This is a web publication of an article that appears in print in the Winter/Spring 2020 issue of the peer-reviewed publication Newport History: Journal of the Newport Historical Society. Printed here with permission of the author.
In his “Abolition and Anti-Abolition in Newport, Rhode Island, 1835-1866,” Joey La Neve DeFrancesco details how a determined and cohesive African-American community in Newport succeeded in building institutions that had a profound impact on the lives of black Newporters in the nineteenth century. During the same period, DeFrancesco notes, the intertwined family, business and social ties of Newport politicians and merchants with Southern plantation owners led to a vigorous anti-black campaign to quash abolitionist efforts in Newport and Rhode Island. This article details how, over decades, the African-American community of Newport overcame the maneuvers of the local powerful pro-slavery bloc. Joey La Neve DeFrancesco is a public historian, organizer, and musician. He has created numerous programs at Rhode Island museums, and has published several magazine articles on the state’s history. He was a Newport Historical Society Buchanan Burnham Summer Scholar in 2019, and is currently pursuing an M.A. in history at the University of Rhode Island.
Elizabeth C. Stevens
Editor, Newport History
Abolition and Anti-Abolition in Newport,
Joey La Neve DeFrancesco
William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, called Newport “a stronghold of slavery…[the] Charleston or New Orleans of New England.”1 His comments came in the wake of an 1836 Newport town meeting in which freeholders voted to pass resolutions denouncing abolitionists, endorsing white-supremacy, and calling for a gag rule to ban the printing of antislavery publications. Newport’s pro-slavery representatives then presented the resolutions to the Rhode Island General Assembly for state-wide implementation, all at the behest of southerners who were urging their northern allies to stifle abolitionists.2
The episode demonstrates the power structure of 1830s and 1840s Newport: an elite with strong southern ties ruled the town and fought to impose a pro-slavery agenda, all with the backing of the leading newspaper, the Newport Mercury, as well as the state legislature and federal government. But another Newport story emerges in the time period, one of continuous resistance grounded in the town’s black institutions with ties stretching back to the country’s first black mutual aid organization, the Free African Union Society, established in 1781. This article examines the intensity of pro-slavery sentiment among Newport’s political elite, and how organized resistance stemming from the town’s black community created a dynamic opposition capable of winning demonstrable victories. An examination of key battles in the period illuminates how the struggle played out. Antislavery initiatives in the 1830s like the “postal campaign” were met with aggressive retaliation, such as the aforementioned gag rule meant to silence abolitionists. In the 1840s, the state-wide suffrage struggle known as the Dorr Rebellion saw white Newporters on both sides of the conflict take anti-abolition positions, while black Rhode Islanders leveraged their power to ultimately win the vote for black men. The fault lines continued into civil rights battles beyond the Civil War, as Newport’s black community successfully outmaneuvered segregationist forces to win school integration in 1866.
Colonial Newport’s profound connection with the slave trade and southern plantation economy has been well-documented. In the early eighteenth century, the city’s merchants began sailing to the West Indies to trade goods with slave plantation colonies like Barbados and Suriname, exchanging finished goods manufactured in New England for molasses and raw materials. The distilling of that molasses into rum became one of Newport’s main industries, with some eighteen rum distilleries operating in the town by 1750.3 By the mid-eighteenth century, Newport’s merchants were also directly established in the slave trade, trading rum for captive Africans on the Windward and Gold Coasts, then transporting those enslaved people to plantations and markets in the West Indies and the American South. Newport became the most dominant slave-trade point of departure in British North America.4 Many enslaved people were also brought directly to Newport, and by the mid-century, people of color made up between ten and twenty percent of the city’s population, most of them enslaved. Newport’s enslaved people were often set to labor in the same maritime industries as the merchants who brought them to the town, such as rum distilling, seafaring, and rope-making. The West Indies and trans-Atlantic trade, as well as the uncompensated labor of enslaved people, created great fortunes and enormous political power for a few Newport families. The Wantons, for example, came to dominate Newport politics via the capital they accumulated in the West Indies and trans-Atlantic trades, as well as in privateering.5
While some historians imagine that Newport’s connection to the business of slavery fell off with the disruption of the American Revolution, Newport merchants quickly picked up the trade after the war. Many were particularly motivated when Charleston, South Carolina reopened its slave markets between the years 1803-1807, after having closed them for much of the postwar period. Indeed, Newport traders continued their trade right up until 1808, when a Federal ban outlawed their nefarious commerce.6 Some Rhode Island merchants illegally continued slaving after 1808, by bribing, evading, and intimidating authorities.7
The business of slavery forged social and political connections between Rhode Island and the American South. Southerners began coming to Newport to vacation in the eighteenth century, drawn by the appeal of a milder climate away from the malaria and heat of Charleston and Savannah summers.8 The wealthy, plantation-owning Calhoun family of South Carolina, for instance, were early Newport vacationers. In 1804, future South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun courted his first cousin and later wife Floride Bonneau Colhoun while on a trip to visit family in Newport, where Floride regularly summered and played organ at Trinity Church.9 Powerful planter families like the Middletons and Izards began coming to Newport as early as the 1760s. Well into the nineteenth century, southerners would bring enslaved people to their Newport residences to perform domestic work in the summer months.10 The close ties also flowed in the opposite direction, as with Rhode Island merchant Richard Arnold, who bought plantations outside Savannah and spent half his year there overseeing hundreds of slaves. Rhode Island Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene also moved to Georgia after the war, living on a confiscated Loyalist slave plantation until his death in 1786.11
The southern tourists would ultimately contribute to the revival of Newport’s economy. By 1800, Newport had largely recovered from the depression caused by the British occupation of the 1770s, but the town’s maritime economy permanently collapsed following the 1807 Embargo Acts, 1808 Federal slave trade ban, and finally the War of 1812, which traumatically interrupted U.S. shipping.12 As trade died, tourism increasingly grew to be Newport’s main economic engine, and southerners led the way. From 1800 through the 1840s, more and more southern aristocratic families first traveled to Newport’s hotels, then came to purchase residences. The first mansion built on Bellevue Ave was Kingscote, constructed in 1841 for Florida plantation owner George Noble Jones. In an 1836 letter to the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society, abolitionist Theodore Weld labeled the state, “the summer resort of thousands who hold slaves at the South”; an overestimation of southerners’ numbers, but still an accurate characterization.13 Northern vacationers began arriving in large numbers in the 1830s, and soon the wealthy from Boston and New York came to dominate the Newport summer scene. The elite from all regions socialized harmoniously in Newport summers, and a strong southern presence remained until the Civil War.14
Newport’s two most powerful political figures in the 1830s and early 1840s —Richard Kidder Randolph (R.K. Randolph) and Benjamin Hazard — demonstrate the southern connection’s effect on the town’s power structure. R. K. Randolph was a nephew of President William Henry Harrison, and a descendent of the prominent Virginia colonist and planter William Randolph, with blood connections to Peyton Randolph, Thomas Jefferson, and other Southern politicians. He was born in Virginia to a wealthy planter family before moving to Newport and marrying Anna Maria Lyman, a daughter of Newporters Daniel and Mary “Polly” Lyman.15 Anna Maria’s mother, Mary Lyman, was the daughter of John G. and Mary Wanton. Wanton family members were heavily involved in the slave and West Indies trades, and were direct descendants of Rhode Island colonial governors Gideon Wanton and Henry Bull. Anna Maria’s father, Daniel Lyman, was a lawyer and served as Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, before moving to northern Rhode Island where he helped found the Lyman Manufacturing Company.16 The marriage of R. K. Randolph and Anna Maria Lyman neatly reflected a union of economic and political interests between northern and southern elites. Newport faithfully elected R. K. Randolph as a representative to the Rhode Island General Assembly throughout the 1830s and 1840s,17 where he was one of the state’s most vocal anti-abolition, pro-southern advocates.18
Benjamin Hazard led Newport in the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1809 until his retirement in 1840, a year before his death in 1841. A lawyer by trade, Benjamin was the son of Thomas G. Hazard, a wealthy farmer from Kingston, Rhode Island’s Hazard clan, who built their wealth operating plantations worked by enslaved people in South County, Rhode Island. In the early nineteenth century, the Hazards transferred their capital into the Peace Dale Manufacturing Company—named for Mary Peace, the South Carolina-born mother of brothers Jonathan, Isaac, and Rowland Hazard19—a textile factory which specialized in so-called “negro cloth,” a cheap fabric sold to southern plantations to clothe enslaved people.20 Benjamin’s mother was Mary Easton, daughter of Jonathan Easton, a direct descendant of Nicholas Easton, one of the original founders of Newport.21 Like R. K. Randolph, Benjamin Hazard married a daughter of Daniel and Mary Lyman, Harriet Lyman. Benjamin and Harriet Hazard inherited the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, now a historical monument and museum, and lived there until their deaths. Hazard led the state’s anti-abolition forces, and served as speaker for much of his tenure in the General Assembly.22 Newport voters — at the time only native-born adult white males holding at least $134 in property — evidently supported his efforts, as they routinely gave him the most votes of any of the six representatives Newport sent to the statehouse.23
Newport politics, then, were dominated by two men who were united in economic interest and family relation to both the northern and southern aristocracy. Randolph and Hazard were joined in their political efforts by other Newport representatives from the town’s old, wealthy families, such as H.Y. Cranston and Henry Bull, who supported Randolph and Hazard in their pro-slavery measures.24 Beyond their local influence, these men held disproportionately large political power statewide because of Rhode Island’s unique political set-up, which still operated under its 1663 colonial charter, established when Newport was the colony’s population center. Despite having a substantially smaller population than Providence by 1830, Newport retained six representatives in the General Assembly, as opposed to four each from Providence, Warwick, and Portsmouth, and two from every other town. Hazard and Randolph were able to wield undue influence across the state via an undemocratically large Newport delegation.25
In Gentlemen of Property and Standing, Leonard L. Richards analyzes the anti-abolition movement in 1830s America, and concludes that its leaders were generally rich, influential Northerners who feared losing their long-established power. Leaders were “largely professional and commercial…‘gentlemen of property and standing’ who regarded organized antislavery as a threat to their elite status…and moral leadership.”26 Newport’s anti-abolition movement, as represented by Hazard and Randolph, fits that description to some extent. These men had deep, multi-generational connections to money and power, and they worked wholesale against democratic reforms. But Hazard, Randolph, and others, also had a more direct economic self-interest in the preservation of slavery. Randolph had close family ties to Virginia’s planter class, and he and Hazard were both connected via their father-in-law to the Lyman Manufacturing Company, a Rhode Island textile mill dependent on slave-grown southern cotton. Hazard was a primary partner in the company.27 Newport anti-abolitionist leaders had an active material interest in an economic system rooted in slavery, and they fought to uphold that system.
