Local historian remembers poignant meeting with late Rep. John Lewis

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NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — As America reflects on the life and legacy of the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis, one local historian recalls the day he met the civil rights leader in Newport.

Keith Stokes serves as a vice president for 1696 Heritage Group, a historical research organization. He says he helped escort Rep. Lewis around Newport in 1998, and they made a stop at God’s Little Acre Cemetery.

The cemetery is home to the biggest African burial ground in the United States.

“Congressman Lewis spent about an hour there,” Stokes said. “He walked through the cemetery and he would stop and touch the stones of enslaved Africans, dating back to 200 to 300 years, and say a prayer. And the congressman did this at almost a half dozen markers.”

Stokes sent a photo of the marker for Hector Butcher, who came to Newport from West Africa, via Barbados. This August marks the 300th anniversary of his death.

Grave of Hector Butcher (Photo: Keith Stokes)

It’s figures like Butcher who Lewis said were integral to our history.

“He said, ‘these are our brothers and sisters, and we stand on their shoulders today,'” Stokes recalled.

Stokes said he can now say the same for the late congressman.

“I think we have an obligation today, going forward, to carry that legacy,” Stokes said, adding that one of those legacies is the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It is young people and their allies across the state, across the country and the world, who are standing forth and demanding equal rights and equal justice for all people,” Stokes said, noting it’s something to which Lewis dedicated his entire life.

“Each and every one of us, not only have an obligation, to not only stand on the shoulders or John Lewis, but to enact the policies and the programs that he cared most about, which is bringing us all together as citizens and human beings, in a sense of civil rights and equality,” he said.

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