It may come as a surprise to those of you who have gotten real upset at any mention of unpleasant deeds committed by our historical heroes (and there have been quite a few!), but I’m often going through great pains to avoid political discussion in my content.
When talking about any kind of history, it’s on some level inevitable. Where I’ve run into “trouble” is when I bring up things that don’t fit the popular narratives. They don’t necessarily go against them—they just kinda fill in some (arguably critical) details that are routinely and originally intentionally left out to create this infallibly perfect image of those who came before us.
As lovely as it can be to be nostalgic for a fictional utopia of the past, it will always remain a fiction. And in taking my “warts and all” approach to discussing the past, I prefer to bring up the horrible things. Not for any sneaky political agenda in which accountability is paramount; rather, I just find it easier to understand the flaws of the present when we see that those who built our foundation were similarly flawed.
Basically I’m imprisoned by context, and context we shall have.
I’ve come to think of it more or less as two different presentations of history—descriptive versus prescriptive.
Prescriptive History is sort of what we’re used to. The bullet points. The several paragraphs about people and their deeds in a given section of our high school history books: So and So did Such and Such.
And then it’s further reduced for monuments and plaques. And this is fine! In broad strokes we can get a rough gist of things. Where we run into trouble is when that’s all we look at and consider.
Why? Well, because it leads to a narrow view of our past, which makes us put those who came before us on such untouchable pedestals that an expansion of information, in turn making us highly resistant to finding out the not so great things.
It’s how we wound up believing the following:
- The American Revolution was the result of taxes imposed on tea.
- Homosexuality was rare throughout history.
- The North was simply on the right side of history during the American Civil War.
- Christopher Columbus was useful.
All of these things, in and of themselves, aren’t entirely incorrect and they’re okay starting points. However, if that’s all you really know, you’re missing out on the entire context for the statements, meaning you’re missing out on understanding the cultures in which events happened and in turn…honestly understanding history as best as we can.
And beyond that, the blurbs and bits you get from bullet point k-12 education and even more so from roadside monuments tend to be colored by the sociopolitical climate of the times. That isn’t to say that anything is necessarily wrong with any of it…just that there’s always more—much more—to the story and it’s likely you’re seeing at least as much of an ethnic community rallying around a local historical figure, a region trying to create tourism, or even a political group calling attention to what’s being portrayed as analogous events of the past.
Anyway what I’m getting at is there’s far more to understanding history and the cultural impacts and ripple effects of what came before us—and if you only pay attention to the low-hanging fruit of what’s presented to you without effort, you miss out on a whole lot. That’s where the descriptive part comes in.
And the job that I’ve created for myself is to scratch that surface and come up with real fun things for y’all to look at that dig a bit deeper and show you how you can do the same. But I tryyyyyy to keep politics out of it.
Sometimes though, there’s just too perfect of a mesh, and I have to get into it, just a bit. This is one of those times. Although in truth I consider it less political than it is about academic integrity. But there’s a lot of overlap when opinion gets involved.
See, Rhode Island is a funny place. And Rhode Islanders are a funny people. In a state so small, we’ve got roughly 1.5 Californias of personality, and I can’t imagine coming across a batch of people more rabidly nostalgic for their history. I found this out the hard way thinking Rhode Islanders would be as excited for orangutans as they were for the Industrial Revolution. That was silly of me.
One of the things Rhode Islanders have always loved to tout, is that “it’s the Smallest State with the Biggest Name.” And indeed, the official name of the state was The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
It was so named because of what is thought to be a bastardization of the old Dutch “rodlich Eyelande,” meaning “reddish island,” in reference to maaaaybe fall foliage or maaaaaybe red clay soil, seen by Dutch Explorer Adriean Block in 1610. Or maybe it was in 1524 when Giovanni da Verrazano (hey Rhode Islanders, recognize that name?) described an island in Narraganset Bay which reminded him of the island of Rhodes in Greece.
Both islands in question above are assumed to be Aquidneck island. And whatever the origin was, by the time Roger Williams claimed it as his stomping ground, he named it the Isle of Rodes or Rhode Island. And here we are.
The “…and Providence Plantations” bit was added because the colony was incorporated from four colonial settlements—Providence, Warwick, Newport, and Portsmouth. At the time, “plantation” was simply a reference to a colony or settlement, or potentially even just a homestead.
It’s been a while since the 17th century, when our friend Roger Williams settled down and founded what would become one of the original 13 American colonies, and 13th state in the United States of America. And with the passage of time comes the change in language and understanding. We no longer know if Rhode Island referred to the color of leaves, the color of soil, or an island near Greece. At some point though, it was common knowledge.
