Newport Historical Society unveils first-of-its-kind exhibit on the experiences of Black Newporters

May 30, 2024

The research project draws on archival manuscripts and contemporary art made by Black Rhode Islanders to refocus the narrative of enslaved people in Newport.

By: Ruthie Wood, What’s Up Newport. To view this story online, click here.

After four long years of research and review, the Newport Historical Society (NHS) presents the exhibit “A Name, A Voice, A Life: The Black Newporters of the 17th-19th Centuries” on May 29 at 6 pm. The exhibit, located in the Historical Society, is free and open to the public through November 2024, but registration is required for the opening celebration. A brief speaking program to introduce the work and the space starts at 6:30 pm, featuring Rebecca Bertrand, NHS executive director, Doug Newhouse, NHS board chair, Kaela Bleho, NHS collections and digital access manager and co-curator of the exhibit, and Zoe Hume, exhibit co-curator and van Beuren research fellow.

The exhibit, which seeks to address misconceptions of slavery in the North and to refocus the narrative by giving names and voices to the enslaved, is a visualization of a digital database the NHS has been piecing together over the years. The database is “essentially a really detailed catalogue of Black and Indigenous lives in Newport,” explains Bleho. She, and Hume, a Ph.D. student from Florida State University, have been working together from the start of 2021 to compile primary source documents (“manuscripts”) and records that trace the experiences of people of color in Newport. “This is my first time in Newport,” Hume says, thinking back on hours combing through digital archives during the pandemic.

“The database was launched in February of this year,” Bertrand says. It is connected to national and international databases like Enslaved and 10 Million Names by the New England Genealogical Society.  To celebrate and to make the general public aware of the database, they created an in-person exhibition. The public can interact with the manuscript collection and connect with the stories visually through the works of four local Black artists – Cat LaineToby SissonEric Telfort, and Jean-Marc Superville Sovak. “It really brings this to life in a different kind of way; it brings history to life,” Bertrand exudes.

Primary sources are at the heart of this history. The NHS used tombstones, land deeds, census records, town documents, and more to track down and highlight names and narratives of people of African descent who lived in Newport and are “fundamental to Newport’s story,” asserts Bleho. “All manuscripts on display are from our own collections,” Bleho says, but some of the objects displayed are on loan from other museums and archives, like the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. Hume also reached out to other repositories throughout the country, like Cornell, to track down more information from different archives, following the threads of long-forgotten stories as people migrated to and from Newport and Rhode Island at large.

The exhibition starts on the lawn of the Historical Society with a statue gifted from the Jamestown Arts Center. It features the names of six African women who were trafficked to Newport. The statue, which was created for the Arts Center in 2022, was “based on a manuscript piece,” directly correlating with the mission of the exhibit of the database-turned-visual. Inside the front door hangs replicas of manuscripts in the collection to “welcome people not just into our archives,” which contain over one thousand linear feet of manuscript, “but also to the heart of the exhibit,” explain Bleho and Bertrand. From there, museumgoers will be re-introduced to Newport’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade; many people have the misconception that slavery was not as prevalent in the North, but “over sixty percent of ships going to Africa to traffick and enslave people came from Rhode Island,” explains Bleho.

Hume created two of the segments in the exhibition. First is a timeline about slavery and the restricted movements of Black and Indigenous peoples in RI from 1642 to 1842, when slavery was finally made illegal. “Once a person is grounded in this really intense history, we want to refocus the narrative on the enslaved people of Newport,” she explains. That transition works to highlight the “web of connections” Hume developed, featuring a woman named Mehitable “Hitty” Hicks Collins, as a way to “center Black experience” and to promote empathy and to combat the flattening of the human experience that occurs in statistics, history books, and even primary sources.

Transitioning into the Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House, there is a name wall of each of the resurfaced names of enslaved people in Newport history, all handwritten by members of the community. There are blank cards in the name wall to symbolize the NHS’ ongoing work.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is five fleshed-out narratives of Black Newporters, complete with art, archival objects, and snippets of their true lives. One of the narratives, about Arthur Tikey, is Bleho’s favorite part of the entire exhibit; he had been a member of the Seventh Day Baptist Church – where his narrative is now on display – and lived and worked on an adjacent street to where Bleho lives today. “In another life, we might have been neighbors,” she says. The final portion of the exhibit is a research desk and database center, introducing the online database to those visiting the museum. It invites anyone who is inspired by what they have learned to further explore the archives.

To view this story online, click here.