Anti-abolition sentiment was also rooted in an anti-blackness that had long permeated colonial New England. Rhode Island began to phase out slavery with gradual abolition in 1784, but did not eradicate it until 1842. In the colonial era, black codes were established that monitored free and enslaved black residents with laws prohibiting congregating in large numbers, banning enslaved people from speaking with free people, and imposing curfews, to name a few aspects.28 Through the late 1700s and into the 1800s, as a free black population became of growing concern for white Newporters, town and state governments implemented policies for controlling black residents. “Warning out” became a key method for controlling and lowering the black population across the north. Towns would simply expel residents who did not properly qualify for citizenship in a given municipality. Governments used great racial prejudice in determining who was worthy of citizenship, and black residents were warned out of northern cities and towns at dramatically higher rates than whites.29 Newport also passed a law requiring that a one-hundred pound fine be placed on anyone manumitting a slave, to cover the “great charge, trouble and inconveniences” of the existence of free black residents.30 While Euro-immigrant groups were rewarded for assimilating, whites lashed out more fiercely with every step of black advancement.31 Free black Rhode Islanders were barred from most economic opportunities, including the growing textile mills, and were forced into lower paying jobs, such as in domestic work or as merchant marines.32 Rhode Island’s nineteenth-century anti-blackness was perhaps most violently expressed in Providence’s Hardscrabble riot of 1824, and Snow Town riot of 1831. In both cases, white mobs attacked predominantly black areas, burning and dismantling black owned homes and businesses, decimating the neighborhoods.33
While anti-abolitionists maintained hold of formal political power in antebellum Newport, a movement for abolition and for black civil rights was simultaneously building. These freedom struggles emerged from — and remained deeply rooted in —black communities and institutions that provided the membership, support, and physical spaces for the organizations that won victories from the 1830s through the 1860s.
Several works have mapped how free and enslaved black Newporters survived and resisted throughout the eighteenth century, from maintaining community festivals such as Election Days, to winning freedom by fighting for the Patriots or escaping to the British during the war, to countless other daily acts.34 In 1780, free black male Newporters founded the first black mutual aid society in the United States, the Free African Union Society (FAUS), also known as the African Union Society (AUS). FAUS’s membership paid dues and distributed the funds to members in need, whether to assist with those overcome with illness, or to provide money for proper burials. The Society also tracked marriages, births and deaths, and generally worked to organize and uplift the town’s black community. Their outward correspondences and internal meeting minutes thoroughly condemned slavery, racism, and the slave trade throughout the Atlantic world.35 At a September 1791 meeting, the group created a remarkable document denouncing the slave trade and demanding that members cut off relationships with anyone in the black community participating in the slave trade: “it [is] our indispensable duty not to associate ourselves to those who are of the African Race that do, or hereafter be the Means of bringing, from their Native Country, the Males, Females, Boys & Girls from Africa into Bondage.”36 Through their antislavery activities and proclamations, the FAUS formed the foundation for what would become Newport abolitionism in the 1830s and 1840s, and the civil rights struggles into the 1860s.
Due to internal strife stemming from a lack of resources, the original FAUS disbanded briefly, then reestablished itself once more as the African Union Society (AUS). In 1802, it then became the African Humane Society, which continued until the creation of the Union Church in 1824, and possibly after. Alongside the AUS, other institutions emerged, including the African Benevolent Society (ABS) and the Female African Benevolent Society. The African Benevolent Society was founded out of a general meeting of black Newporters in 1807, and was led by a number of FAUS members. The ABS founded a school for the town’s black children and gave aid to impoverished black residents. The ABS continued until 1844, when it disbanded after the municipal government began operating a segregated school for black students.37
Besides laying the groundwork for future struggles, these institutions were enormously important on their own. As Akeia Benard argues,
In New England, where African Americans lived within the homes and institutions of those who enslaved them…violent revolt and rebellion were rare but formal methods of resistance were common, such as the implementation of African societies, the development of African churches and schools, emigration schemes, and support for abolition…most of the formal methods of resistance in New England sought to counter the ideology of black inferiority by developing separate parallel institutions.38
Early institutions were also a key strategy in “creat[ing] an African identity as a political discourse,” a means to maintain group solidarity in the face of attempted white domination.39
In 1824, members largely from these earlier organizations formed the Colored Union Church and Society, a non-denominational Christian church meant to provide people of color in Newport with their own house of worship. The church’s founding statement read, “We people of color of all denominations must come together to form one church though we may differ in certain ways that we can agree on love and holding communion,” and expressed the goal “to uplift our children and the people of color generally in this town.” The Church’s founders included leaders from the early days of the Free African Union Society, including Newport Gardner and Samuel Hicks.40 Other church founders, such as Isaac Rice, Cesar Bonner, Cudjo Hicks, Turnbridge Hammond, and John Mowatt, had been key members of the African Benevolent Society. Another of the earliest members of the Free African Union Society, Charles Chaloner, was the father of Francis Chaloner, one of the Union Church’s future core leaders.41
Whites had long specifically attempted to control black religious life — notably in the wake of preacher Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia — and so the creation of a separate, black-led church was a powerful expression of independence.42 Beyond serving as a house of worship, the Church worked to host a school for children, operate a space for a music school, and to create a community of leaders who would lead struggles for abolition and civil rights for decades to come. It is notable that since the church’s founding, the members held a distinct view that the institution must be a black-controlled institution, and so all members and leaders were black Newporters. At the founding of the Union Church, the minutes show there was a “White Assistant Committee” that aided in outlining the group’s theological goals, and it is noted that they were only “present being invited by the people of color to attend and deliberate on the subject.” A similar policy existed in the African Benevolent Society, whereby whites could only hold a small number of board seats, and could never take over the organization.43
While there is significant continuity of membership between the Free African Union Society, African Benevolent Society, Union Church, and later antislavery efforts, this was no monolithic community. As with any group, divisions existed among black Newporters along class and gender lines, the most obvious being that the AUS only permitted free men to join, and all societies required the paying of dues, thereby excluding those without money to contribute.44 Perhaps the most significant rupture occurred in 1826 when two dozen people, led by AUS members like Newport Gardner, sailed from Boston to modern-day Liberia to found a settlement.45 While the voyage seems to have ended with most of the emigrants dying of illness, the expedition had been a dream of many FAUS members for decades, and should be seen as a significant organizational feat.
