Press Release: “A Name, A Voice, A Life: The Black Newporters of the 17th – 19th Centuries”

May 30, 2024


May 30, 2024


Lauren Craig


Powerful New Exhibit on Display at Newport Historical Society

“A Name, A Voice, A Life” Explores Stories of Black Newporters


NEWPORT, R.I. – The Newport Historical Society (NHS) unveiled a powerful new exhibit: “A Name, A Voice, A Life: The Black Newporters of the 17th-19th Centuries.” Open Monday through Friday through November and free to the public in the NHS headquarters at the Richard I. Burnham Resource Center, the exhibit explores the experiences of Black Newporters whose stories were recovered as part of Voices from the NHS Archives, an expansive four-year research project.

Launched in February, Voices contains more than 4,000 historical documents that center the experiences of Black and Indigenous people in Newport’s history.

“The Voices database makes an important part of our collections–and our history–more accessible to the community. With this exhibit, we’ve taken that effort one step further, creating a dynamic visual experience that makes Newport’s history even more vivid and accessible,” said Executive Director Rebecca Bertrand.

The life stories of five people of African descent who were researched for the database project are depicted in the exhibit through the work of local artists Cat Laine, Toby Sisson, and Eric Telfort. The exhibition features historical objects and documents that speak to their experiences and livelihoods, within a broader exploration of Black life in Newport in the 17th to 19th centuries.

The exhibition also includes the outdoor sculpture “Six of the First,” a monument by artist Jean-Marc Superville Sovak that commemorates some of the earliest recorded Africans trafficked to the shores of Newport County in the mid-1700s. The sculpture was generously donated to NHS by Tony and Tracy Weisman, having been produced for the Jamestown Arts Center 2022 Biennial Outdoor Arts Experience.

“Slavery and the slave trade are foundational to Newport’s story, and for too long this history has been underrecognized,” said Board President Doug Newhouse. “Through our walking tours, our collections, our properties and now this incredible new exhibit, the team at NHS is working to center the stories of Black and Indigenous people, enslaved and free.”

Supported by a grant from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation and modeled on the work of, the Voices from the NHS Archives database uncovered 1,700 names of Black and Indigenous Newporters. In the months leading up to the exhibit opening, NHS staff and community partners visited schools, community centers, and other nonprofits, sharing their research and engaging the community to write out each of the names by hand. They will be displayed as a centerpiece of the exhibition.

“Creating the database would not have been possible without the support and counsel of our advisors and community partners, so we were eager to include them in this phase of the project, as well,” said Kaela Bleho, the collections and digital access manager at NHS who served as the project lead for the database and co-curator of the exhibit. “By writing these 1,700 names together, we had the opportunity to learn about, recognize, and reflect upon the lives of people whose stories are essential to Newport’s history.”

“We hope that the database and exhibit will inspire important conversations in the community about how history is preserved, interpreted, and shared,” said Zoe Hume, a PhD student, former NHS Fellow, and co-creator for the exhibit. “Making history more accessible and using it to both better understand the present and inform our vision for the future is what our work is all about, so I encourage people to come, experience the exhibit, and connect with Newport in a new way.”

This exhibit is made possible in part through grants from Rhode Island Humanities, an independent state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, through an appropriation by the Rhode Island General Assembly and from the National Endowment for the Arts. This exhibit is also supported by the Decorative Arts Trust Dean F. Failey Grant Program, Newport Craft Brewing & Distilling Co., BankNewport, and Rhode Island Energy.

The Richard I. Burnham Resource Center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the exhibit will remain on view through November 29, 2024, free of charge. For more details about this groundbreaking exhibit and other upcoming NHS programs and events, visit