URI exhibit, lectures at Brown, URI examines R.I.’s role in North American slave trade

Exhibit runs today, Jan. 23 through Feb. 17; talks to be held Feb. 15, 16

KINGSTON, R.I. — January 23, 2017 — To this day, many residents in the Northeast feel absolved of any responsibility in the history of slavery in America. It’s almost as though folks in Rhode Island and other states look down their noses at the South, believing their ancestors had little role in the brutal business of buying, selling and possessing people kidnapped from their native lands in Africa.

But did you know that more than 60 percent of the ships involved in the North American slave trade came from Rhode Island? Were you aware of the Newport and Bristol rum industries’ strong links to the slave trade? Newport and Bristol ship captains brought molasses up from the Caribbean, and Rhode Island merchants sold rum for enslaved people off the coast of West Africa. Did you know that textile mills across the state made huge profits from garments woven for slaves?

You can learn about those topics and more at a new University of Rhode Island exhibit, “Invisible Bodies, Disposable Cloth: Slavery in Rhode Island, 1783-1850s,” which runs today, Jan. 23 through Feb. 17 at the URI Fine Arts Gallery, 105 Upper College Road. The gallery hours are Monday through Friday from noon to  4 p.m.

The program also includes talks by Christy Clark-Pujara, author of “Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island” on Thursday, Feb. 15, at 5:30 p.m. at the John Carter Brown Library, 94 George St., Providence, and Friday, Feb. 16 at 6 p.m., at URI, 45 Upper College Road, Kingston. Clark-Pujara’s talks are free. The exhibit and talks are part of Black History Month.

For full information, including registration details for the exhibit and talks, go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/uri-exhibition-and-talks-invisible-bodies-ri-slavery-1783-1850s-tickets-30888564528. The talks by Clark-Pujara are free, but you must register.

You can also find information at the URI galleries page, http://web.uri.edu/maingallery/category/upcoming/.

Clark-Pujara is assistant professor of history in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is particularly interested in retrieving the hidden and unexplored histories of African-Americans in areas that historians have not sufficiently examined–small towns and cities in the North and Midwest. “Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island,” which was published in 2016 by NYU Press, examines how the business of slavery–economic activity that was directly related to the maintenance of slaveholding, specifically, the buying and selling of people, food and goods–shaped the experience of slavery, the process of emancipation and the realities of black freedom in Rhode Island from the Colonial period through the American Civil War.

URI Professor of Art Robert Dilworth, URI Associate Professor of Languages Karen de Bruin and other academics and historians around the state formed the Committee for Understanding Slavery in Rhode Island to develop the exhibit and talks.

URI artist-in-residence Deborah Baronas has been working with the Committee for Understanding Slavery in Rhode Island to develop an exhibit that will take the public on a northern route through the trans-Atlantic slave trade or southern route through slavery, both of which arrive at the textile mills of Rhode Island. Other URI professors involved with the project and on the committee are: Marcus Nevius, history; Krzysztof Mathews, art and art history; Deborah Mathews, computer science; and James Haile, philosophy. Becky Davis, a URI graduate student in English is also participating. Other key participants are historian Peter Fay and Elon Cook, educational programs coordinator for the Center for Reconciliation.

“The URI Department of Art and Art History has played a remarkable role in promoting an understanding of our diverse world through art in the past and this exhibition is yet another example of our dedication to that effort. Through this exhibition, the Department of Art and Art History, in association with the Committee for Understanding Slavery in Rhode Island, aim to salute the Africans who became Americans and built a legacy that endures to this day,” Dilworth said.

“We chose the years 1783 through the 1850s because these are the years from which emerging narratives are surfacing that address living conditions of enslaved and free African Americans under the remarkably profitable illicit trade from which Rhode Island businesses were benefiting,” de Bruin said.

Other activities associated with the project being held on Saturday, Feb. 11 in URI’s Multicultural Student Services Center, Hardge From, 74 Lower College Road, are:

  • From Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” performance by Elon Cook, curator and team leader of the Center for Reconciliation’s museum project on the history of slavery in Rhode Island, 11 to 11:45 a.m.
  • “Forgetting and Remembering Slavery in Rhode Island,” a presentation Joanne Pope Melish, associate professor of history emerita at the University of Kentucky, noon to 12:45 p.m.
  • Performance by actor/writer/historian/activist Sylvia-Ann Soares, who will portray “Silvy Tory” the elder slave in South County, 1:15 to 2 p.m.
  • “From Manumission to Moby Dick: Black Labor in Rhode Island from Slavery to Textiles and Whaling” by public historian Peter Fay, 2:15 to 3 p.m.


On Friday, Feb. 17, from 11 a.m. to noon, author Clark-Pujara will meet with URI Women and Gender Studies students in the Galanti Lounge of the Carothers Library and Learning Commons, followed by lunch and a student conversation with the author facilitated by Earl N. Smith III, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, from 12:15 to 1:15 p.m.. From 4 to 5 p.m. there will be a guided tour of the gallery exhibit.

“We want to educate Rhode Islanders on the role this state played in the institutions of slavery,  which was prominent in South Kingstown and especially on the local plantations,” de Bruin said.

De Bruin, who was born in South Africa during Apartheid, said the transatlantic slave trade has been a key part of her research on French literature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Her current research focuses on colonial travelogues.

“I don’t think there is any desire to cast blame, but it’s important for us to realize we are all complicit in acts of oppression, like slavery. The exhibit helps us come to grips with this,” she said.

Someone might ask how they are complicit in acts of oppression like slavery, and that’s when de Bruin encourages people to “think about where we get our clothes, where people work in brutal conditions and are paid wages on which they can’t live, both abroad and at home in our for-profit American prisons.”

The exhibit will also shine a light on South County and its role in slavery.

“Locally, the Peace Dale Mill was a producer of negro cloth,” de Bruin said. “And our Rhode Island textile industry is connected directly to slavery.”

The show and the talks are sponsored by URI’s College of Arts and Sciences, Office of Community, Equity and Diversity, the Center for the Humanities, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Africana Studies, the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, the Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, the John Carter Brown Library, the Rhode Island Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Marker Project.