There is no indication of dissent to the colonization plan in the FAUS, ABS, or Union Church minutes, but there were many leaders in the FAUS and ABS who did not go on the voyage, suggesting that they either could not go due to a lack of resources, or chose not to go based on ideological differences. The Union Church minutes have a significant gap from 1826-1828, when the organization was presumably recovering from the loss of members. Just a few years later, caterer, gardener, and organizer Isaac Rice began distributing the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in Newport, which espoused an explicitly anti-colonization viewpoint, denouncing the American Colonization Society as racist and counterproductive to emancipation.46 Dozens of Union Church members, some of whom had worked with Newport Gardner and others in the FAUS or ABS, would join the Newport Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, which similarly condemned colonization. It is difficult to determine if the opposition to colonization stemmed from the experience of many leaders leaving in 1826, or if an ideological opposition had long been present. Regardless, as Benard observes, the existence of such internal disagreement and stratification is in fact a powerful indicator “of an independent and functional community.”47
Before formal abolitionist societies were founded in the state, black Rhode Islanders were at the forefront of antislavery organizing, hosting antislavery lecturers in black churches and raising funds for national efforts. The activities of the FAUS and ABS were antislavery resistance, as were of course the actions of enslaved people who fled their masters or otherwise won their freedom through petition, advocacy, or purchasing. The first statewide abolitionist group — the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society — was established at a convention in February 1836. A number of smaller societies had formed in the years prior, including the Providence Anti-Slavery Society, Pawtucket Anti-Slavery Society, and Providence Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. In November 1836, the Newport Anti-Slavery Society held its first meeting as an auxiliary of the state group. In line with Garrisonian ideology, the society called for immediate emancipation, denounced colonization schemes, and supported free black people’s fights for equality in the north.48
In some cities, official abolition societies were largely white, and often separated from black-led freedom struggles.49 In Newport, the movement was far more integrated, and in fact grounded in black Newporters’ earlier organizations. The Newport Anti-Slavery Society physically met in the Union Church’s building, meaning the Union Church supported their efforts at a time when many churches — including Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers — banned abolitionist meetings. Anti-Slavery Society meetings regularly began with a prayer led by black minister Reverend Jacob Perry, who was also a member and minister at the Union Church.50
Comparing the Newport Anti-Slavery Society minutes with the Union Church minutes demonstrates the significant overlap in membership between the groups. At least thirty-four names appear as members in both books, and there were almost certainly more who are not listed. The overall number of black members in the Anti-Slavery Society was even higher. In the signature list at the founding of the society, the clerk marked black member names with a “C” next to them. From that, we can clearly identify 94 black members, and 71 white members. Another 52 members signed whose race is unclear, as they appear to have been added later and their race is not clearly marked. In either case, at least half, and likely the majority of the founders of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society were black.51
The founding officers, however, were all white men, and the fact that members of color were marked separately speaks to a prejudice. But soon after we do see black men taking leadership positions as officers and delegates. Several Union Church members were elected as Vice Presidents of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society within its first few years. Isaac Rice, John Mowatt, and Jacob Perry — all also leaders in the Union Church — were elected delegates from the Newport Anti-Slavery Society to both Rhode Island and national conventions.52 It is harder to track the activities of black women using the minute books, as their names only appear occasionally on lists following large votes. From those lists, though, we can at least be sure that significant numbers of black women participated in the Anti-Slavery society. In fact, slightly more than half of the signatures that appear in both the Union Church and Anti-Slavery Society books were women, including Eliza Weeden, Sarah Anne Rice, Susan Flagg, and many others. The Newport Anti-Slavery Society, then, was firmly embedded in the longer struggle for black freedom built from the Free African Union Society, African Benevolent Society, and Union Church. The one man who best embodied that continuity is Isaac Rice. Rice (1792-1866) worked in Newport for decades as a caterer and gardener, was a leader in the African Union Society, then went on to found the Union Church and serve as its clerk off-and-on for decades. He was later a founder of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society, where he held various leadership positions, and served as a delegate to both the statewide and national antislavery conventions. Rice appears on the town’s voter roll in the first elections that allowed black men to vote in 1843. His home on William and Thomas Streets in Newport is said to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.53
White Newporters also participated in the abolition movement. White involvement can be traced back to the Providence Abolition Society, formed in 1783 by Providence Quaker merchant Moses Brown and Newport Congregationalist theologian Samuel Hopkins. The Society worked to free individual enslaved people, lobbied for gradual abolition laws, and prosecuted cases against slave traders. The Society largely died out in the early nineteenth century, but in his last years Moses Brown gave important assistance to the burgeoning Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society, providing funds and even interceding when a mob attempted to attack lecturer George Thompson in 1835.54 When the Newport Anti-Slavery Society first formed, its white officers included men such as George and Richard Shaw, Edward W. Lawton, and Samuel and John Pratt. Most of these white members were from middle- and working-class families and backgrounds. The Shaws and Pratts, for instance, worked as ministers. George and Richard Shaw served on the “White Assistant Committee” at the founding of the Union Church in 1824, suggesting they were embedded in the black-led movement prior to their role in the Anti-Slavery Society.55
White women were initially barred from leadership in Rhode Island’s antislavery societies, but from the beginning formed a large proportion of their ranks. As Deborah Bingham Van Broekhoven has documented, white women came to take leadership in abolitionist groups in the later 1830s and early 1840s, doing much of the day-to-day labor keeping organizations afloat. Sophia Little was the most prominent of Newport’s white female abolitionists. Little helped lead both the Newport and Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Societies, and was a prolific writer and poet, penning multiple articles for The Liberator as well as abolitionist novels such as Thrice Through the Furnace: A Tale of the Times of the Iron Hoof. Van Broekhoven writes that Little helped at least one enslaved person who was in Newport with a vacationing Southern master escape to Canada.56
Postal Campaign and the Rhode Island Gag Rule
The Postal Campaign was the nascent American Anti-Slavery Society’s first large-scale, collective effort, and it led directly to Rhode Island’s first significant nineteenth-century battle between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists. The American Anti-Slavery Society formed in 1833, its organization timed to coincide with emancipation in the British West Indies.57 In its early years, the group focused on promoting lecture tours and distributing literature. In 1835, it began a nationally coordinated “postal campaign” to mail antislavery pamphlets, newspapers, pincushions, and more to the southern states.58 Pro-slavery forces had previously reviled and attacked abolitionists, with an uptick in 1831 after Nat Turner’s slave rebellion and the founding of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. But they viewed the postal campaign as an intolerable escalation, terrifying in its coordination, and so responded with unprecedented repression and violence on abolitionists and black communities in general.59 Mobs burned the abolitionist mail at post offices across the south. On August 15, 1835, the Newport Mercury printed in full the Federal Postmaster’s letter to the Charleston Post Office, in which he stated that the destruction of abolitionist mail was illegal, but that given the circumstances was justified.60 On August 29, 1835, the Mercury followed up the story with a longer piece describing how postmasters across the United States unanimously condemned the abolitionists’ use of the mail.61
Political leaders and newspapers in the north and south accused the abolitionists of inciting slave revolts, tearing apart the union, and promoting “amalgamation,” a term frequently used by anti-abolitionists to describe interracial marriage and breeding. President Jackson fanned the flames, denouncing the abolitionists as “unconstitutional and wicked” and recommending a federal law prohibiting the mailing of “incendiary publications, intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection.”62 Anti-abolition and anti-black riots targeted black neighborhoods and individuals, as well as abolitionists’ offices and homes, in New York, Cincinnati, Utica, and throughout the north.63
