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Resources on African American History

The 1696 Historical Commission was signed into law on July 1, 2014 and was tasked with developing a comprehensive African American history curriculum for Rhode Island public schools from kindergarten through grade 12. This page includes resources provided by organizations, scholars, and historians throughout Rhode Island to support classroom instruction in African-American history.

The 1696 Historical Commission was formed in 2014 and is comprised of elected officials, educators, and historians dedicated to teaching African American history to students in Rhode Island. The Commission’s goal is to teach African American history throughout the school year and throughout different time periods of history. You can find the final report of the Commission here (Report 1 and Report 2).

This page is meant to serve as a resource to educators. Please explore this page, visit these resources, and utilize the sources that make sense for your curriculum and your classroom. This list will continue to evolve as more sources become available to be added. Thank you for your commitment to teaching our students.

The Rhode Island Historical Society is coordinating the 1696 Historical Task Force and this listing. If you have questions about the material or would like to submit a resource to be added to this list, please contact Samantha Hunter at shunter@rihs.org.

African Enslavement in Colonial America and Rhode Island, 1620-1800

Bibliography of Text Resources

  • Clark-Pujara, Christy Mikel. Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. New York: NYU Press, 2016.
    In this book, Clark-Pujara employs primary documents, mainly personal records of enslavers and the few first-hand accounts left behind by enslaved people, to construct an image of slavery in colonial Rhode Island. The institution of slavery was central to Rhode Island’s colonial economy: West Indian planters and the enslaved people that worked for them contributed ingredients to Rhode Island rum production used for trade in the triangle trade route. Slavery also led to the distinction of Rhode Islanders as the leading producers of “slave cloth” or “negro cloth,” a coarse wool-cotton material made especially for enslaved blacks in the American South.
  • Clark-Pujara, Christy Mikel. "Slavery, emancipation and Black freedom in Rhode Island, 1652-1842." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2009.
    This online article highlights the importance of the institution of slavery to the Rhode Island colonial economy and argues that Rhode Island's complicity in and profit from the slave trade, helped to maintain slavery throughout the United States.
  • Coughtry, Jay Alan. The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.
    This book, based on Coughtry's dissertation, explores the circumstances of what would become the US, from 1700-1807 and makes connections from those factors to the need for labor and therefore, impact on the slave trade.
  • Emlen, Robert. “Slave Labor at the College Edifice: Building Brown University’s University Hall in 1770.” In Rhode Island History 66, no. 2 (2008):35-46.
    Emlen’s article details what little facts are known about the slave labor used to build University Hall at Brown University. Ledgers of pay from that project do not list workers of African descent but using other research, Emlen is able to make inferences.

Primary Documents

  • Cemetery records for “God’s Little Acre”. Newport Historical Society.
    Published records of burials with records of stones lost or destroyed over time. “God’s Little Acre,” in Newport’s Common Burying Ground, is the largest colonial African American burying ground in the United States.
  • Manuscript collections pertaining to transatlantic slave trade and African enslavement in Newport. Newport Historical Society.
    Extensive collections of primary source documents pertaining to the 18th century transatlantic slave trade, including merchants’ correspondence, account books, and ships’ logs. Many of these papers have been microfilmed as part of LexisNexis’s Papers of the American Slave Trade, Series B: Selections from the Newport Historical Society. NHS also holds records of indentures and manumissions.

Video Resources

Lesson Plans

  • Any Sort of Labor. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    Enslaved people in Rhode Island usually worked on small farms or in businesses but on the larger farmlands and plantations in Narragansett, enslaved people worked raising and breeding farm animals. Many also became skilled as stone cutters, coopers, barbers, weavers and in a number of other trades needed in a diversified, 18th century economy. Such trades sometimes helped secure freedom for many enslaved people.
  • Just and Right As Any Trade. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    Four Rhode Island brothers, Nicholas, Joseph, John and Moses Brown, had ventured into the slave trade with the voyage of the Sally in 1764-65. This voyage was plagued with misfortune and it ended in great financial loss for the Brown family. It was also an example of the devastation and degradation of the slave trade on humanity. By the late 1700’s this trade was waning in most of New England except for Rhode Island.
  • Notice: To Be Sold. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    Most students enter the history classroom with an understanding of slavery that is primarily geographical. They view it as a “Southern issue” and overlook the role slavery played in the North. This unit uses varied primary sources to teach the presence and effect of slavery in the northern colonies and eventually the United States.
  • Outfitting the Slave Ship Sally. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    This activity can be used with students to explore the web of complicity throughout Rhode Island that supported the global slave trade. The activity also familiarizes students with the many things necessary to outfit a slave ship in the 18th century.
  • Slavery Connects the North and South. Choices Program, Brown University.
    This webpage, created by the Choices Program at Brown University, is a lesson with supporting resources and worksheets that explores how the institution of slavery connected the northern and southern US.
  • Using the 1790 Census to Document Slavery in Rhode Island. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    This lesson plan enables students to practice interpreting primary sources as they use the 1790 census to determine the number of enslaved people in Rhode Island and then compare those figures to other states in the country during this time.