And similarly…we don’t really use the word “plantation” anymore. Because of this problem we had with owning people and using them as farm animals…on large farms that came to be known as plantations (remember that use of a plantation for “homestead?”). You see…plantation has certain connotations. It’s an ugly word, and understandably so.
And so for a bit more than the last decade there has been discussion about cropping the official name of the State of Rhode Island. Omitting that “and Providence Plantations” bit because, well…it sounds kinda gross.
Admittedly at first I was pretty ambivalent about it. I mean…I got it. I understood the modern meaning of the word and it’s ties to America’s National Shame. But I also knew that it was an archaic application of the word, which didn’t have the same meaning back then. If it was changed, cool. If it stayed, I wasn’t gonna start punching people.
But. And there are always buts.
But, we have a funny relationship with slavery here in the north. I’ve said before that we like to enjoy a kind of intellectual distance from it.
“That happened down south, not here.”
”We had it, but we got rid of it.“
”We were on the right side of history during that whole Civil War thing.”
“And besides, Rhode Island didn’t have plantation slavery at all.”
Those are the common understandings of slavery encountered in the northern United States. There’s a distance there. But that distance is what’s imparted to us from that prescribed history we read on monuments and in truncated history lessons forced into our 15-year-old brains.
And every single one of those statements is wrong. Ok, maybe there’s some truth in each statement, but as a stand alone, they’re just wrong. Undeniably wrong.
Every. Single. One.
See, first of all, New England was the first batch of colonies to be founded. And when Europeans showed up, they found natives here and mostly got along at first, but by the time of King Philips’ War, Roger Williams had relaxed enough on his anti-slavery views to be cool with selling groups of Narragansett individuals into slavery. Sure, he’d just dealt with a war. But I mean…come on. Slavery existed in the United States from pretty much the moment Europeans got here.
It took an apparently different form down south, as the northern states had industrial factories and the southern states had vast tracts of land suitable for immense farms. But those same farms sent their raw cotton up to the north—specifically to Rhode Island—to convert into a fabric called Negro Cloth. That fabric was then traded back to the southern plantations to use to clothe slaves.
Negro Cloth was a Rhode Island specialty. And Rhode Island was essentially the textile capital of the world at the time. “We” got our raw cotton from slave labor down south, and traded semi-finished cloth for it. We produced so much of it that at its peak, 70% of the TOTAL textile production of the state went to Negro Cloth. And still that remaining 30% that was actually sold was enough to keep us on top.
But then in the time of the American Civil War, the cost of cotton went from 9 cents per pound to $1.89. Over the course of a year. Because once the slaves were freed you no longer had free labor keeping the costs down. Also production went way down anyway because you no longer had a demand for Negro Cloth.
This essentially destabilized the Rhode Island economy and things tapered off and a mix of some other things meant eventually Rhode Island went into the Great Depression a full decade before the rest of the country. We had our “Roaring” period earlier though so it all worked out.
And a bit earlier than that, we had the whole Triangle Trade thing. We as in the world, the United States, and….Rhode Island. You see…Rhode Island didn’t just participate in slavery. It was effectively one corner of the triangle. The United States, Western Africa, and Cuba traded in sugar, molasses/whiskey, and human lives, but the biggest slaving family in the United States was right here in Rhode Island. The DeWolfes. So prolific was this family that after the American Revolution, they more or less rebuilt the town of Bristol with their own money. Guess how they made it?
The slave trade was outlawed by 1808, but they DeWolfes continued well after that. Not being allowed to make slaving voyages, they’d say they were heading to their Cuban sugar plantations. But they’d make a reaaaaaaaaal big detour to Ghana, purchase some kidnapped humans, and then sail down to South Carolina and sell them off before heading over to Cuba. Toward the end they started getting turned away at ports. The notion that “everyone owned slaves” stops being an argument once there are a considerable amount of peers telling you you’re garbage for dealing in them.
It’s also worth mentioning that there’s evidence the DeWolfe family continued to keep slaves until as late as 1874. 11 years after the emancipation. On their Cuban plantations. This is a multigenerational concerted effort to avoid detection in enslaving humans because it was so damn profitable.
And that brings us at last to the structure of slavery in Rhode Island. The whooooooooole thing about growing up in Rhode Island and paying attention to the history here and all that is that slavery was household slavery. A handful of well cared for and loved “servants” who came into a family and cared for them for a few generations. And that’s not wrong, but like pretty much every snippet of history that we obtain without having to exert any effort whatsoever…it’s not nearly the entire picture.
The common understanding is that while slaves in New England were better cared for and within the puritanical faith of the time, literally part of the family. And so over time, when someone is born into a family and raised by slaves who were owned by their parents and who eventually cared for their children, there is a kind of honest fondness there. But it’s a perverse fondness. These people were still possessions.