The Newport Mercury parroted this anti-abolitionist, pro-Southern perspective throughout 1835 and beyond. A July 25, 1835 story recalled dignified “southern gentlemen” holding a meeting in New York to condemn abolitionists and declare that only southerners had the right to decide questions on slavery. Later that summer, an August 29 article lauded anti-abolition meetings happening across the South, describing the New Orleans meeting as “one of the most respectable meetings ever held.” A week later on September 5th, a Newport Mercury headline read “Another Outrage!” in relation to abolitionists supposedly distributing pamphlets to enslaved people in Louisiana.64
Newport anti-abolitionism was not restricted to print, and soon spilled over into mob actions to shut down abolitionist meetings. In 1832, Arnold Buffum attempted to hold an antislavery meeting in Newport, but encountered so much opposition that he was forced to retreat to Massachusetts.65 Henry B. Stanton was the first agent assigned to Rhode Island by the American Anti-Slavery Society. He conducted his first lecture tour of the state from mid-June 1835 to February 1836, visiting twenty-four towns amidst the heightened tensions surrounding the postal campaign. Some meetings were relatively peaceful, but protestors shut down his Newport event, and Stanton was served a writ as a vagrant in East Greenwich.66 In the spring of 1836, abolitionist William Goodell traveled to Newport to deliver a speech on temperance — an issue often attached to abolitionism among middle-class reformers — but was thwarted when pro-slavery men there “paid someone twenty five cents to ring a bell and go through the town announcing his scheduled temperance lecture as an ‘Amalgamation lecture — Temperance and Antislavery — ladies advised not to attend.’”67 Some years later, amidst the Dorr Rebellion in 1842, Frederick Douglass and other abolition leaders again returned to Rhode Island for speaking engagements, and their attempted Newport meetings were repeatedly broken up by rioters.68
In 1837, as tensions were slightly subdued, abolitionist Harriett Peck wrote her parents expressing surprise and joy that Henry Stanton and Amos Phelps had succeeded in giving an antislavery lecture in Newport, specifically noting that many vacationing slave-owners would be present: “It rejoices me also to hear of the anti-slavery meeting at Newport, that so much is gained. Thou mentioned that [abolitionist leader] Dr. Clark was present. It was doubtless a rich feast to him. And how did it relish with the slave holders that were present?”69
Abolitionists soldiered on despite the repression. In fact, the period saw a rapid increase in the number of antislavery societies. It was during the postal campaign crisis that the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society held its first convention in February 1836, and the Newport society formed the same year, as did auxiliaries in Kent County, Pawtucket, Providence, and elsewhere in the state. In many areas, women created separate antislavery auxiliaries, and Pawtucket even had a children’s auxiliary. For some abolitionists, Newport’s position as a pro-slavery northern outpost was a unique opportunity to engage southern planters on turf that, while not comfortable, was certainly safer than South Carolina or Georgia. Noting the “thousands of southerners visiting Newport,” Stanton urged abolitionists to “make the moral atmosphere so hot, that next summer, it will melt or consume them.” For others like Sophia Little, though, actually living in Newport proved more wearisome, and she wrote repeatedly to her abolitionist friends in Boston of how isolated she felt in the city.70
After the postal campaign, Southerners urged their northern allies to prosecute abolitionists and silence their presses.71 Most northern states stopped short of legislating against abolitionists’ free speech, but Newport representatives Benjamin Hazard and R. K. Randolph pursued their southern friends’ request. The representatives called for an anti-abolition meeting to be held on September 14, 1835, at Newport’s Colony House. The meeting was attended by the town’s voters, and the group drafted and unanimously passed a statement and a set of resolutions outlining their pro-slavery ideology along with proposals to stifle abolitionists.72
The anti-abolitionist meeting’s statement is no veiled, genteel northern bigotry. Rather, it is an encyclopedia of the blatantly racist pro-slavery arguments promoted by the period’s southern and northern elite. The document proposed that emancipation would be “productive of far greater evils, not only to the white population, but to the slaves themselves,” and stated that the people of African descent are “a race whom nature has distinguished by indelible marks, and whom the most zealous advocates of their equality admit to be, if not a distinct species, at least a variety of the human species…which will always be looked upon as an inferior set of beings.” It continued, arguing that people of African descent were unfit for self-government, and that “the condition of moderate servitude under humane proprietors, and the protection of humane laws, is their happiest condition.”73
Having made the case against emancipation, the town meeting statement demanded the question of slavery be exclusively decided by “our brethren in the slave states,” and noted that southern states had the right to “repel and punish” any interference in slavery. The men concluded that northern states must do their part to prevent citizens from engaging in abolitionist activities, and proposed that any who did so be punished. The resolution concluded:
…[any attempts] to render the slaves of the south discontented with their lot, to inflame them with hatred and revenge against their masters, and thus excite them to insurrection, with all its train of horrors — involving the destruction of the slaves themselves — are crimes the most atrocious, and for which no punishment can be too severe, for those who are guilty of such attempts are conspirators against the peace, safety, rights and lives of the whole white population of the slave holding states, and the union itself.
As a remedy, the resolution called for silencing the abolitionist press, asserting that “the freedom of the press will be best secured by guarding it against such abuses as these abolitionists have prostituted it to.” The meeting then moved to have Newport’s state representatives present the resolutions to the state General Assembly for passage into a statewide gag rule.74
The statement and resolutions are all the more notable for their length, forming by far the longest entry in the town meeting book for 1834-1843. No other issue is so thoroughly dissected. The Newport meeting inspired a similar one in Providence on November 2 that was also led by the city’s power elite of politicians, manufacturers and merchants.75 In historian John Gilkeson’s framework, Rhode Island’s political and business elites held these meetings “as a sign to anxious southerners that the ‘large majority’ of the city’s inhabitants, particularly its merchant elite, did not condone abolitionist agitation.”76 Anti-abolitionist meetings were also held that fall in Pawtucket and Woonsocket. Only in Newport, however, did the meeting produce such thorough statements and resolutions, and only in Newport were the resolutions passed by a general vote of freeholders.
Benjamin Hazard followed through on the Newport meeting resolution in February 1836 when he submitted a so-called “gag rule” bill to the General Assembly to censor abolitionist materials. The Newport Mercury closely followed the bill’s progress, often detailing debates between Hazard and Thomas Dorr, the future Suffrage Party leader who became the head of the opposition to the bill. Anti-slavery societies in and around Rhode Island ramped up organizing around the legislation, and free speech became a key abolitionist talking point. The Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society intentionally held its initial convention as the bill was first being debated over February 2-4, 1836. Some 850 abolitionists signed onto the petition calling the convention, and delegates arrived from across the state. George C. Shaw, President of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society, and one of the members of the Union Church’s White Assistant Committee, was elected as a Vice President.77 Henry Stanton saw the convention as a powerful strategy to kill the gag rule, writing that he wanted legislators to look their constituents “in the face when they pass laws to gag them. A large, very large Convention…will stifle the gag rule at its birth.”78
During the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Convention, delegates wrote a general statement and established the society’s principles and by-laws. They declared themselves immediatists — favoring immediate emancipation over any gradual schemes —condemned colonization, and pledged to fight for the civil rights of free black people in the north. They upheld the equality of people of all races, in stark opposition to the document produced by the Newport anti-abolitionists the previous September. The gag-rule emerged as the convention’s central issue. Delegates repeatedly denounced the proposed law, which they saw as emerging from the sordid economic interests bonding northern and southern elites. Their statement read:
Whether the Aristocracy of the North and the slaveholders of the South have literally combined together for the overthrow of liberty, or whether they are drawn to act in concert by the operation of moral affinities or identity of interest, matters little to the main point. It is sufficient to know the fact that they act together, and so act that liberty is not only endangered but outraged.
The proceedings do not mention Benjamin Hazard or R. K. Randolph by name, but Rhode Island abolitionists were clearly pointing to the close relationship of their state’s anti-abolition leadership to the South.79
Due to abolitionist resistance and legislative efforts led by Providence Representatives Thomas Dorr and George Curtiss, the gag rule was eventually killed in the General Assembly in 1836.80 This was no spontaneous victory: the win stemmed from the escalation of organizing in 1835 and 1836, including lecture tours, an increase in petitioning, the creation of new societies and auxiliaries, and finally the convention in Providence.81 These efforts were only possible because of prior decades of black resistance and institution building.