Web Sources

  • Colonial Cemetery. 1696 Heritage Group.
    This webpage is dedicated to the God's Little Acre Cemetery in Newport, RI. God's Little Acre is a cemetery with many graves for both enslaved and free Africans who lived in Newport in the Colonial Era. The Cemetery also features gravestones that are the work of enslaved stonemasons.
  • Voyage of the Slave Ship Sally 1764-1765. Brown University.
    This webpage showcases records of the slave ship Sally and constructs narratives about people and events relating to the ship. There is also a timeline of events related to the voyage.

Africans in the Revolutionary Era, 1750-1785

Bibliography of Text Resources

  • Emlen, Robert. "A Grievance Immortalized: a story of race and class, crime and punishment in Providence, 1781" in Markers: Annual Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies, Vol. XXXIII, (2017): 47-61.
    Emlen's article uses a specific instance of a white man shot by a black soldier in the Continental Army, defending his barracks from intruders, to highlight the realities of race, class, crime, and punishment in Rhode Island in the 1780s. The main source he uses to inform his argument is the gravestone of the man who was shot, that was unearthed in Providence, RI.
  • Geake, Robert A and Lorén Spears. From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2016.
    Geake’s book details the decision of Rhode Island General James Mitchell Varnum to form the 1st Rhode Island regiment, or the “black regiment,” as it came to be known, as well as the successes and obstacles faced by those men. The 1st Rhode Island regiment was composed of indentured servants, Narragansett Indians, and former enslaved people.
  • Newman, Richard S. Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic. Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 2008.
    This essay was written to accompany an exhibition at The Library Company of Philadelphia entitled "The Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic." The essay, with the same title, highlights the struggles and accomplishments of African American reformers in the Revolutionary Era and beyond.

What is Africa to me? What is America to me? 1785-1800

Primary Documents

  • Records of the Free African Union Society, African Humane Society, and African Benevolent Society. Newport Historical Society.
    Original record books of the Free African Union Society (FAUS), a self-help organization established in 1780 by free African Americans in Newport. The FAUS was later known as the African Humane Society, which merged with the African Benevolent Society in 1808 and established the Free African School for children of color in Newport. A reproduction of the earliest FAUS record book is available in the NHS Library.

African Heritage Experience during the Industrial Revolution, 1800-1860

Bibliography of Text Resources

  • Grossman, Lawrence. “George T. Downing and the Segregation of Rhode Island Public Schools, 1855-1866.” In Rhode Island History 36, no. 4 (1977): 99-106.
    This article details the work of George Downing, an upper-class African American man in Rhode Island, who organized around the issue of segregated schools. He petitioned the state government to de-segregate schools citing the lacking facilitates and resources found in black schools. Legal segregation in Rhode Island schools ended in 1866.
  • Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780–1860. New York: Cornell University Press, 2000.
    After the abolition of slavery in New England, white citizens chose to forget that it happened there. Author Joanne Pope Melish draws on a wide array of primary sources—from slaveowners' diaries to children's daybooks to racist broadsides—to reveal how northern society changed and how its perceptions changed as well.

Lesson Plans

  • Citizens All. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    Chattel slavery had been outlawed in Rhode Island by gradual emancipation in 1784, yet it was over forty years before there were no longer any enslaved people in Rhode Island. Long after abolition, discriminatory laws repressed and oppressed the citizenship of African Americans. One of the many rights refused to African Americans was suffrage and that denial of suffrage (for African Americans and also immigrants) would plunge Rhode Island into an armed rebellion between the People’s Party led by Thomas Wilson Dorr and the Law and Order Party of the established government led by Governor Samuel Ward King.