Within that understanding, it’s said that being part of that familial unit also amounted to enslaved people being separated from anyone other than that family. So there were no peers. Nobody from your own country, nobody who looked like you. But while that was almost certainly the case sometimes, it was far from ubiquitous.
Slavery in New England was part of the fabric of the culture, and not just in the house. Slaves formed communities and were known within them. There were even elections within the communities. These elections would appoint governors to enslaved communities in an area and those “black governors” would be a point of pride for the family that owned them. When sold, having been elected to a position before would mean an owner would get more for the sale.
It was all grotesque.
But to the point of this post. The structure of slavery in Rhode Island wasn’t just different in the communities that slaves built among themselves. Plantation slavery existed in Rhode Island in every sense that it existed in the south. Hundreds to over a thousand slaves working single, enormous farms that dotted the state.
Not only that. North Kingstown—my hometown—was included. Reading that kinda made it hit home a bit. It still does. Having grown up hearing about the south being the seat of slavery in the United States and it being an entirely different entity up here, only to find out that not only was the decision to end slavery less about the humanity of black people than it was about preserving the country regardless of whether it was with or without slavery, and then to go on to find out that a mere couple of miles from where I grew up were massive operations using hundreds of humans as farm animals. One of the largest cemeteries for enslaved individuals in New England is in North Kingstown. At least 88 people are buried in a single lot. All of them were enslaved. Their existence is noted in historical notes made at the time, but not a single headstone has a name.
It disgusted me. I can deal with the past. With people considered upstanding citizens having done reprehensible things, and I can still respect the good they may have accomplished. I can look at “victims of their time” and understand that there were always people who were repulsed by their views despite being victims of that same time.
What I have trouble with is being raised without being told. Being told that the northern states were some paragon of virtue in a world struggling to move forward…when the reality is closer to being a flawed contingent which happened to be on one side of the dividing identity of a flawed country.
And as my research continued. After finding that the majority of cemeteries in Rhode Island that date back to the colonial era have people who were enslaved buried there. After finding documents in historical archives of people born slaves in North Kingstown who escaped and found freedom on whale ships. After learning of a complaint made by a Newport shop owner, about the public whipping post that resulted in him constantly having to clean blood off of his building. After learning that, according to the 1774 Rhode Island Census , the slave population of Rhode Island was about double the rest of the colonies. And of course, after learning about the plantation slavery that existed in this state. My mentality changed.
It had to. I didn’t really have any other choice. I learned the context of things. Plantation could have meant space shuttle in the 17th century. It didn’t matter. By the time Plantation Slavery existed in this state, the word had come to mean what it means today. Whatever the intentions of the original name of the state or the meaning of any word at the time—that meaning had changed.
What had started off as a borderline ambivalence had become support. The first time changing the name of my state came to a vote was in 2010. The discussion was started but floundered. In 2020 it came up again.
This time, it passed. And I voted in favor of it. Proudly.
I’m not going to lie and say that there was a point in which I wasn’t going to vote for it. But that ambivalence was gone. I wanted the change. Not out of disrespect for the founders of the country or state. Certainly not out of disrespect for the history I am building my career studying, researching, and fleshing out.
On the contrary, it was out of respect for all those things, out of respect for those who were kidnapped from their homes halfway across the world and stripped of their humanity, and whose children for generations were bred into a system that refused to acknowledge that same humanity. And out of respect for those today who are still hurting from that history.
I heard a radio interview about a week before the vote. The man being interviewed said something to the effect of, “if we can make people happy by changing a name that we don’t even use…why wouldn’t we do that?” That in and of itself was enough for me. But the endless hours and countless reams of information it was just clear to me that it was the right thing to do.
There is so much discussion and debate and honestly vitriolic rhetoric surrounding wanting to remove monuments or change the names of historic places.
And so often the argument against boils down to a reluctance to “erase” history. I don’t see anything being erased. Where has it gone? Just because something isn’t in front of you—telling you what to care about and how to care about it—doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Honestly I know more about the intentions of the people who create monuments than that which they purport to be commemorating.
My own views have been changed—again and again and I’m sure not for the last time—by the thousands and thousands of hours I’ve spent researching history. Of fleshing out the contexts of the sentences that dot monuments and text books. Of understanding what came before us.
I started Pedal Powered Anthropology by visiting monuments, and I quickly started running out of room on instagram in trying to give them context. I wound up producing a feature length documentary on the Industrial Revolution that is essentially the history of a bike path. More than 1,100 hours of research went into producing that documentary. Not one of those hours was spent creating content based on the text on a statue.
We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us; we are not beholden to their decision. And you know what? Their decisions will always be there. In museums, in historical societies, in libraries. And if you’re looking for me, there’s a good chance that’s where you’ll find me.