Rhode Island was the only northern state to formally propose a gag rule, but Massachusetts did create a committee to consider similar legislation. Abolitionists successfully killed the measure before it could advance further, though Goodell notes that what swayed the committee was not a sudden antislavery awakening, but an appeal to free speech.82 The R. I. Anti-Slavery Convention had made similar appeals to free speech, and it’s likely those arguments swayed more Rhode Island state representatives than a newfound commitment to abolitionism. The rabidly anti-abolitionist Newport representatives may have simply been too extreme in their methods for their General Assembly colleagues. A political realignment in Rhode Island in the 1830s also likely contributed to abolitionists’ success: a minority of anti-masonic voters succeeded in swaying elections in 1833, 1834, and 1835, and so abolitionists demonstrating a numerical force at their convention forced state politicians to take them seriously.83
By the late 1830s, the excitement and violence around the postal campaign had waned. Entrenched interests were now less spectacularly but more profoundly working to silence abolitionism. Significant anti-abolition backlash occurred within churches, who almost uniformly moved to ban abolitionist meetings on their premises. Congregationalists first officially denied abolitionists access to their churches in late 1836. Most of the state’s Baptist churches also closed their doors to antislavery advocates, as did many Methodist churches. In 1835, Brown University president and Baptist minister Francis Wayland forbid discussions of slavery on campus, and by 1838 recanted his earlier abolitionist statements and preached that owning slaves was not a sin. Quakers, who had been at the vanguard of early antislavery activism, now began moving away from abolitionism. In 1839 at the New England Yearly Meeting at the Newport Great Friends Meeting House, Quakers advised against associating with non-Friends in reform societies, a clear encouragement for Quakers to leave abolitionist groups. Wealthy Rhode Island Quakers like William Jenkins, who owned several factories, led the push to shut Quaker meeting houses to abolitionists. Arnold Buffum noted that Jenkins was “dreadfully opposed to Abolition lest it should make Cotton cost a Cent more on a pound.”84 Seventh Day Baptists in Westerly — whose congregation had originated in Newport — barred George W. Benson from delivering an antislavery talk. Many abolitionists left their churches in protest.85
Debates continued over slavery in the Rhode Island statehouse. In 1837, spurred by abolitionist petitioning, Thomas Dorr proposed a resolution urging Rhode Island’s federal representatives to sponsor legislation abolishing slavery in Washington, D.C. Newport representative R. K. Randolph led opposition to the measure, emphasizing that emancipation in D.C. would be “extremely dangerous” and “unjust to slave owners.” The Rhode Island legislature voted down the D. C. resolution 47 to 7, with all six Newport representatives opposed.86
The abolitionist victory in 1836 over the gag-rule did create a new legitimacy. By late 1837, The Mercury began noting abolitionist meetings for the first time, reprinted an abolitionist poll of politicians on issues related to slavery, and published a letter from William Ellery Channing attacking the Boston city government for prohibiting abolitionists from holding a meeting at Faneuil Hall.87 In February 1838, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the federal gag rule on abolitionist petitions, as well as denouncing the interstate slave trade, although Newport’s R. K. Randolph was sure to add an amendment qualifying that “the people of different States have no right to interfere in the Domestic relations of other States.”88
The Newport Anti-Slavery Society continued to hold regular meetings, coming together at least yearly from 1836 through 1841. In this time, members established a library, elected officers, and chose convention delegates. Women abolitionists notably intensified their activity in this period. The number of petitions initiated by women increased as those by men decreased, and a similarly gendered pattern emerged in petition signatures.89 Women held regular sewing circles to create products to be sold at anti-slavery fairs that they also organized. Sophia Little spoke out against anti-abolitionist churches, publishing an article in The Liberator in 1837 attacking churches for banning abolitionists, and calling for integrated Sunday schools.90
Newport’s Union Church continued to operate and grow in the later 1830s. During 1835-1836, the Union Church decided to expand and purchased a new building, and a vote was held to allow Isaac Rice to use the front of the building as a singing school. The new building was opened in 1838 to much fanfare. Many of the leaders who had founded the church in the early 1820s remained active through this period, including Isaac Rice, John Mowatt, and Asa E. Babcock. The African Benevolent Society also continued its school in Newport. While the white male-led abolition fight may have slowed in Rhode Island overall, Newport’s abolition movement, and particularly its black-led organizing, continued to grow.91
The next crisis, and consequential uptick in abolition and anti-abolition activity in Rhode Island, was the Dorr Rebellion of 1841-1843, a struggle to expand suffrage in the state by eliminating property qualifications. In 1841, Rhode Island still operated under its original charter, which only extended suffrage to landowning men possessing at least $134 in property. For a time, a small number of landholding people of color were likely voting, but in 1821 the state explicitly banned people of color from the polls.92 Politicians led by Thomas Dorr had long pushed for a legislative solution to extend suffrage, but were shut down time and again by conservative forces in the General Assembly, often headed by Newport’s Benjamin Hazard.93
In 1841, after years of attempts at reform, Dorr and his followers abandoned efforts to make change within the state government, and held a People’s Convention to draft a new constitution free of property requirements. Controversy quickly emerged over whether the People’s Convention would also extend the vote to black Rhode Islanders. On the Convention’s fourth day, a delegation of black residents arrived to demand that black suffrage be included in the new constitution. The delegation’s petition employed the Suffrage Party’s own language of universal rights, and prophetically “cautioned the convention against departing from their principles by all the considerations of justice and moral right, lest the poisoned chalice should in the course of events be returned to their own lips.”94
Dorr himself had long been an abolitionist, and he joined Portsmouth delegate Benjamin Arnold in advocating for black suffrage. But a united opposition emerged behind Newport delegate Dutee Pearce, who insisted that including black voters would doom the People’s Convention because it would alienate whites. Pearce won the debate, and the convention voted 46 to 18 to limit suffrage to white men in the new constitution. Even within the Suffrage Party, it was a Newporter who led the anti-abolitionist faction.95
Abolitionists quickly mobilized to defeat the whites-only People’s Constitution, and the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society held a convention in November to organize their resistance. The American Anti-Slavery Society appointed Frederick Douglass to oversee a set of conventions to be held in Newport, Woonsocket, North Scituate, Fiskville and Phenix, Kingston, and Providence. Throughout the state, the events were met with vicious protests. In Newport, threats of violence began when the local convention was announced. Mobs then shut down the first two days of the convention, and followed abolitionists to their homes. On the third day, mobs again closed the convention and the abolitionists were forced to retreat.96
Despite abolitionists’ efforts, white Rhode Island voters overwhelmingly approved the People’s Constitution. The state establishment was shocked at the affront to its authority, organized itself as the Law and Order Party, held its own convention to create a new constitution mildly extending suffrage rights to more white males, and put the document to a referendum. Voters narrowly rejected the Law and Order constitution, and Suffrage Party supporters claimed victory and swore Thomas Dorr in as the people’s governor on May 3, 1842. The Law and Order Party declared Rhode Island in a state of rebellion, and appealed to President Tyler to intervene on the old government’s behalf.97
Newport representative R. K. Randolph again entered the picture, now as a Law and Order Party leader. Rhode Island Governor Samuel Ward King assigned Randolph to a delegation to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Tyler and gain his support. Randolph was, like Tyler, a Virginia-born Whig, and so King felt he would be an effective lobbyist. Meeting with the President, Randolph focused his arguments on presenting Dorr and his followers as antislavery fanatics. While Dorr’s supporters had in reality abandoned abolitionist ideals, the Law and Order Party knew associating the Suffrage Party with the antislavery cause was the most effective way to drum up federal opposition to the People’s Constitution.98
The Dorrites also sent a delegation to Washington, consisting of Thomas Dorr, Dutee Pearce, and Barrington Anthony. President Tyler viciously attacked the Dorr delegation, accusing them of treason. Longtime Newport vacationer Senator John Calhoun invited Dorr into his private office and personally reprimanded him.99 There is a particular irony that Dutee Pearce was present, since he had so vigorously fought for the white-only provision in the People’s Constitution, but was now being attacked for his party’s supposedly antislavery stance. Failing to win federal recognition, Dorr returned to Rhode Island and in May, 1842, led his now dwindling supporters on a failed raid on the Providence armory, then fled the state.
Two months later in July, 1842, Dorr again amassed armed forces and planned to take the village of Chepatchet. In a skillful political move, Providence’s black community sided with the Law and Order Party and raised nearly two-hundred men to serve with the militia to defend against the attack. Dorr’s offensive failed and the Law and Order party called for a final convention to be held in September 1842, this time extending the vote for delegates to all native-born adult male Rhode Islanders, including black citizens, but excepting Narragansett Tribe members. The racial opening of the delegate vote was a significant, hard-fought victory for black Rhode Islanders. The Law and Order Party held no progressive racial ideology, and made its concessions on voting rights solely to gain black support, but that precisely demonstrated that Rhode Island’s black community had become powerful enough to demand concessions. The victory would have not been possible without the prior decades of work creating local institutions. As historian Irving H. Bartlett concluded, “[The] institutions built by black community between 1820-1841 created context for the black community to act in the Dorr crisis.”100
The fight was not over, though, and abolitionists began campaigning to ensure “white” was left out of the new constitution. Racism ran deep despite black Rhode Islanders’ support for the Law and Order Party, and delegates chose not to automatically include black suffrage in the new constitution, but rather to have the question subject to a separate vote. In the subsequent referendum, the final constitution passed 7,024 to 51, with Dorrites boycotting the election. The measure on black suffrage passed by a smaller margin, but still carried with seventy percent in favor.101 Rhode Island thus became the single northern state to win a reinstatement of the black vote before the Civil War.
