190828ind History

In the mid 1800s, two of Wickford’s most well known workers were both named Richard Thomas. The first was a black man who worked as a fish peddler and lived at 101 Pleasant St., pictured above. The second, a prominent white shopkeeper who lived at what is today 60 Main St.

You know, I have got to tell you, I am a huge fan of actor Richard Thomas. Since his breakthrough role as John-Boy Walton in 1971 through numerous Hallmark Hall of Fame movies and television appearances, I have admired his work. Just between you and me, I even sort of identify with that John-Boy character of his. Yup, if there is a Richard Thomas movie on television on any given night, chances are I am watching it.  

For the last few years though, I have been thinking about Richard Thomas in a whole new light. You see, whenever “The Homecoming” or some other wonderful Hallmark Hall of Fame/Richard Thomas cinematic treasure captures my imagination in the confines of my warm comfortable living room, my mind can’t help but wander off to Wickford in the mid-1800’s. The scene in my mind’s eye plays out like this; it’s June in 1850, and an elderly dapper Wickford merchant is strolling with his wife down Main Street on a beautiful summer evening. They are both well dressed and impeccably groomed, befitting their status in this small prosperous village. Just before they reach the front door of their fine Main Street home they encounter a young black couple coming up Main Street from the Pleasant Street intersection. This couple is youthful and enterprising, but poor. It is obvious that they are to have a child soon and they both carry the aroma of the sea with them as they encounter the older pair. Their eyes meet as they walk and anyone can see that they all know one another at some level. Additionally, the demeanor of the two men indicates that there is some kind of larger unspoken connection between them. As they pass, the old merchant greets the young man and his pregnant wife with a sincerely spoken “Good evening Richard.” The rugged plain spoken black man replies, “Good Evening to you Mr. Thomas.” The two wives as well, exchange pleasantries, and then these couples head off on their way to their destinations.

The scene I just mapped out for you is a Main Street encounter between Wickford’s two Richard Thomas’s. The elderly gent was well-known shopkeeper Richard Thomas whose wife’s name was Polly. They lived and kept a dry goods store in what is now 60 Main Street; a house given to them by Richard’s father Samuel Thomas. The young black couple was Richard Thomas the fish peddler and his wife was named Rachel. They lived at what is now 101 Pleasant Street. The house that exists there today consists of a heavily modified version of their small cottage, originally constructed around 1841 for this African-American couple, most probably the children of slaves. Richard Thomas earned his living as a local fish peddler and his wife Rachel, likely related to free black mariner Domini Smith who lived nearby on Fowler Street, worked as a domestic. Richard was most certainly the brother of Nancy Thomas who lived nearby in the still extant Thomas/Weeden/Morgan House. Although none of Richard and Rachel Thomas’ children survived childhood it does appear that they raised the orphaned daughter of another African-American neighbor Ellen Berry, as census data shows her living in their home. White Richard and Polly had numerous children of their own, all of whom went to the finest schools and universities and had careers and lives that were appropriately prominent. Rachel died in 1883 and Black Richard, as he was known to avoid the obvious confusions, died in 1890. Their home and property were purchased by the neighbor just to the south, master housewright James Bullock who modified it into the fine home we see today.  White Richard Thomas’s home, along with the family business, was left to his son Allen Mason Thomas, who became an even more prominent Wickford community pillar than his father was. Beyond sharing exactly the same name and living in the same town at the same time, I expect their lives couldn’t have been more different.  I often wonder if Black Richard was present at the well attended graveside service for White Richard in August of 1859 out at Elmgrove Cemetery. Decades later when he buried his wife Rachel under a simple gravestone in an obscure corner of that same cemetery, did he wander by and admire the imposing obelisk erected to commemorate the lives of White Richard and Polly? As his adopted daughter Ellen Berry lowered Black Richard into a grave that to this day is still unmarked, did she look over at White Richard’s monument and sigh? I sure would like to ponder these things with John-Boy Walton at my side someday, he’d have an answer for us I bet.

This is just one of the many stories I will be focusing on when I lead a walk on black history in Wickford this Saturday morning at 10 a.m. Please join me at the Town Dock at the end of Main Street for this walk sponsored by Historic Wickford Inc.

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

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