May was a very busy month at the Center for Reconciliation. We hosted two very popular walking tours, a performance in the St. John's Cathedral cemetery, and an audience dialogue with historian Joanne Pope Melish.
Did you miss any of our events? Learn more below and see whats coming up this summer!
College Hill and the International Slave Trade Walking Tour
On May 6th and 7th, more than 80 people took part in a two hour walking tour of the College Hill neighborhood of Providence, and learned about its historic significance in the international and domestic slave trade. Participants came from as close as Benefit Street and as far away as Ghana and Chile. These multi-racial and multi-generational cadres of neighbors, friends, classmates and family members took a mile long hike through important though long obscured local history.
The United States is once again struggling through a national conversation about race. A discussion made more difficult by how little most of us know about our country's history of slavery. Rhode Island may be our smallest state but nearly everyone from its earliest wealthy citizens, to its most recent antebellum immigrants, helped the Ocean State become one of the US's largest contributors to the international slave trade. Sadly these local histories of slavery and slave trading which, unbeknownst to most, helped construct much of the state, instigated a legacy of restrictive social and legal structures in our state and our country, and imbedded feelings of fear, discomfort, anger or guilt into contemporary conversations about race.
During our mile walk, standing in the shadows of buildings laid with the pain of thousands of enslaved people, closed our eyes and caught glimpses of lives lived long ago in places we see every day. Along the way we stopped at six sites important to the stories of the free and the enslaved, the rich and the poor and everything in between. With every step participants followed the accounts of wealthy merchants, Ghanian insurrectionists, college students, slave traders, Episcopal church leaders and members, sailors, insurance investors, a bitter housewife, Quaker slave owners and Quaker abolitionists, enslaved chocolatiers, free black home owners, disenfranchised Irish immigrants, and three women buried as "faithful servants" beneath a single foot-stone.
We started at the apex of Brown and Power and discussed the many ways that power literally and symbolically intersected with various families, individuals and institutions in Providence. Next, we stepped inside the John Brown House museum to explore not just the Brown family's connections to the slave trade, but also how the Rhode Island Historical Society has wrestled with interpreting slavery, worked with the community and students to improve its exhibits, and makes plans for future engagement with difficult narratives. The education and public program director at the Rhode Island Historical Society was "extremely pleased" by the tours. Most participants had never visited a Rhode Island historic house before. Several mentioned a new interest in returning to the house to see more of its exhibits in the future.
After leaving the John Brown House, we took a stroll through Power St. to Brown University. The group learned along the way about the role played by white women and Quakers in the local 18th and 19th century power structure. The group came to a stop in front of Brown University's oldest building to consider the construction of an institution that was funded for over 100 years by slave labor or slavery related industries. We discussed how educational institutions continue to struggle with their historical connections to slavery and debated whether they should, or how they could provide reparations. The groups considered how universities continue to seek donations from wealthy individuals or corporations even when the money is connected to exploitative industries or regimes? A lively debate ensued among participants about different forms of restorative action schools can take to help the descendants of those who were forced to be involved in the school's creation.
Next, the procession followed the trail of power and money to the surprisingly modest home of ten time governor, Stephen Hopkins. There we were treated to a balanced telling of the lives of the enslaved and the free peoples who lived and worked in the Hopkins House. Participants were led through the house to see rooms important to that history, and an exhibit that focused on the challenge of telling an inclusive history when there is a dearth of documents and first person narratives. We continued to mull over some of the more complicated points of the history as we walked to the next stop.
Despite a light rain we proceeded to the 18th century cemetery that lay hidden between the colorful 19th century homes on Benefit Street and the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island on North Main Street. Participants stood quietly among the gravestones and learned about the creation and the destruction of three vibrant black communities that have long since been cleared from the outermost edges of Providence. The racial violence, housing discrimination and social and economic exclusion that eventually drove these communities away would have been viewable from the grave laden hill. We also paused to reflect on the scant fragments of information available on the lives of three enslaved women who were memorialized by a single foot stone in the Episcopal cemetery. Was the footstone really an honor when it permanently connected the three women to the man and family who had enslaved them and left them without any sense of individuality? Participants discussed how these women or their families may have inscribed seperate headstones if given the opportunity.
|Image credit: Arielle Brown 2016. Document found at the URI archives.
|Image credit: Caroline Stevens 2016
Our final stop of the tour led us through tales of destruction to a site of rebirth. We stepped out of the rain and into the Cathedral of St. John. Inside the Episcopal Canon to the Ordinary, Linda Grenz, guided us through the church's complicated history of slavery, racial integration, white privilege, neglect and a new hope for reconciliation. This exclusive behind the scenes tour also offered a first opportunity to learn about the Center for Reconciliation's future museum on the history of slavery and slave trading, while standing in the space in which it will be installed. Jane Jacobs once said that, "new ideas must use old buildings." That is exactly what the Center for Reconciliation was created to do. We are in the preliminary stages of turning this early 19th century cathedral into a space in which to reconcile the past with the present and the descendants of slave owners with the descendants of the enslaved. Our nation continues to be deeply divided by the legacy of slavery. While reconciliation is not a new idea, the CFR is developing new strategies, programs, performances, collaborations and events that will bring new meaning to an old building, and new beginnings for our shared community. In the footsteps of slavery we plan to guide our multi-racial, multi-generational community on new pathways toward a real chance at racial reconciliation.