In Newport, the vote on black suffrage was much slimmer. Town meeting minutes show 694 people voted in favor of adopting the new constitution — unanimous support because of the Dorrite boycott of the election — but on the question of black suffrage, 365 voted in favor, with 234 votes against. It was a decisive victory for Newport’s black communities, but only by about a ten-percent margin, much smaller than the fifty-percent statewide margin, and so reflective of the still prevalent anti-blackness in the town.102
The 1843 voter roll shows the first presence of black voters in Newport records, including many of Newport’s longtime black leaders. For unknown reasons, the clerk listed at least eleven black men on the main voter roll, and then after the main voter roll listed a separate bloc of fifteen black voters. Many voters, such as Isaac Rice, Asa E. Babcock, Jacob Perry, Henry Babcock, James L. Sherman, Lewis Caleb, and Isaiah Gardner had been members of both the Union Church and the Newport Anti-Slavery Society. Others like Stanley Canterbury had been prominent members of the Union Church. All black Newport voters chose to adopt the new constitution, and all voted in favor of black suffrage. In the subsequent election for General Assembly Representatives, which the meeting minutes note was the first election to be held under the new constitution, all voters, white and black, are listed together on the same voter list.103
By 1843, Newport and the broader Rhode Island black community had succeeded in maintaining decades-long institutions, and had won several key victories — all this despite the best efforts of the staunchly anti-abolitionist, anti-black political class centered in Newport. This organizing strength set the stage for the Newport-led movement in the 1850s and 1860s to desegregate Rhode Island schools. Newport’s black citizens added voting to their political repertoire when they won suffrage in 1843, and began turning out regularly for elections throughout the 1840s and 1850s. In his analysis of antebellum black voting in Newport, Richard C. Rohrs found that voter turnout remained quite low for white and black voters throughout the period. He posits several theories to explain the low black voter turnout, including outright intimidation, continued racism, and general dissatisfaction amongst voters with almost universally pro-slavery federal level candidates.104
But low-voter turnout does not mean community-building and organizing did not persist. Institutions such as the Union Church continued to meet, fundraise, and hold events throughout the 1840s and 1850s. Black communities formed new institutions as well, with a splinter group leaving the Union Church in 1845 to found the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church of Newport. Post-Dorr Rebellion, some of the state’s abolitionist activity slowed due to internal rifts. Newport abolitionists continued organizing, though, with black and white activists holding an antislavery fair as early as 1845. Newport sewing circles contributed to a statewide fair in 1843, and Newporters continued sending petitions to state and federal authorities, with a significant uptick following the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Newport residents even formed a self-defense association to “to be on the lookout, both for the panting fugitive and also for the oppressor when he shall make his approach.”105
Newport in the 1840s and 1850s was undergoing an economic transformation, as tourism rapidly expanded. The previous generation of southern vacationers were joined by the new middle- and upper-classes from New York and Boston, and hotels and restaurants sprang up along Bellevue Avenue and Catherine Street. With development, the town’s population began a steady rise, many moving in to work seasonally, and some year-round.106 Among the newcomers was George T. Downing, a New York-born caterer and entrepreneur, who would become Newport’s most well-known civil rights advocate.
Downing had run a successful New York oyster house for years, moving to Newport in 1843 to begin another restaurant, then opening a catering establishment in Providence in 1850. In his early Rhode Island years, Downing developed economic and social connections with Newport’s black community leaders, such as Isaac Rice and Benjamin Burton, a highly active member in the Union Church who operated an express business.107
George T. Downing had long been an abolitionist and civil rights advocate, counting national figures such as Frederick Douglass and Charles Sumner among his friends. His entrance as a state political leader came in 1855, when Massachusetts passed a school desegregation bill and Downing decided it was time to fight to integrate Rhode Island schools. While many towns in the state had de facto integrated schools, Providence, Newport, and Bristol all maintained separate schools for black students. Downing publicly launched his campaign in 1857 with a broadside denouncing separate schools, followed by a petition to the state legislature, then an 1859 petition to the governor. In his appeals, Downing made repeated references to the history of the state’s black communities, specifically noting black organizing during the Dorr Rebellion. As Newport abolitionists had done for years, he connected the fight for civil rights in Rhode Island with the national fight for abolition, commenting that, “One evidence that there is a North may be given by that North’s doing honorably and justly by a class of its citizens heretofore proscribed.”108
The state’s white politicians and newspapers roundly condemned Downing.109 The Providence Journal wrote that segregated schools were better for both white and black students.110 White politicians argued that both races supported segregation, and repeatedly painted Downing as an outside agitator. The hatred against Downing reached a crescendo in 1860, when his Sea-Girt hotel in Newport was consumed by fire. Most histories interpret it as a likely arson, and Downing’s biographer more forcefully attributed the blaze to “an incendiary’s torch.”111
Downing, of course, was not alone in his efforts. He worked alongside established black community groups in Providence and Newport, and the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society and The Liberator supported the desegregation campaign. Downing did write to William Lloyd Garrison, though, to comment that he needed increased abolitionist support.112 In Newport, Isaac Rice, Benjamin Burton, and other activists deeply enmeshed in Newport’s black institutions took leading roles. They helped organize and deliver letters to the state government, and were lead signers on many of Downing’s petitions.113 In Providence, men like Ichabod Northrup who had played a key role in winning black suffrage during the Dorr Rebellion also helped lead the desegregation fight.114
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the desegregation campaign paused. Downing temporarily moved to Boston to recruit black soldiers to fight for the Union. Rhode Islanders began similar efforts, and following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, black Rhode Island volunteers formed the Fourteenth Regiment, Rhode Island Heavy Artillery.115
After the war, the service of over one-thousand black Rhode Islanders, and 200,000 black solders nationally, had created the right conditions for organizers to make the final push for school desegregation. More radical political options appeared possible. The Rhode Island Freedmen’s Bureau aided returning veterans and helped to resettle some nine-hundred formerly enslaved people. The Providence Journal even published an editorial stating that since black men had won the war, they should be treated equally. As Irving H. Bartlett explained, “By 1865 it was no longer political suicide to support the Negro cause on the school issue.”116 Nevertheless, the state education committee met in 1865 and again ruled in favor of segregation. The same year, the Providence City Council moved to open a new segregated black-only school. Providence City Council Member William Binney dissented, arguing that with emancipation, the country must also grant full rights to black citizens. Downing returned to Newport in 1865 and restarted his campaigning, similarly proclaiming that the freeing of four million enslaved people now necessitated full equality in the north and south. 117
A committee was formed “by the colored people” of Newport to organize against the state education committee’s segregation decision. They issued a petition to Governor James Y. Smith, signed by longtime city activists including George T. Downing, Isaac Rice, Benjamin Burton, and many others.118 When Governor Smith proved to be pro-segregation, Downing penned his “Address to Black Voters,” urging black Rhode Islanders to vote against Smith in the upcoming election, a notable strategy given the black suffrage victory just two decades prior.119
While the State House failed to take action, local communities worked to strike against segregation. In Newport, organizing efforts came to center around new resident Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a white man who had led a black regiment during the Civil War, was a well-known abolitionist, an author, a friend of Downing, and a secret funder of John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid. In recognition of his wartime heroism, the town of Newport offered Higginson a job as the head of the school committee. One member of the committee opposed his nomination on the grounds that no black men should be on the school board, only withdrawing his objection when he learned Higginson was white.120
Higginson quickly used his power to steer the Newport School Committee to desegregate. The School Committee Report for 1865 explains that the final push began when a family enrolled their black child at the previously white-only Mill Street School. The case went to the School Committee, which, under Higginson’s direction, ruled in the boy’s favor. Thirty more black students soon followed. The School Committee report noted that “some agitation followed the announcement of this decision in the community,” and that some white students left the school, but claims the overall transition was relatively smooth. The school committee also ended gender segregation in schools, and moved to open night schools to immigrant students who had to work during the day. The same year, Bristol’s black school was in such disrepair that it was forced to close, so its black students moved to white schools. Providence continued to segregate, but the General Assembly finally voted in 1866 to mandate integrated schools statewide.121
Once again, the longtime organizing efforts of black Newporters and abolitionists combined with a crisis moment to win an important victory. George T. Downing and Thomas Wentworth Higginson were undoubtedly forces of their own, but their success in school desegregation was necessarily grounded in the decades of community and institution building in Newport. Downing built his arguments upon Newport’s history of black community and organizing, seasoned Newport activists like Isaac Rice and Benjamin Burton were essential local actors, and the victory of black suffrage in the Dorr Rebellion enabled the tactical use of voting. The Civil War—particularly the service of hundreds of thousands of black soldiers—then created the national political leverage that allowed for the final push to achieve school desegregation. Only through these years of struggle on the local, state, and national level could desegregation have triumphed over white opposition.
The Continued Struggle
History correctly paints antebellum Newport as a northern outpost of pro-slavery politics. In the colonial era, the city was the foremost slave port in British North America, and Newport’s merchant and political elite formed close economic dependencies and political allegiances with southern plantations. Those connections maintained through the first half of the nineteenth century, as southerners built the early Newport summer colony. Men with deep southern social and economic connections like Benjamin Hazard and R. K. Randolph came to dominate Newport politics in the 1830s and 1840s. They used their political power to lead Rhode Island’s anti-abolition forces where they encouraged mob violence, pushed to legally censor abolitionists in the 1830s, and fought against both expanded white suffrage and the black vote during the Dorr rebellion. Even into the 1850s and 1860s, as the rest of New England came to desegregate schools, Newport held onto discriminatory policies.
Newport’s repellent past lasted well beyond the colonial era, and it must be recognized and reckoned with. But it is also only half the story. Beginning during the American Revolution, Newport’s black community led a simultaneous movement for abolition and civil rights that sustained through the Civil War and beyond. These struggles were united through a continuity of institutions and individuals stretching from the founding of the Free African Union Society in 1781 to the desegregation of Rhode Island schools in 1866. Numerous activists can be traced from the Free African Union Society, to the African Benevolent Society, to the Union Church, to the Newport Anti-Slavery Society, and through to the George T. Downing-led committees of the 1860s. In some cases, such as with Isaac Rice, the same individual participated in nearly all of the organizations over several decades. These individuals and organizations helped kill the 1835 gag rule, achieved a complex but decisive win for black suffrage in 1843, then again succeeded in a long battle for desegregated schools in 1866. Out of these separate stories emerges a picture of a strong, though by no means monolithic, community that was able to survive and advance its interests in the face of harsh opposition over the course of the nineteenth century.
