small, dimly lit room near the State House visitor center. There, Park Ranger John McNiff set the scene of New England’s colonial history in the shadow of the state’s original royal charter.
“It’s a great way to experience Rhode Island history, and the kids have all been really well behaved and interested. There are always lots of really good questions,” McNiff said. “At this age, they’re like little sponges for information.”
Preserving local history has been a cornerstone of Gorbea’s tenure as secretary of state, as she has made it her mission to promote and protect the wealth of documents in the state archive.
“Knowing our history is essential for crafting a better future,” Gorbea said.
Gorbea said she is shocked by how little Rhode Islanders know about their state’s history, as there is “so much to be proud of.”
“We’ve had our missteps, of course, including our central role in the slave trade and the eventual breakdown of relations with the Native Americans,” Gorbea added. “But we had such an important role in the country’s colonial history, and we don’t stand in the shadow of any state, even Massachusetts.”
For that reason, promoting the state’s archive has been a top priority. Gorbea has long pushed for the creation of a new state archives building and museum.