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Slave Money Paved the Streets. Now This Posh RI City Strives to Teach Its Past.

Many don’t realize Newport, Rhode Island launched more slave trading voyages than anywhere else in North America.

Gabrielle Brown, on the steps of the Newport Historical Society, describes the personal impact of learning local Black history.

But in 2021, Gov. Dan McKee signed into law a bill requiring curriculum to include teachings on Rhode Island’s “African Heritage History” by the 2022-23 school year. Advocates call it among the most comprehensive efforts nationwide to teach local Black history. Now, districts across the state are striving to incorporate lessons like the one that inspired Brown to envision a past about which she otherwise may never have learned. 

The move comes as conservative activists — here and across the nation — rally to curtail classroom lessons around race. For Clark-Pujara, Rhode Island’s African heritage efforts are a step toward learning about histories that have been “intentionally disremembered.”

Some 60% of all slave trading voyages that launched from North America — amounting to 945 trips between 1700 and 1850 — began in tiny Rhode Island. In some years, it was more than 90% and most of those journeys set out from Newport, making it the most trafficked slaving port of origin on the continent.

“The streets of Newport were paved with the duties paid on enslaved people,” said the UW-Madison scholar, who wrote the book Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island

“You have an entire economy that is wrapped up in the business of slavery.”

Although the city of 25,000 people is now over 80% white and only 8% Black, in the mid-1700s, approximately a quarter of Newport’s population was Black or African, the second-highest share in the U.S. at the time behind Charleston, South Carolina. Early Black Newporters were among the first African Americans in the U.S. to attend college and launched the nation’s first African mutual aid society. 

For young people like Brown, the impact of learning about what local historian Keith Stokes calls the “creative survival” of colonial-era Black residents is tremendous.

“Newport, I think the way it’s advertised is just boats … you know, bring your salmon-colored shorts and I just don’t want to be here. But once you are able to learn Newport’s history holistically, there’s just so much more to appreciate,” said the rising senior. 

“Now it’s like there’s something there for me and I can really appreciate the space that I’m in.”

‘I think that slavery happened here. Maybe.’

The steps toward reckoning with the city’s historical role in the slave trade come on the heels of decades of silence.

“It’s never been taught,” said Victoria Johnson, 81, who was a longtime teacher and eventually became the state’s first black female principal before retiring from Newport’s Rogers High School in 2003.