1 William Lloyd Garrison to Isaac Knapp, June 22, 1836 in Louis Ruchames, ed., The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, A House Divided Against Itself, 1836-1840 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1971), 133.
2 “Newport Town Meeting Minutes, 1831-1843,” vol. 2010, September 4, 1835, 130-136, Newport Historical Society Manuscript Collection, Newport Historical Society, Newport, R. I.
3 Irving H. Bartlett, From Slave to Citizen: The Story of the Negro in Rhode Island (Providence: Urban League of Rhode Island, 1972), 5-16; Christy Clark-Pujara, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island
(New York: New York University Press, 2016), 19.
4 Pujara, Dark Work, 13.
5 Pujara, Dark Work, 10-61.
6 Kenneth M. Walsh, “The Evolution of Newport’s Economy From the Colonial Era to Beyond the War
of 1812” (Ph.D. diss., Salve Regina University, 2013), 90-155.
7 Alexander Boyd Hawes, Off Soundings: Aspects of the Maritime History of Rhode Island (Chevy Chase. Md.: Posterity Press, 1999), 140-187; Cynthia Mestad Johnson, James DeWolf and the Rhode Island
Slave Trade (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2014), 115-126.
8 Charles Hoffmann and Tess Hoffmann, North by South: The Two Lives of Richard James Arnold
(Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 157.
9 John Niven, John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 32.
10 For general discussions of southerners in Newport, see Hoffmann and Hoffmann, North by South.
For southern vacationers bringing enslaved people to Newport, see North by South, pp. 45, 85, 91, 120,
and Eliza Cope Harrison and Rosemary F. Carrol, “Newport’s Summer Colony, 1830-1860,” Newport
History 74 (Fall 2005): 20-21; for southerners vacationing in Newport, see Eliza Cope Harrison,
Best Companions: Letters of Eliza Middleton Fisher and Her Mother, Mary Hering Middleton, from
Charleston, Philadelphia, and Newport, 1839-1846 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2001).
11 Hoffmann and Hoffmann, North by South, 6.
12 Walsh, “The Evolution of Newport’s Economy,” 139-154.
13 Theodore Weld quoted in Hoffmann and Hoffmann, North by South, 120.
14 Harrison and Carrol, “Newport’s Summer Colony,” 20-21.
15 Genealogies of Randolph Family, box 142, “Randolph Box.” Randolph Family Papers, 1844-1884,
Newport Historical Society, Newport, R.I.; Erik J. Chaput, “Proslavery and Anti-Slavery Politics in the
Dorr War,” The New England Quarterly 85 (December 2012): 658-694.
16 “Biographical Notes, Daniel Lyman Papers,” Rhode Island Historical Society, accessed online July 17, 2019, http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss546.htm.
17 Election results listed throughout “Newport Town Meeting Minutes, 1830-1843,” NHS. For example,
see p.120, August 25, 1835, or p. 160, August 30, 1836; also see coverage of the elections in the
Newport Mercury, for example, Newport Mercury, September 2, 1837.
18 Newport Mercury, January 28, 1837; Newport Mercury, September 19, 1835.
19 Pujara, Dark Work, 91.
20 Seth Rockman, “Negro Cloth: Mastering the Market for Slave Clothing in Antebellum America,”
in Sven Beckert and Christine Desan, eds., American Capitalism: New Histories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019): 171-194.
21 Willis P. Hazard, Recollections of Olden Times: Genealogies of the Robinson, Hazard, and Sweet Families
of Rhode Island (Newport, R.I.: John P. Sanborn, 1879), 71.
22 For Benjamin Hazard’s role in the anti-abolition meeting, see Newport Mercury, September 19, 1835;
for his efforts to advance a gag bill, see Newport Mercury, February 20, 1836; for opposition to suffrage expansion, see Newport Mercury, February 3, 1838; for opposition to D.C. abolition, see Newport Mercury, January 28, 1837.
23 Election results with Hazard as top choice listed throughout “Newport Town Meeting Minutes, 1830-1843,” NHS. For example, p. 120, August 25, 1835, and p. 160, August 30, 1836.
24 Ibid., for election results; for Bull and Cranston acting alongside Hazard, see, for example,
Newport Mercury, September 19, 1835.
25 William M. Wiecek, “‘A Peculiar Conservatism’ and the Dorr Rebellion: Constitutional Clash in Jacksonian America,” The American Journal of Legal History 22 (July 1978): 241.
26 Leonard L. Richards, Gentlemen of Property and Standing: Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 155.
27 William R. Bagnall, The Textile Industries of the United States (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1971),
28 Akeia A. F. Benard, “The Free African American Cultural Landscape: Newport, R.I., 1774-1826.”
(Ph.D. diss., University of Connecticut, 2008), 105-106.
29 Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780-1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 190-191; Clark-Pujara notes a specific case in which a black man named Prince Thurston was ordered by a judge to be deported from Providence to Newport and put in the charge of the Newport overseer of the poor when he failed to pay a bill. Dark Work, 100.
30 Quoted in Benard, “The Free African American Cultural Landscape,” 106.
31 Ibid., 116.
32 Pujara, Dark Work, 95-97.
33 Ibid., 86-110.
34 Bartlett, From Slave to Citizen; Pujara, Dark Work, 41-60, 70; Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery, 45-49; Benard, “The Free African American Cultural Landscape,” 122-144.
35 “African Union Society Records, 1787-1797,” Free African Union Society & African Benevolent Society Records Collection, Newport Historical Society, ms.095, Newport, R.I. See, for instance, the July 1789 proclamation denouncing the “wretched state of many hundreds of thousands of our brethren who are in abject slavery in the West Indies and the American states,” 20-22.
36 “African Union Society Records, 1787-1797,” September 1791,116, NHS.
37 A summary of the FAUS, ABS, and related organizations’ history is available in the Newport
Historical Society’s Finding Aid, Newport Historical Society, accessed July 20, 2019,
https://collections.newporthistory.org/Detail/collections/142. For a more in-depth history of the groups, see Benard, “The Free African American Cultural Landscape,” 131-144. For the groups’ complete
documents, see the Free African Union Society & African Benevolent Society Records Collection,
Newport Historical Society, ms.095, Newport, R.I.
38 Benard, “The Free African American Cultural Landscape,” 48.
39 Ibid., 36.
40 “African Church at Newport, 1824,” Volume 1674. Newport Historical Society Manuscript Collection,
41 “Meeting Minutes of the Colored Union Church & Society, 1823-1847,” Volume 1674 (F), Newport
Historical Society Manuscript Collection, Newport, R.I. The men listed appear throughout the minute book. Francis Challoner, for example, first appears in June 1830. Founding officers are listed at
January 24, 1824, including Rice, Gardner, Hicks, etc.
42 Hoffmann and Hoffmann, North by South, 49.
43 “Meeting Minutes of the Colored Union Church & Society, 1823-1847,” January 24, 1824.
44 Benard, “The Free African American Cultural Landscape,” 62, 92.
45 Ibid., 98-104.
46 On Rice distributing The Liberator, see Deborah Bingham Van Broekhoven, The Devotion of These Women: Rhode Island in the Antislavery Network (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), 17. On opposition to colonization, see. “Proceedings of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society, 1836,” (Providence: H.H. Brown, 1836), 28-29, accessed online July 29, 2019 https://archive.org/details/proceedingsofrho00rhod/page/n2.
47 Benard,“The Free African American Cultural Landscape,” 100.
48 John S. Gilkeson, Jr., Middle-Class Providence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 38.
49 Hoffmann and Hoffman, North by South, 96.
50 Minutes of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society, 1836-1841, Newport Historical Society Manuscript
Collection, Newport, R.I. Minutes first mention meeting at the “Union Colored Church” on
November 12, 1839. First prayer from Jacob Perry noted on December 5, 1839.
51 Statistics calculated by comparing names in “Minutes of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society, 1836-1841” with the “Meeting Minutes of the Colored Union Church & Society, 1823-1847,” NHS. The list of names I reference appears in “Minutes of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society” at the end of the first meeting entry, November, 1836. Names for the Union Church members are pulled from the totality of the minutes book.
52 “Minutes of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society, 1836-1841,” NHS. For instance, on November 8, 1838, the society elected Isaac Rice, John Mowatt, and others as delegates to the statewide convention; on April 30, 1840, they chose Isaac Rice, John Mowatt and others to travel as delegates to a New York convention, and on November 19, 1840, they elected Jacob Perry as a vice-president of the society.