Web Sources

Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1890

Primary Documents

  • Thomas Wentworth Higginson papers. Newport Historical Society.
    These papers are a collection of original correspondence to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, minister, writer, and activist abolitionist, who lived in Newport for a time in the 1860s-1870s. Letters date from 1851 to 1862, and document Higginson’s involvement in the Anti-Slavery Society, the Underground Railroad, recruitments for Union regiments, and efforts in coordination with John Brown Jr. to free enslaved African Americans in the South.

Web Sources

  • Bullets and Bulletins: African American Activism in Civil War Era Rhode Island. Rhode Island Department of State.
    This online exhibition tells the stories of black Americans in Rhode Island and throughout the Union who served in the Civil War in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored) and their struggle on the home front for equal rights including education access, the right to interracial marriage, and an end to discrimination based on race.

The Great Migration and World War I Era, 1900-1920

Web Sources

  • Sable Soldiers. 1696 Heritage Group.
    The Sable Soldiers website is meant to introduce readers to the African American experience during World War I, including their dedication to serving their country though facing extreme discrimination at home.

Gilded Age Rhode Island in Color, 1900-1930

Web Sources

  • Gilded Age Newport in Color. 1696 Heritage Group.
    This photographic journey illustrates the African American Summer Experience in Newport, RI from 1870-1925. It includes photographs, biographies and quotes from newspapers.

World War II: The Struggle for Equality at Home and Abroad, 1940-1945

Lesson Plans

  • A Better World. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    This lesson plan covers the topic of black service men and women who served in the US military during World War II. Students are asked to examine sources about their service and draw conclusions about race in America at this time.
  • Stay on the Ball. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    In this lesson plan, students examine letters from Teena Diggs to her husband, Herman Diggs. Herman was stationed in Norfolk, VA during WWII. The letters highlight the issues of race and ethnicity that the couple experience in Rhode Island and the US in the 20th century.

Immediate Postwar Years, 1945-1953

Lesson Plans

  • Here is Our Chance. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    This lesson plan focuses on the Fair Employment Practice Commission laws approved by the state of Rhode Island in 1949 and uses sources to show the issues surrounding race and fair employment in Rhode Island immediately following World War II.


Bibliography of Text Resources

  • Bartlett, Irving H. From Slave to Citizen: The Story of the Negro in Rhode Island. Providence, RI: Urban League of Greater Providence, 1954.
    Published by the Urban League of Greater Providence, this publication offers windows into various themes in black history in the state of Rhode Island including slavery, abolition, and the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Bell, Andrew J. An Assessment of Life in Rhode Island as an African American in the Era from 1918 to 1993. New York: Vantage Press, 1997.
    This book is an account of life in Rhode Island as an African American in the 20th century, based on the author's experiences.
  • Brown University. Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. 2006.
    This document is a report by the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, created by University President Ruth J. Simmons in 2003. The committee’s goal is to illuminate Brown University’s entanglement with slavery and the slave trade and to contribute to national conversations about present problems linked to past injustices. The report shows their historical findings and offers recommendations to move forward.
  • Brown, William J. The Life of William J. Brown, of Providence, RI: With Personal Recollections of Incidents in Rhode Island. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
    This publication is the author's personal account of Providence history in the 19th century as well as personal reflections on being a black man in Rhode Island during this period.
  • Cranston, Timothy G. We Were Here Too: Selected Stories of Black History in North Kingstown. Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
    This book is a long history of black families and legacies in North Kingstown, RI spanning the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Garman, James C. From the School-Lands to Kerry Hill: Two Centuries of Urban Development at the Northern End of Newport, R.I. Newport, RI: Salve Regina University, 2009.
    This publication employs maps, photographs, and other primary sources to illustrate and explain two centuries of urban development in Newport, RI, particularly as it pertains to the African American communities in this area.
  • O’Toole, Marjory Gomez. If Jane Should Want to Be Sold: Stories of Enslavement, Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island. Little Compton, RI: Little Compton Historical Society, 2016.
    Based on over 1000 primary source documents, this book shares the true personal histories of people who were enslaved, indentured and newly free in Little Compton, RI and their descendants from 1674 to the 1950s. It provides insight into both Indian and African slavery and clearly illustrates the similarities and differences between slavery and indenture in New England. A final section on racism explores why Little Compton is home to so few people of color today.
  • Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. Creative Survival: The Providence Black Community in the 19th Century. Providence: Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, 1984.
    This book offers insights into black life in Providence during the span of the 19th century.
  • Youngken, Richard. African Americans in Newport: An introduction to the heritage of African Americans in Newport, Rhode Island, 1700-1945. Rhode Island: Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, 1998.
    This book details the rich legacy and history of African in Americans in Newport, Rhode Island from the state's early beginnings through World War II.

