230216ind Cranston

This is the only known photo of Civil War veteran George Roome, a North Kingstown native who fought with the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Colored Infantry.

This being February and Black History Month, its only right that we take another look at this, the extended family of a group of colonial era slaves from the George Rome estate (now known as Rome Point). In the past, we’ve examined the life and tragic death of Cato Roome, the story of Cato’s brother in slavery, Pero, who was a long time fixture in both the villages of Wickford and then Lafayette, and the Civil War legacy of brothers James and John Roome and their experiences in the 14th RI colored Heavy Artillery. This time around we are again going to travel back to the time of the great war between the states and look at the remarkable life of George Roome, his wife Betsey, and the heroic unit he served with, the 54th Massachusetts.

George Roome was born in 1835, one of three children of Nathaniel Roome and his wife Deborah. I have not yet been able to, with 100% certainty, connect Nathaniel to the original known group of George Rome slaves, but all evidence points to Juba Roome as being the most probable father of Nathaniel. The Nathaniel Roome clan next shows up in the historic record in the census of 1850. Nathaniel lists his occupation as a laborer and his three children’s names are clearly indicated as George, Hannah, and Ellen. A decade later, in the 1860 Federal census, George Roome, now 24, is found residing on Millbrook St. in Worcester, Massachusetts with his Rhode Island born wife Betsey and their one-year-old daughter Luella, who had been born in Massachusetts.

One fact which can be clearly gleaned from this 1860 document is astonishing: Betsey is listed in this and every census henceforth in her long life, as a white woman and her child Luella, and all of George and Betsey’s subsequent children, is listed as a mulatto.

Now, a little aside about the word “mulatto.” I’m sure most of you have come across it before and probably are aware that it indicates a person born of one white and one black parent, and was used extensively throughout the 18th and 19th century, showing up in that timeframe as an official race designation on all government documents, including the census. What you may not be aware of is the root derivation of this word. It began its life as derogatory slang word derived from the word mule; which as we all know is a sterile stubborn and somewhat slow-witted animal born of a horse and a donkey.  

Like many words that we now use without realizing their origin (the word denigrate also fits into this category), the passage of time has removed some of its painful sting, but believe me in the second half of the 19th century that label was not viewed so benignly.

Getting back to George and Betsey, I have no idea whether the realities of being involved in a mixed marriage in the late 1850s had anything to do with their move from rural North Kingstown to the more anonymous metropolis of Worcester or if it was strictly an economic decision based on better employment opportunities. Whatever the case, George and Betsey must have had a “difficult row to hoe” no matter where they resided.

George Rome (he either purposely or through a US Army clerical error had dropped one “o” from his name at this time) next shows up in the historic record when he enlists, in May of 1863, in the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Colored Infantry. His enlistment was probably motivated at that time by a combination of duty to his country, his people, and the enticements of a $100 signing bonus, a regular paycheck of $13/month, and the promise (often never realized) of state aid for his family while he was gone. By the end of the month his unit was bound for battle, heading out of Boston Harbor on the steamer DeMolay off to Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Now, I won’t go into a long description of the extraordinary accomplishments of the 54th Massachusetts. It’s enough to say that it was often remarked, “that no unit, colored or white, fought more heroically than the men of the 54th”. No one could tell their tale more powerfully than the Hollywood movie production “Glory” did, so if you’re curious, rent this award-winning movie and see for yourself what these men accomplished. All that mattered to George, Betsey, and his children, is that he, unlike many of his comrades in arms, managed to survive the war, and returned in 1865 to their Millbrook Street home in Worcester.

According to census data taken after the war, George and Betsey’s family grew to include six children. Beyond their first child Luella, I have identified a son Albert and two daughters Alice and Emma. After being a hero in the Civil War, George returned to his normal life, always listing his occupation as a day laborer. Two of his daughters seemed to eventually marry and leave home, as Luella’s last name became Potter, and Alice became a Clark. George Rome must have left this world between 1900 and 1910, as he does not show up in the records after the 1900 census. I don’t know if a gravestone marks his final resting place or not. It could be that, beyond the monument to the 54th Massachusetts in Boston, the only concrete testimony to his existence is the same fine straight and true stone walls that memorialize the lives of his slave ancestors on their master George Rome’s farm here in town. Whatever the case, he left his mark on the world nonetheless. His death, combined with the coming of the Great Depression seemed to bring his children back to their mother’s side, as by 1920, Luella Potter and her daughter Olive, Alice Clark and her husband John and son Paul and the children of another daughter whose name is yet unknown are found to be living on Millbrook Street with 77 year old Betsey and her son Albert.

Beyond 1920, I do not know what happened to George Rome’s extended family, but I intend to find out. I can’t help but admire this couple, a slave’s grandson married to a white woman in the turbulent era of the Civil War. There must have existed a powerful connection between them to face what they must have and triumph as they did.  Heck, this isn’t just a Black History Month tale; it’s a love story worthy of anyone’s Valentine’s Day.

I’ll close this by revealing the last interesting detail of this remarkable story. As I said earlier, Betsey seems to have raised the children of one of her other daughters, one whose name I have yet to identify. The two children’s names though are clearly written on the census form; a grandson named Benjamin George Walker and a granddaughter named Alice R. Walker. Now if that last name sounds familiar, don’t be surprised, as the novel “The Color Purple” was written by an Alice Walker as well.  And although I have yet to be able to decipher whether there is any connection between these two Alices, I feel certain that if I could ask either of them they would assure me that whether they are truly related or not, they are most certainly connected; connected by the shared experience that binds every black child to another, whether they realize it or not.

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

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