53 On Rice’s participation in Newport organizations, see: “African Union Society Records, 1787-1797”;
“Minutes of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society, 1836-1841”; and “Meeting Minutes of the Colored Union Church & Society, 1823-1847.” NHS. For Rice’s background information, see Benard, “The Free African American Landscape,” 212; Bartlett, From Slave to Citizen, 52. For Rice and the Underground Railroad,
see Mary Ellen Snodgrass, The Underground Railroad: An Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations (New York: Routledge, 2015), 446; also attributed to oral history with Rice descendants, as per private correspondence between Russell DeSimone and author. For Rice’s work with Downing, see Bartlett,
From Slave to Citizen, 55; for an example of a petition with Downing’s and Rice’s signatures, see,
“The Colored School Question,” a petition to the governor of Rhode Island, 1865, printed in Bartlett,
From Slave to Citizen, 57.
54 Van Broekhoven, The Devotion of These Women, 17.
55 “Minutes of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society, 1836-1841,” NHS. The Shaws, Edward W. Lawton,
and the Pratts appear as officers throughout the minutes, including at the founding meeting in
November, 1836. “Meeting Minutes of the Colored Union Church & Society, 1823-1847,” NHS.
Members of White Assistant Committee listed on January 24, 1824. Searches for Newport Anti-Slavery Society leaders within the Newport Mercury between the years 1830-1845 yield few results, and the
leaders only intermittently appear in Town Meeting Minutes in the same period.
56 Sophia Little is discussed throughout Van Broekhoven, Devotion of These Women. For discussion of
her leadership role, see pp. 89-90; for Little’s books, see pp. 134-138; for Liberator articles, see p. 76;
for Little’s inspirations and biography, see p. 80; for connections to Newport’s black community and her aiding an escaped slave, see p. 131.
57 Richards, Gentlemen, 63.
58 William Goodell, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A History of the Great Struggle in Both Hemispheres,
(New York: Published by William Goodell, 1855), 415. Accessed online, July 26, 2019,
59 Richards, Gentlemen, 50-52.
60 Newport Mercury, August 15, 1835.
61 Newport Mercury, August 29, 1835.
62 Goodell, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 417.
63 Richards, Gentlemen, 51-53.
64 Newport Mercury, July 25, 1835, August 29, 1835, September 5, 1835. See the Mercury throughout 1835 and 1836 for several other examples of pro-slavery sentiment.
65 Myers, “Antislavery Agencies in Rhode Island,” 86.
66 Gilkeson, Middle-Class Providence, 37, 51.
67 The Liberator, April 9, April 23, 1836; Van Broekhoven, Devotion of These Women, 31.
68 Gregory P. Lampe, Frederick Douglass: Freedom’s Voice 1818-1885 (Ann Arbor: Michigan University
Press, 1998), 86-87.
69 Harriett Peck to Perez Peck, 1837. Harriett Peck Letters at Guilford College. Accessed online, July 2, 2019, https://library.guilford.edu/c.php?g=536345&p=3670661.
70 Henry Stanton quoted in Van Broekhoven, Devotion of These Women, 23; for Sophia Little’s thoughts on living in Newport, see Van Broekhoven, Devotion of These Women, 206-208.
71 Goodell, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 413-415. For instance, the South Carolina legislature adopted a
resolution stating that, “This state, having every confidence in the justice and friendship of the
non-slaveholding States, announces her confident expectation, and she earnestly requests, that the Government of these States will promptly and EFFECTUALLY SUPPRESS all those associations within their respective limits, purporting to be abolition societies.” North Carolina asked northern states to enact laws against the printing of “all such publications as may have a tendency to make our slaves discontented.” Alabama, Virginia, and Georgia followed. The Governor of Alabama even demanded that the Governor of New York deliver R.G. Williams, the publishing agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society, to Alabama to stand trial.
72 “Newport Town Meeting Minutes, 1830-1843,” September 14, 1835, 127-136. NHS.
75 Gilkeson, Middle-Class Providence, 39.
76 Ibid, 41.
77 “Proceedings of the R.I. Anti-Slavery Convention, 1836.”
78 Letter from Stanton to Phelps, December 18, 1835, quoted in Van Broekhoven, Devotion of
These Women, 23.
79 “Proceedings of the R.I. Anti-Slavery Convention, 1836,” 30.
80 Goodell, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 420.
81 Van Broekhoven, Devotion of These Women, 143. Van Broekhoven notes in particular that petitions around the issues of the gag rule and slavery in Washington, D.C. hugely increased in 1836.
82 Goodell, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 418-420.
83 Van Broekhoven, Devotion of These Women, 8.
84 Letter from Buffum to Whittier, March 11, 1840, quoted in Van Broekhoven, Devotion of These Women, 67.
85 Van Broekhoven, Devotion of These Women, 63-70.
86 Newport Mercury, January 28, 1837.
87 For abolitionist polls, see Newport Mercury, August 5, 1837. For notes on delegates, see Newport Mercury, November 4, 1837; for mention of Newport Anti-Slavery meeting, see Newport Mercury,
December 23, 1837; for letter from Channing, see Newport Mercury, December 9, 1837.
88 Newport Mercury, February 3, 1838.
89 Van Broekhoven, Devotion of These Women, 139.
90 Sophia Little, “Purify the Sanctuary,” The Liberator, October 6, 1837.
91 “Meeting Minutes of the Colored Union Church & Society, 1825-1847,” NHS. Discussion of the new
building takes place over many meetings, such as February, 1835 meeting where it is announced a
bargain has been reached, to the April 1838 meeting where it is decided to finally open the new church. The decision to allow Rice to use the front of the building as a singing school is made in July 1836.
92 J. Stanley Lemons and Michael A. McKenna, “The Re-Enfranchisement of Rhode Island Negroes.”
Rhode Island History 30 (February 1971): 3.
93 For Hazard’s opposition to suffrage bills, see for example, Newport Mercury, February 3, 1838, where it is reported that he tabled a bill that would allow suffrage expansion in state elections.
94 Edmund Burke, “Burke’s Report,” 1844, 119. Quoted in Chaput, “Proslavery and Antislavery Politics,” 668.
95 Lemons and McKenna, “The Re-Enfranchisement,” 7-9; Chaput, “Proslavery and Antislavery,” 669-670.
96 Lampe, Frederick Douglass, 84-87.
97 Chaput, “Proslavery and Antislavery,” 673-674.
98 Ibid, 675.
99 Ibid, 678-679.
100 Bartlett, From Slave to Citizen, 42.
101 Chaput, “Proslavery and Antislavery,” 688.
102 “Newport Town Meeting Minutes, 1831-1843.” The referendum vote is detailed on November 21-23, 1842, pp. 349-356. The dedicated black voter list appears on p. 356. The first post-referendum vote is detailed
on April 5, 1843, pp. 358-364.
104 Richard C. Rohrs, “Exercising Their Right: African American Voter Turnout in Antebellum Newport, Rhode Island,” The New England Quarterly 84 (September 2011): 402-421.
105 Bartlett, From Slave to Citizen, 46
106 Myra Beth Young Armstead, “The History of Blacks in Resort Towns: Newport, Rhode Island and Saratoga Springs, New York,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1987), 64-69.
107 Bartlett, From Slave to Citizen, 52-53.
108 Downing to Sumner, May 28, 1855, quoted by Lawrence Grossman in “George T. Downing and
Desegregation of Newport Schools, 1855-1866,” Rhode Island History 36 (November 1977): 99.
109 Grossman, “George T. Downing,” 101-103.
110 Providence Journal, February 25, 1857.
111 S. A. M. Washington, George Thomas Downing, Sketch of His Life and Times (Newport: The Milne
Printery, 1910), 4.
112 Grossman, “George T. Downing,” 102.
113 For example, see Downing’s letter to the governor of Rhode Island entitled, “The Colored School
Question,” signed by both Burton and Rice. A copy appears in Bartlett, From Slave to Citizen, 57.
114 For Northrup’s role in the Dorr Rebellion, see Lemons and McKenna, “The Re-Enfranchisement,” 8;
for Northrup in the desegregation fight, see Grossman, “George T. Downing,” 98.
115 Bartlett, From Slave to Citizen, 46-48.
116 Bartlett, From Slave to Citizen, 58.
117 Grossman, “George T. Downing,” 104.
118 George T. Downing, “The Colored School Question,” 1865. A copy appears in Bartlett,
From Slave to Citizen, 57.
119 Grossman, “George T. Downing,” 104.
120 Howard N. Meyer, Colonel of the Black Regiment: The Life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson
(New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1967), 40-42.
121 “Annual Report of the School Committee of the City of Newport, R.I. for the year 1865-66,”
Newport Historical Society Library, Newport, R.I., 12.