Primary Documents

  • African Americans. Rhode Island Department of State.
    This online document gallery focuses on the role of slavery in and the pursuit of equal rights that took place in Rhode Island from the 1600s through the 1800s.
  • African American Collection. Rhode Island Department of State Digital Archives.
    This online collection of primary documents tells not just the story of slavery and the slave trade in Rhode Island, but also the story of how that institution influenced life in early America. It also illustrates how slavery's legacy impacted Rhode Island into the 19th century.
  • Guide to Manuscripts Relating to People of Color. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    This document is an item-level, searchable guide to material in the RIHS collections relating to people of color. These sources include references to individuals identified as being of African, American Indian or Asian descent, as well as general discussions of broader topics such as slavery or racial discrimination. While this does not include digitally available content, interested individuals can request a scan of specific material on this list by contacting reference@rihs.org.
  • Union Congregational Church Records. Newport Historical Society
    Original records of the Colored Union Church and Society, initially a non-denominational church established by members of Newport’s African Benevolent Society in 1824. In 1859, the Union Church reincorporated as the Union Congregational Church. Records date from 1824 to 1946.

Lesson Plans and Student Activities

  • Sankofa: African Americans in Rhode Island. Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University.
    This teacher resource-book book features lessons and activities that discuss a variety of topics including slavery, the Civil War, Civil Rights and African Americans in Rhode Island today. Activities are recommended for grades six through eight.
  • Slavery, Citizen, and Civil Rights: Documenting Rhode Island’s People of Color. Rhode Island Historical Society.
    This lesson plan gallery features lessons for varying grade levels that explore slavery, citizenship and civil rights of African Americans and Native Americans in Rhode Island.
  • 20th Century African Heritage Civil Rights in Rhode Island. Rhode Island Historical Society in partnership with the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.
    These unit plans – geared toward elementary and middle school learners – reference many types of primary sources from local Rhode Island collections and are meant to serve as a supplement to the Civil Rights history already being taught in classrooms with a focus on local events and people. Many lessons reference time periods earlier than the 1960s, while also drawing connections from those events up to today.
  • T-TIME Productions
    This PDF with historic information and student activities considers the history of African Americans in the mid-20th century through the lens of professional football.

Web Sources

  • Civil Rights Timeline. Rhode Island Black Heritage Society.
    This is a timeline of people and events that make up the unique history of African American Civil Rights in Rhode Island was created for a project collaboration with the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, Rhode Island Historical Society, & the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Cultural Commission. The project is supported by a grant from the National Park Service through its African American Civil Rights Grant Program, which assists projects that “document, interpret, and preserve the sites and stories related to the African American struggle to gain equal rights as citizens in the 20th Century.”
  • PushBlack
    As an organization that believes in study of the past to inspire a better future, PushBlack serves as the US's first mobile-based organizing group for Black Americans. Their website informs viewers about current issues and leads them on how to take action on those issues.
  • Teaching Tolerance. Southern Poverty Law Center.
    The Teaching Tolerance website offers classroom resources, frameworks, professional development, and more about a variety of topics, including those relating to African American history.
  • Third and Long: The History of African Americans in Football - 1946-1989. T-TIME Productions.
    This website features photos, videos, teacher guides and more which illuminate the history of African Americans in the mid-20th century through the lens of professional football.

Interactive App

  • Third and Long: The History of African Americans in Football. T-TIME Productions.
    This is the interactive platform of the Third and Long project that highlights the history of African Americans in the mid-20th century through the lens of professional football. This platform is most useful for students in a classroom setting.

Site Documents

Documents on this site require the use of the following programs:

DOC - Microsoft Word

PDF - Acrobat Reader

PPT - Microsoft PowerPoint

XLS - Microsoft Excel