07/31/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

On African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement in Rhode Island


In the late 1700s there were about 427 free black men and 48 slaves living in Providence, the capital of Rhode Island. By 1825, Providence had 1,414 free black men and four slaves. Premiere attempts blacks in RI made to improve themselves was by founding the African Union Society. It was established in Newport in 1780 with the aim of providing not only birth, marriage, and death certificates to its members, but also, vocational training.

In 1808, this society merged with the African Benevolent Society to form a school for blacks in Newport. It was not till September 7, 1838, however, that Providence officials established two schools to be "maintained exclusively for the instruction of Negro children." The Old South Meeting School which had been established by Moses Brown was continued under the city's supervision whiles a new school on Pond Street was established in addition. The city of Newport followed suit by establishing a city school for black children in 1842. The opening of these schools were heralded as landmark progress; but of course, were segregated.

It was not till after the Committee on Education resolved that segregation in schools was unconstitutional that The RI General Assembly officially desegregated public schools in RI on March 7, 1886. This was mainly due to the February 28, 1865 passionate appeal by Mr. Weeden, the 28th Constituency Representative in the RI State House, calling on equal treatment for blacks.

In college matters, Brown University also began accepting blacks in the 1870s. The first known graduates were Inman Page and George Washington Milford, both class of 1877. Elizabeth Chace, a tireless supporter of slavery abolishment pointed out in in her book Anti-slavery Reminiscences that prior to the civil war, intelligent black students were denied admission to Brown College on the basis of race. Prior to the civil rights movements also, black enrollment at Brown had been very low.

Participation in the Civil Rights Protests The March on Washington:

Local participation started off with two busses leaving Providence at 10:30 pm on August 27, 1963. Simultaneously, two busses; one from Woonsocket, RI, and the other from Newport, RI, also departed. Other Rhode Islanders left via trains, planes, and cars. The busses from RI joined with busses departing other New England states so as to get to Washington in one accord. The 157 people on the buses that left Providence of the overall 400 estimated March on Washington participants from RI had in their possession boxes of lunch and first aid kits.

Prior to this protest, there had been little job prospects for black people in RI. According to the Providence Journal, RI had only 3 black doctors and 3 black dentists. Many blacks had also not been able to patronize their services because their income was meagre (median income was $3500, 38% below the average income of their white counterparts).

The first batch arrived in Washington at 7am on August 28, 1963. The climax of the days activities which was Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech had put the black struggle into words. Though this had been a peaceful demonstration, the ride back to RI was not met without an unfortunate incident. Sleep was interrupted on one of the buses miles north of Baltimore, MD, when a rock hurled at the bus shattered the windshield and caused a broken glass to cut to the right eye of Warwick resident, Sandra Scott. Fortunately, a nurse on the bus treated her and the rest of the journey was free of any sort of violence.

The Protest in Selma, Alabama:

This took place on March 21, 1965. Future president of the Providence NAACP, Clifford Montiero, was assigned to protect Dr. King. He had been a Providence police officer for almost three years by this time. At night, he together with a partner guarded Dr. King's trailer in Selma. On the D-day, participants were divided into small groups. Patricia, an RI natives group included her friend Avis Stone, Rabbi Rosen from Hillel House at Brown University, and Rev. Homer Tricket, a minister of the First Baptist Church in America in Providence. She remembered that though they were met with disapproval and racist remarks when they marched through the "white community," Dr. King's speech had encouraged her to continue strive for equality.
Post-Civil Rights Protests

Change was not swift; Progress took time. Though Rhode Islanders were told at a Brown University civil rights forum that civil rights problems in the North were as bad as in the South, generally, they seemed very enthusiastic about improving conditions for their fellow black residents. For starters, Governor Chafee, father of current R.I. Governor, Lincoln Chafee, upon the recommendation of the RI Civil Rights Task Force, the leaders of the Providence NAACP and the R.I. Urban League, issued an executive order calling for an end to discrimination in RI. businesses in 1963. He also began talks with over 30 leaders from RI. businesses to form committees to promote equal job opportunities for blacks. James Williams, executive director of the R.I. Urban League acknowledged in 1964 that it was safe to say that the job market had opened markedly, particularly for skilled, educated, and experienced African-Americans.

Programs like the "Tension Prevention Program" and others were also implemented by the Providence Human Relations Commission in collaboration with the Providence Police Department so as to prevent "aggressive" policemen from patrolling black neighborhoods. A "10-point plan" was also drafted by the Providence Human Relations also to enforce all the legislations that prohibited discrimination in housing.

There were changes in educational structures too. On College Hill for instance, "solid measures" were put in place to increase the number black students admitted to Brown University on an annual basis. "Citizens to Advance Negro Education," a group of about 40 blacks and whites who were either alumni, students, or faculty of the University of Rhode Island also inaugurated successful campaigns that encouraged blacks in South Kingstown to continue their education after high school to either a technical school, college, or university. It sponsored 8 children to take either college placements tests or additional testing so as to be better prepared to enroll in the University of Rhode Island. The Providence School Committee, also reluctantly began to provide special education services to the deprived black kids in Providence.

In conclusion, though far from a post racial state, the participation of RI African- American in Civil Rights movements of the 60s availed to them better work opportunities, living conditions, and racial relations that even till today, is being enjoyed by all minorities.

Special thanks to The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library of Brown University, The Providence and Pawtucket Public Libraries, and my advisor James Kabala, Ph.D. (also an alum of Brown).

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