WPRI 12: Newport Historical Society making Black history more accessible with digital archive

February 9, 2024


By: Leah Crowley, WPRI 12

NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — The Newport Historical Society launched a new online resource on Thursday called “Voices of the NHS Archives.” The project is bringing the society’s archives into the digital age.

The papers being preserved at the Touro Street facility date back hundreds of years. Staff had the idea to digitize their documents during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, we had to close the doors to our archives, but as a staff, we still wanted to make them as accessible as possible,” explained Kaela Bleho, the collections and digital access manager at NHS, who spearheaded the four-year project.

So far, about 2% of the society’s manuscript collection has been digitized.

“There’s 4,000 manuscripts online right now,” NHS Executive Director Rebecca Bertrand said. “That includes ship’s logs, census records … and it can continue to grow and grow if we have future support.”

The documents demonstrate the harsh reality of Newport’s history with slavery. For example, one ship log shows that the vessel made several trips to modern-day Ghana, documenting that people were forcibly taken from their homes.

“Newport in the late 1700s, around 10% of the population was enslaved … but as we move toward the early 1800s, you start to see a really vibrant community of free People of Color in Newport,” Bleho said.

The hope is that the online archive will not only serve as an educational tool, but also attract researchers and help people learn more about their ancestors.

“We really want to celebrate those people and their identities and their place in Newport’s history,” Bleho said.

“There’s no time like the present,” she added.

Starting May 29, the Newport Historical Society will host a free exhibit called “A Name, A Voice, A Life: The Black Newporters of the 17th-19th Centuries” to showcase this work.

The exhibit will run through November.

Learn more about “Voices from the NHS Archives” here.


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