A recent slick glossy piece of ugliness in my mailbox has gotten me a bit riled up this week. I’m not really one to stray into the wasteland that is 21st century American politics, and I don’t know diddly about CRT or DEI, but I do know something about non-profit organizations with an on-line presence, because I have one. Swamptown Enterprises Inc. has its own Facebook page and a community presence in South County and has for a long time. My name is all over it and my face is all over it, because frankly I am proud of what it represents. I guess the folks who operate the Gaspee Project just don’t feel the same, because their on-line presence, just like the slick shiny piece of rubbish they put in my mailbox, is anonymous. Nothing surprising there, that’s the way that social media bullies operate. They are not brave enough to stand up to public scrutiny. Now as for CRT and DEI, these are, in my opinion, poorly worded and really unnecessary labels just begging to be manipulated by anyone that has a mind to. I got a better catch phrase for this topic – its simple and basic; “truth-telling” is what its all about. Our children, and their parents for that matter, because we baby-boomers were sold a bill of goods in our US History classes, need to know the truth. Here’s just some of the truth that needs to be told.
Lately I’ve been spending some time pondering the institution of slavery, my ancestor’s connection to it, and the part our fair town played in it. I’ve known for some time that a large portion of my Newport, RI, ancestors owned household slaves. It’s easy enough to rationalize it away, to say to yourself, “All wealthy and prominent Rhode Islanders of the 1600 and 1700’s owned household slaves. They weren’t doing anything wrong in the context of the times.” Or, you can rationalize it away by taking into consideration the relative scale of your ancestor’s transgressions. “Thomas Jefferson owned a multitude of slaves, and he is considered to be a great man; your relations only had a few, maybe a dozen at the most, so how can they be any worse than a man like Jefferson.” But I’m unwilling to let myself off the hook that easily. The fact of the matter is, that the man for whom Cranston, RI, is named after is no better or worse than the man for whom Jefferson, Missouri, has been named after. A slave owner is a slave owner; the scale of the transgression makes no difference. And there was plenty of slave owning going on here in South County as well. The simple and startling fact of the matter is, that, there is no place outside of the traditional Deep South, where there were higher percentages of people in bondage. At certain timeframes in the history of South County, more than 20% of the total population were either slaves or indentured people. So, it’s always out there, like the ache you experience form an old injury, it doesn’t stop you from living your life, but you feel it just the same.
Our fair town’s part in the institution of slavery is even more complicated, but equally troubling. To start with, as you may or may not know, the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was the undisputed champion of slaving within colonial America. And although the total numbers pale into insignificance compared to the vast scale of the slaving operations controlled by British and European interests, the hundreds of thousands of souls brought to the New World on Rhode Island owned merchant ships is something that we all must deal with in our own ways. North Kingstown’s part in this aspect of slaving is, in turn, insignificant compared with RI’s big three of slaving: Bristol, Newport and Warren. There was only one slave trader who called North Kingstown home and his dealings were nothing like the massive operations run by people like the DeWolfe family of Bristol; the undisputed kinds of RI slaving. However, Gilbert Updike, of Smith’s Castle fame, did turn a pretty penny with his slaving ventures on the 100-ton ship “Mary” captained by George Lawton, He, like all the other RI slavers, loaded up his ship with RI rum purchased in Newport and Providence, sent it off to the west coast of Africa where the rum was traded or sold for slaves which would then be loaded on this ship and sailed off to either a Caribbean or southern US port where the slaves would be sold and molasses would be purchased. The molasses was then brought back to RI where it was made back into rum. This is the basis for the infamous triangle trade of which you may or may not have heard. Each leg of the journey brought an opportunity for profit as slaves, rum, and molasses were traded like the commodities they were at that time. Sort of the colonial version of money laundering and commodity trading all rolled up into one painfully human tragedy.
A even more common North Kingstown connection to this slave trade was the fact that the town was a fairly important source of crew members for the merchant ships involved in this sordid business. A scholarly search of the available crew manifest turns up many names that have a North Kingstown “ring” to them.
All this aside, our towns, as well as our sister community South Kingstown’s, greatest connection to the institution of slavery was not made by ships or the men that sailed them or financed them it was, surprisingly enough made by the countless souls who worked in the fabric mills owned by the scions of the regions, the Hazards and the Rodmans. You see, these giants of local industry made their fortunes within a niche of the fabric trade known as Negro Goods. Negro Goods was the general name given to a whole class of fabric made specifically for the southern slave-owning market. The most well-known of these has been given the sanitized name of “Negro Cloth.”
Negro Cloth was made from a combination of hemp (the material used to make twine, rope, and burlap) and coarse cotton or wool. It was the lowest quality material that nay mill ever made. It was cheap to produce and had the added benefit of being a profitable place to dispose of all unsuitable yard and mill waste materials. It had to be uncomfortable to wear. It was amazingly profitable and there was a ready market for as much as could be turned out by the mills of southern RI. Other Negro Goods turned out by local mills include: Osnaburg, a coarse cotton wool product one step up from Negro Cloth, Linsey-Woolsey, a linen wood combination which was also of a coarse quality, Nankeen, a slightly better quality plain-woven yellowish cotton cloth named after Nanking Province in China where it was first made, and, the cream of the crop, used for Sunday-go-to-Meeting clothes, calico, a coarse, but printed, all-cotton fabric.
So, you see, the mortar that holds the underpinnings of the villages of Peace Dale and Lafayette together is comprised of Negro Cloth. The same Negro Cloth that was stretched across the backs of countless slaves as they labored endlessly in the fields of the southern United States. It’s a fact loyal readers, one that we all must confront. Again, it would be easy to rationalize it away. “The Rodmans and the Hazards were just responding to a market need. Negro Cloth is as American as free enterprise and apple pie.” But this particular swamp Yankee can’t quite swallow that line of logic and I hope the rest of North Kingstown and South Kingstown can’t either.