Jamestown Historical Society

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Black History in Jamestown

Over the years, the Jamestown Historical Society has collected stories, artifacts, and photos that highlight the role of African Americans in settling and contributing to the growth and prosperity of Jamestown. For 350 years the African American community has varied from a small community to over one-third of the population. Below are some of the highlights of that history.

Woman with link to local slave visits farm

Christine Jackson reached down to touch the stone wall bordering the farm on East Shore Road where her third great-grandfather worked in the 18th century.

“I just can’t believe this,” she said. “I feel like I want to cry.”

Jackson, of Providence, aided by the Jamestown Historical Society, encountered the birth site of her ancestor, Bristol Underwood, for the first time. He grew crops and tended livestock on the 18th-century, 110-acre farm that sloped from North Road down to the eastern shore. But her joyful discovery was bittersweet. This also is where her ancestor and his family were enslaved by their owners, the Benjamin Underwood family. Click here to read “Woman with link to local slave visits farm.”

Stories in Stone

 Cedar Cemetery tour was offered by the Jamestown Historical Society on Saturday, October 2, 2021 and introduced some of the men and women buried there. Olivia Johns Rice (1880-1973) was born in Cleveland, OH into a prominent Black family. In her 20s, college-educated Olivia taught grade school and in 1910 she married Frank Rice who was descended from an eminent Black family in Newport.  Frank’s grandfather was a caterer and founding member of the Newport Anti-Slavery Society. For 44 years Frank served as caretaker of the Hazard summer house on Walcott Ave. After Frank died in 1937, Olivia continued living on and caring for the Hazard property until Hazard died in 1961, leaving Olivia $100 a month for life. Click here to read Stories-in-stone-cedar-cemetery-tour.”

Edward Mitchell Bannister 1828 – 1901

The Providence Art Club recently mounted a tribute to commemorate the life and work of one of their original founders, the Black artist Edward Mitchell Bannister. Bannister, born in New Brunswick, immigrated to Boston in about 1848. There he became a barber and ultimately through his own efforts learned to paint […]

Bannister owned a small sloop and spent summers sailing Narragansett Bay which would bring him to Jamestown evidenced by this painting (Jamestown Harbor at Sunset, 1895) and one titled Fort Dumpling, Jamestown, Rhode Island. Click here to read “Edward Mitchell Bannister 1828 – 1901”.

Jamestown Slave History

29 December 1791

Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.
Know all Men by these presents.
That we, the Town Council for the Town of Jamestown in the County of Newport and State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in our capacities as councilmen and in consideration of the sum of Nine pounds in Lawful Silver Money Ourselves Fully satisfied, content, and paid, so grant, Bargain, and sell unto Thomas G. Hazard and to his heirs a Certain Negro Boy Named Newport Martin

In Witness I set my hand and seal by order and in Behalf of the Town Council this Twenty-ninth day of December in the Year of our Lord 1791 and in the sixteenth year of American Independence.

[signed] Tiddeman Hull, Council Clerk. Click here to read “Jamestown Slave History.”

The Free Remington Family of Jamestown

Orman Remington was enslaved at Gershom Remington’s farm, which is now Watson Farm, on North Road.

He was the only known slave in Jamestown’s history to purchase his own freedom, an exceptionally rare event that often was enabled by other people assisting with payment.

His owner, Gershom Remington, received “100 Spanish silver milled dollars … hereof well & truly paid by my Negro man slave named Ormond (sic) … I do grant, bargain and sell unto the said Ormond his freedom” in 1781. Click here to read Remington-Buys Freedom.”

Ferrying across bay once a dangerous duty

Dinah Battey, of Jamestown, 20, married her husband in 1711. Six days after her wedding, on the sailing ferry home from Newport, the boat capsized, and she tragically drowned. Little was more dangerous in Colonial Rhode Island than crossing the bay in ferries…

In 1715, the General Assembly, to prevent runaway slaves, forbade ferrymen to “carry, convey or transport, any slave over any ferry without a certificate” from their master, on penalty of 20 shillings and costs of retrieval of the runaway. Conanicut had the highest percentage of enslaved residents in New England. Paradoxically, enslaved Jamestown men worked the ferries, even as the ferry owners enforced the pass system. Click here to read “Ferrying across bay.”

