Newport Gardner letter

February 3, 2012

The Newport Historical Society has an extensive collection of documents about Newport’s early history. Today the Society acquired a very important letter that further broadens its diverse collection. This letter was written by a late 18th and early 19th century African American Newporter named Occarmar Marycoo, also known as Newport Gardner.

In the October 1821 letter, purchased with funds from board member donations, Gardner writes to his niece Sarah Burk in Alexandria, VA. He references her most recent communication to him, “I received yours dated June 25 with great pleasure; for as cold water to a thirsted soul so is a good news from far country: I rejoice to hear that there are two coloured churches there, and that one of these have two hundred communicants; I hope they are not only professor, but professor of true religion.” He then updates her on the health and loss of several family members.

When Occarmar Marycoo arrived in Newport he was around fourteen years old. He was purchased by Newport ship captain Caleb Gardner, who then changed Occarmar’s name to Newport Gardner. Within four years Gardner learned English, French, the basics of music and became a Christian. He also began to show great aptitude for composing music.

By 1791, Newport Gardner had married a woman named Limas, and they later had five children. It is reported that in 1791, he and several friends purchased a lottery ticket and won. With his share of the profit, Gardner bought his freedom for his family and himself. After he established a house on Pope Street, he supported his family by teaching music and today he is credited as the country’s first black music teacher.

Gardner befriended Dr. Samuel Hopkins of the First Congregational Church and later helped form the Free African Union Society “where the Negro might worship God without segregation.” The Free African Union Society evolved into the Union Congregational Church on Division Street. Influenced by Dr. Hopkins, Gardner became involved in the African colonization movement. With several other Africans, Gardner raised funds, and on the last day of December 1825 he and a group set sail for Africa,  though he died a few months after arriving.