Medallion marks history of slavery in Newport

East Bay

NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — The city of Newport stepped back into the past on Thursday in an effort to reach the future.

Rhode Island Slave History Medallions unveiled its newly installed marker at Bowen’s Wharf to give Rhode Islanders and visitors alike a strong reminder of the state’s past.

Anyone walking through the wharf will likely spot the black medallion, and creators say that’s the point: to see the history and hopefully take a second to learn more about it.

“We want to tell these stories so that people in the future will know our true history,” Rhode Island Slave History Medallions chairman Charles Roberts said.

According to Roberts, the goal is to acknowledge Newport’s role as an integral part of the triangular trade, at a time where slavery was a large part of the state’s and country’s economy.

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“This is where the rum was made, the rum was made from sugar, the ships from here that were financed and banked by some of the most well-known names in history, left here, went to Africa, traded their rum for slaves,” Roberts explained.

Rhode Island Slave History Medallions chairman Charles Roberts at Bowen’s Wharf in Newport. (Photo: Courtney Carter/WPRI-TV)

The medallion reads simply, “Rhode Island Slave History,” and features artwork inspired by Pompe Stevens, whose work is known to be among the first signed African artwork in the United States.

“I’m just happy to have helped to realize Pompe Stevens’ style and his form … so honored to have helped with the artwork that was necessary,” sculptor Allison Newsome said.

The medallion also contains a QR code, which when scanned with a smart phone links the user to the Rhode Island Slave History website, where they can learn more.

A number of Rhode Islanders were in attendance at Thursday’s unveiling, including Fern Lema, who said her great grandparents were slaves here.

“They came up here to work in the mansions when they were youngsters and stayed, married,” Lema said.

“In school, they never talked about the Black history that really happened and now it’s being brought out,” she continued. “This medallion is a part of it. It’s nice now, the stories are coming out and I hope they just continue.”

Rhode Island Slave History Medallions installed its first marker last year at Patriots Park in Portsmouth.

The first mounted medallion highlights the accomplishments of the First Rhode Island Regiment, better known as the “Black Regiment,” which fought in the Revolutionary War and helped to turn the tide in the Battle of Rhode Island.

These soldiers were enslaved blacks and Native Americans who were promised freedom if they enlisted to fight against British and Hessian forces in the Revolutionary War.

The nonprofit group is raising money to install more around the state. Donate here »

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