Black history has profoundly influenced the state of Rhode Island since its earliest days, shaping its cultural, economic, and social landscape.

Rhode Island's early involvement in the transatlantic slave trade is an unfortunate yet significant part of its history. The state's shipbuilders and merchants participated heavily in the trade, leaving an indelible mark on Rhode Island's history and ascending it to a hub of Black cultural and intellectual development.

The resilience of the African people during these challenging times culminated in the cultural blossoming of Black people in Rhode Island. Over time, its vibrant Black community established schools, churches, and institutions, enriching the state's cultural tapestry.

The African American community in Rhode Island has proved to be a force of change, courage, and progress from the struggle against slavery to the Civil Rights Movement. The state continues to be influenced and molded by the contributions of leaders, artists, influencers, and pioneers birthed by this tenacious community.

Black history has truly left an indelible mark on Rhode Island's identity. It is our distinct honor to highlight the influence Black history has had on the Ocean State.

Rhode Island's Early History and the Slave Trade

Rhode Island had a notable part to play in the transatlantic slave trade during the 17th and 18th centuries. Its thriving shipbuilding industry enabled Rhode Island merchants and traders to make many voyages to Africa to buy enslaved people.

This was part of the infamous "Triangle Trade." Rhode Island rum was shipped to Africa and traded for enslaved individuals, who were then transported to the Caribbean and sold. The profits then funded the purchase of sugar and molasses, returned to Rhode Island, and used to produce more rum, thus continuing the cycle.

Rhode Island's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, a dark chapter in its history, had significant implications. It brought economic benefits, with Rhode Island's ports bustling with activity and the trade-generated wealth enriching the state's economy. This wealth also spurred the growth of other industries, like distilleries for rum production.


The Fight and Resilience

Despite the brutal conditions of enslavement, Africans in Rhode Island demonstrated incredible strength and resilience. Resistance among the enslaved population was common, with some seeking freedom through legal means like petitioning for manumission, while others escaped and formed maroon communities. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, the first African-American regiment to fight in the American Revolution, was primarily composed of enslaved and free black men.

These acts of defiance and resistance played a crucial role in the abolition movement, leading to Rhode Island's gradual emancipation in February of 1784. However, the battle against racial discrimination persisted well into the 19th century, leaving a legacy of resilience that continues to inspire.

The African American Community in the 18th and 19th Centuries

The 18th and 19th centuries marked a period of growth for African Americans in Rhode Island. Settlements were constructed, foundations of institutions were laid, and pivotal leaders were brought forth, all contributing to the molding of the state's history.

Formation and Development of Communities

African Americans in Rhode Island, particularly in Newport and Providence, created dynamic communities. These communities offered a sense of identity and support during a period of racial division. Schools and churches founded in these settlements fostered education and spiritual growth. For instance, the Meeting Street School, founded in 1790, educated African American children, providing the necessary resources for the community's pursuit of equality and progress.

This period saw the rise of several influential Black leaders from Rhode Island. These leaders made substantial contributions to both their local communities and the nation. Reverend Mahlon Van Horne, a pastor, educator, and state legislator, made a lasting impact on the African American community through his dedication to education and public service. Additionally, Christiana Bannister, a successful businesswoman and philanthropist, played a pivotal role in assisting African American soldiers during the Civil War. These individuals, among others, played crucial roles in advancing the socio-economic status of African Americans in Rhode Island.

The Civil Rights Era and Rhode Island

The Civil Rights era profoundly transformed Rhode Island, echoing change throughout the nation. The local African American community, vocal and engaged, made significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. They fought for justice, ensuring their voices echoed loud and clear.

Rhode Island's Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement

Rhode Island had a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement. The state's African American citizens and civil rights activists spearheaded the fight against segregation and discrimination on both local and national scales. Their collective efforts led to the creation of new laws that ensured equal rights and opportunities for all citizens, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Protests and demonstrations for civil rights took place across Rhode Island, reflecting the national struggle. These movements targeted segregated institutions, unequal education systems, and discriminatory employment practices. The African American community of Rhode Island, with its strength and determination, became a symbol of resistance and change during the Civil Rights era.

Key Events and Figures

Several Rhode Island figures were instrumental in advancing the Civil Rights Movement. Among them was Michael Van Leesten, a social activist and leader who became the executive director of the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Rhode Island. He worked tirelessly to create opportunities for African Americans in the workforce. Cliff Montiero, the president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, dedicated his life to combating racial injustice.

These pioneers, alongside many others, laid the groundwork for racial equality in Rhode Island, shaping it into the diverse and inclusive state we see now. Their actions during the Civil Rights era remain a testament to their commitment to equality and justice.


Black Community's Contemporary Contributions in Rhode Island

Rhode Island's cultural fabric and economy thrive under the impact of its Black community, which extends across various spheres.

Black leaders and influencers in Rhode Island shape a multitude of fields. Take Jim Vincent, the Providence NAACP's president. His tireless advocacy for the African American community promotes social justice and equality.

On the artistic front, Rhode Island-born actress Viola Davis has garnered worldwide acclaim. Trained at Juilliard, her stage and screen performances inspire many. Furthermore, she leverages her influence to advocate for inclusivity and diversity within the realm of the arts.

Impact on Culture and Economy

The Black community's cultural contributions have a noticeable presence in Rhode Island's lively arts scene. Jazz music, deeply rooted in the Black community, flourishes across the state's music venues. The Rhode Island Black Film Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival, annual events that honor Black creativity and talent, attract audiences from across the nation.

Black entrepreneurs also have a crucial role in the local economy. Their businesses, from restaurants to tech startups, not only generate wealth but also establish jobs and opportunities for Rhode Island residents.

Closing Thoughts

Reflecting on Rhode Island's detailed history reveals the influential role of the Black community in every stage of the state's development. From participating in the unsettling early days of the slave trade, the Black community has evolved into a beacon of cultural and intellectual inspiration. The historical legacy and continuous input from this community add vibrancy to our shared heritage. It remains critical to recognize and appreciate these considerable contributions. For a more hands-on experience of the impact of Black history and culture, do visit Rhode Island.