As Providence considers reparations, new report tackles four centuries of racial injustice

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence released a lengthy report Monday on the history of Black and Indigenous racial injustice over the past four centuries, as the city grapples with how best to provide reparations to those communities for the wrongs they’ve suffered.

The nearly 200-page “truth-telling” report represents the first phase of a three-phase initiative announced by Mayor Jorge Elorza last July, in the wake of the nationwide and local movement to address systemic racism.

READ: “A Matter of Truth,” the Struggle for African Heritage & Indigenous People Equal Rights in Providence, Rhode Island (1620-2020)

The truth-telling is expected to be followed by a reconciliation process to engage with the public about the details in the report. The city issued a request for proposals (RFP) on Monday for a vendor to facilitate that process, and received a $100,000 grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation to fund it.

But the final phase — municipal reparations — has garnered the most attention, complicated in part by the unanswered question of how the cash-strapped city could pay reparations.

“There are limitations to what we can do,” Elorza acknowledged at a news conference when asked about the funding. “Just because there are limitations doesn’t mean we should not try to move the ball forward significantly.”

He didn’t offer specifics for what form the reparations could take, saying he was “not ruling anything out.” He also said the federal government would need to step up to help fund reparations across the country, as cities can’t afford to do it alone.

“We can get the ball rolling,” Elorza said.

The city of Evanston, Illinois, for example, passed a reparations program earlier this month that would provide $25,000 housing grants and mortgage assistance to certain Black residents.

The report released Monday paints a grim picture of both Providence and Rhode Island’s role in quashing the human rights of Black and Indigenous people, beginning with the enslavement of Africans and the mass deaths of Indigenous people from European diseases.

But even after slavery was abolished in Rhode Island, many leaders and businesses remained complicit in the slave trade, according to the narrative. The report lists more than 80 local textile mills that manufactured clothing specifically for slaves in the south.

Well-known names that adorn school buildings and street signs across Providence are scattered throughout the report. Esek Hopkins, who has a Providence middle school named after him, is listed as the captain of a slave ship. (A process to change the school’s name is already underway.)

Even Moses Brown, the famed abolitionist, helped launch a textile mill that clothed slaves, according to the report.

In later years, the report’s narrative details discriminatory laws and housing practices in Providence, from redlining to de-facto segregated schools. It also explains how widely praised projects — such as the I-195 highway and India Point Park — destroyed Black residents’ homes, forced them out of neighborhoods and even displaced them from jobs.

The narrative was written by Keith Stokes and Theresa Guzmán Stokes along with the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and 1696 Heritage Group. Research and documents were provided by numerous other historical groups, including the Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence Preservation Society and Gerald Carbone, a historical author.

The report cites more than 600 primary and secondary sources.

“This study is a starting point,” Keith Stokes said Monday. “All of us have the opportunity to learn together and build a better city, a better state, a better nation.”

(story continues below video)

All of the above groups received some of the $28,000 in funding to create the report, according to spokesperson Ben Smith. But he declined to disclose who paid for it, saying the donor or donors wish to remain anonymous.

This is not the first time the city has refused to share the name of the person or people funding a public report that is expected to shape public policy. A soon-to-be-released audit of the Providence Police Department was also funded by a secret donor whom the city will not disclose.

Elorza said Providence could “skirt” or “sidestep” the issues of its past, or confront them head on.

“These issues that have been so divisive in the past, we believe, don’t necessarily have to be so divisive in the future,” Elorza said. “We will emerge a more more united and together community.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

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