210204ind History

This property located at 19 Fowler St. in Wickford was once owned by Domini Smith and is thought to be the oldest home in Rhode Island built specifically for a black family.

To initiate this year’s celebration of February as Black History Month, I thought we might take a look at an aspect of local Black history that most folks just don’t think about: the story of the numerous Black mariners – I have identified 24 so far – that sailed out of Wickford Harbor. This home on Fowler Street stands as a solid reminder of those men and the life they led. The original owner of this fine house, thought to be the oldest home in Rhode Island built specifically for a Black family, was Domini Smith. Domini was one of that substantial group of Black and Black/native mixed-race men who worked on the sailing vessels that called Wickford Harbor home during the 18th and 19th centuries. He made his living during the turbulent times of the American Revolution sailing for the locally prominent Baker family on vessels utilized to run the British blockade of the Salt Islands – now known as Turks and Caicos –  in the Caribbean, thereby allowing the critically important fishing industry in New England to continue to operate. The British knew that, without a ready supply of salt, fishermen could not preserve their catch (think salted cod here), the industry would be crippled and, in turn, the economy of the rebellious colonists would be damaged. Captain Baker, a savvy man if there ever was one, knew running the British blockade, both into and out of the Dutch-owned island harbors, was a lucrative – albeit dangerous – undertaking. He put together a crew made up of the bravest and best, and Domini Smith was a member of that group. It is important to note that “at sea” was the one place where race truly did not matter; once the last line was cast off, men were judged solely by their abilities as sailors. Everyone on board put their lives in each other’s hands. Skin color didn’t matter – coming home alive did. This life must have been liberating for these men, a number of whom, Domini Smith among them, learned their trade as “slaves for hire,” enriching the coffers of their owners who rented them out in the agricultural off-season. Once these men were freed, though, they possessed a skill set that allowed them to make a good living, to contribute to the economic success of their community, and, in Domini’s case, have a lovely little home constructed for his family. The historical record includes a number of sailing vessels, such as the locally owned schooners “Federal” and “Baltic” that left this village on voyage after voyage with a crew comprised almost entirely of Black mariners. Additionally, another group of Black and mixed-race men out of Wickford worked the harbor, the Narragansett Bay, and the George’s Bank area as fisherman harvesting the bounty of the sea and selling it to seafood markets and brokers whose reach extended throughout the region. These Black mariners were an important part of the economic engine that helped Wickford prosper during this period. Their stories matter and I am pleased to remind us all of the valuable contributions made by the Black mariners of Wickford.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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