Did you miss the tour?
Schedule a College Hill & the International Slave Trade walking tour for your congregation, family, friends or organization.
Do you have a group of 5-20 interested participants? Contact us to schedule a group tour. Keep an eye out for a forthcoming schedule of tours for individuals and smaller groups. More tours and themes to come!
The DoubleBack: Freedwomen's Gaze
A site responsive performance and witness-driven conversation
On Saturday, May 14 the Center for Reconciliation hosted a "site responsive performance and witness-driven conversation" in the Cathedral of St. John's 18th century cemetery. As the sun set, three young black women playfully led a procession of more than 50 participants into the graveyard. The women danced among the stones, swayed, hummed and cried out. Their provocative performance centered around the single footstone of Phillis, Rose and Fanny Chace, three black women who had been enslaved to Samuel Chace Esq. in the late 1700's. While the women died at different times, they were buried at the farthest edge of the cemetery and given a single stone. Their former master is buried on the opposite end of the hill nestled in a corner of the Cathedral. That Saturday, the thousands of words written about the life and legacy of Samuel Chace were put aside in order to honor the sparse notes on his three "faithful servants."
"Is that the best you could do?" one young woman roared. Was she interrogating the foot stone, the spirit of Samuel Chace or the audience before her? When interviewed later several audience members found this questioning of the footstone to be confusing or unsettling. Wasn't the epitaph a privilege, especially in a time when so few enslaved people received any type of memorial to their lives? Was calling the women "respectable" a positive note? Or in light of the context, a paternalistic back-handed compliment, that praised the women's closeness to the white ideal image of black femininity - loyalty above all else to the family that enslaved them.
The three actresses came to stand behind the grave stone. They knelt in a line, caressed the stone, then shook as though posessed. The woman closest to the stone smoothed her fingers over the engraving and without looking, read out loud the epitaph that Samuel Chase esq. had made. The intoning of her voice revealed the paternalistic oppression the words concealed.
In memory of
three respectable black
persons, Phillis, Rose
& Fanny Chace,
who served faithfully
in the family of
Samuel Chace Esq.
The wife, the gay, the humble
and the exalted, the beautiful,
and the deformed, must all
moulder in the same native clay.
She caressed the stone, then with their hands weaving and scooping quickly through the air the women performed the passing of pain, love, fear, joy and anger from the grave of three black women to these three living bodies. Then silently they stood. Each woman gathered offerings that had been placed around a tree. One by one they poured, punched or screamed their feelings into the object and passed each one to a member of the audience. With the grave site clean, new memories made, and the spirits transferred to new vessels, the three women turned, and slowly processed up the stone pathway and out of graveyard. The audience stood transfixed for a time, mulling over the spectacle they had just witnessed.
"[The performance was] beautifully conceived and rendered, from research, to performance, to lively discussion. Very inspiring and need-fully informative," said one attendee, Sylvia Soares.
"Certainly those of us present will never walk through the cemetery and by those women again without remembering and listening, and incorporating what we heard into our own lives," noted the Rev. Ricky Brightman, a retired deacon in the Episcopal Church.
After a long pause, Arielle Julia Brown, the Artist-in Residence at the Center for Reconciliation and the creator of the program, called the audience to join her inside the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island for a conversation with historian Joanne Pope Melish and a fish-bowl style audience talk-back. Melish is a professor, lecturer and author of the book "Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780-1860."
Inside the Episcopal Diocese participants were given markers and offered a chance to scrawl notes, drawings or even sketch out new epitaphs for Phillis, Rose and Fanny on large swaths of butcher paper. During the audience conversation with historian Joanne Melish, artist Arielle Brown and the Center for Reconciliation's program manager and curator, Elon Cook, the audience learned of the many barriers in the way of researching enslaved Africans in Rhode Island, and the tragedies and triumphs of the local black community.
|See more notes and sketches below
|Historian Joanne Pope Melish (center) talks with Arielle Brown, Elon Cook, the actresses and participants about Rhode Island slavery and its legacy.
The group also explored new definitions of reconciliation, or as many preferred "conciliation" between races in the US. Reparations also came up as we wandered through the various strategies for repairing the breach between the descendants of the enslaved and the descendants of those who were complicit with the slave trade. Is education reparations? Is a monument, museum, or conversation enough? How long will reconciliation take? Who must be involved in the decision making? It was a highly engaged, racially and generationally inclusive conversation that kept participants talking long after the program's end. "More" they said, "we want more!"
Hosting the DoubleBack was the Center for Reconciliation's first experimental foray into the world of provocative performance art. It unapologetically stirred up emotions, including at times confusion, and created a space for communal expressions of anger, frustration, laughter and appreciation. The program also brought in a younger and more racially balanced audience than some of our other events. This collaboration between the CFR, Brown University's Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and Youth in Action was another exciting example of the diverse projects we hope to continue producing around the state.
What did you think of the DoubleBack? We would love to hear from you. We are also always looking for volunteers to help us research, organize and produce new events. To learn more, check us out on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Contact us at Info@cfrri.org