Black Inventor Stakes Claim with Toy Bird, Blinds

Jamestown’s Gilded Age, like Newport’s, reached its pinnacle with the hotel boom, and a vast workforce of manual laborers propelled the growing town into the 20th century.

Hundreds of them were African Americans: butlers, cooks, washerwomen, coachmen and expressmen. Their untold stories often reveal resourcefulness amidst adversity, none more so than coachman Abraham Pugsley.

In August 1890, the magazine Scientific American announced a new “device for operating and fastening blind slats which is the invention of Mr. Abraham Pugsley of Jamestown, Rhode Island.” Click here to read “Black Inventor.”

Jamestown resident exploring Town Hall records finds proof the Town Council sold slaves in 1790s.

Antonia Noori Farzan Providence Journal | USA TODAY NETWORK

When Peter Fay moved to Jamestown 20 years ago, he set out to learn whatever he could about the town’s history. One fact stood out: In the middle of the 18th century, Black and indigenous people made up 32% of the town’s population. That was a higher percentage than any other town in Rhode Island — or anywhere else in New England.
How had that come to pass?

“I asked around,” Fay recalled in a recent interview, “and no one seemed to know.”

So, he said, “I decided to go to Town Hall and open up the books. And there it was, staring me in the face.” Records from more than 200 years ago made clear that “slavery was a huge factor in the establishment and growth of this town,” Fay said. And they revealed that the Jamestown Town Council itself had been selling slaves. On Monday, council members voted to “acknowledge a wrong” and take steps to honor Betty Martin and her family, whom their predecessors sold or “bound out” into indentured service in
the 1790s. Click here to download the  “In Black and White” PDF.

Town’s black population has ebbed, flowed

Colonial Jamestown had the largest black population, by percentage, of any community in the state. According to a 1706 census, 15 percent of townspeople were black, although none were land owners.

By 1756, that figure had risen to 36 percent. When the importation of slaves into Rhode Island was formally prohibited in 1774, 20 percent of the 563 residents in town were Africans or descendants.

The censuses do not distinguish between free and enslaved servants, but wills and estate inventories of the era make it clear most were slaves. Click here to read “Black Population.”

Jamestown Slaves linked to Sierra Leone, Gambia rivers

In 1816, Ormand Remington of Jamestown told the Newport Town Council that he “was born on the coast of Africa and brought into this country by Captain Robert Stoddard, [a Newport slave trader], when he was about 12 or 13 years old.”

In a document recently unearthed in Newport archives by genealogist Cherry Balmberg, Remington recounted that he labored in Jamestown from childhood until his 78th year when he moved to Newport with his family. He was enslaved for 30 years until he purchased his own freedom from Gershom Remington at today’s Watson Farm. Click here to read “African Origins.”

Jamestown Inherited Two Thanksgiving Traditions

Thanksgiving is a time to gather and feast with family and friends while pondering past blessings, and archives of the Jamestown Historical Society reveal many of these such good fortunes.

On Conanicut Island, harvest feasts predate European settlement. Before the 1658 purchase, a large Narragansett community including “700 bowmen,” or warriors, occupied the island according to Reverend Ezra Stiles of Newport.[2] The size and permanence of this agrarian community was revealed by archaeological digs at West Ferry: 195 burials, mostly from the early 1600s, included funerary offerings of brass kettles, spoons, vessels, and clay pots commonly used in feasts. Click here to read “Two Thanksgiving Traditions.”

From the Collection – Slavery in Jamestown

From the early eighteenth century until the American Revolution, approximately one-third of the people living and working in Jamestown were recently captured Africans, second-generation African Americans, or indigenous people, mostly Narragansett. The vast majority of these people were enslaved. After the Revolution, and despite the 1784 Gradual Emancipation Act, slavery continued to be a significant – though declining – source of labor for another half-century. Click here to read “Slavery in Jamestown.”

Become a JHS Member

Help preserve & share the history of Jamestown, RI. Maintain the Museum, the Windmill, the Meetinghouse and the Conanicut Battery. Preserve the Society’s collection of documents, photographs and artifacts.